23. Speedway Founders Leave Traces in City

James Glass
Column that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on

This year, as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrates its centennial, it is interesting to seek out places associated with its founders that you can still visit in Indianapolis. Of course, the most obvious place is the Speedway itself, which has been developed by the Hulman and George families into one of the world’s best known and most popular auto racing tracks. The international renown and prestige of the oval raceway on 16th Street has far outstripped the dreams of Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby, and Frank H. Wheeler, who thought it was audacious enough in 1909 to build a track on which American-made stock cars would show that they could run faster than cars from Europe.

Besides the Speedway, the founders left their mark on Indianapolis in multiple ways, and some of the venues where they lived and worked survive. The best-known landmarks associated with the Speedway Four are three of their homes, once spacious estates along Cold Springs Road, north of 30th Street, and now all part of the Marian University campus. The visionary leader of the four, Carl Fisher, was an impatient dynamo of energy who spewed out new business and promotional projects daily and had an intense need to have things in motion around him. His estate on Cold Springs Road reflected his restless, practical nature. He and his wife, Jane, purchased a modest existing house and promptly enlarged and remodeled it several times. It became a simple rectangular box, constructed of brick and stucco and timber, but with an extraordinary 60-foot-long living room with a large fire place and a glassed-in porch with second fireplace where several business conferences could be held simultaneously. On the grounds of his estate, Fisher built stables and grounds for playing polo, a large glass-enclosed tennis court, grass and clay-court outdoor tennis courts, and a glass-enclosed swimming pool. There were also greenhouses to provide fresh cut flowers year round and a cottage for Carl’s mother. Each year at the time of the 500, the Fishers would host big parties for friends from the automotive and business worlds at Blossom Heath, the name they gave their home. The main house, one of the cottages built by Fisher, and a second outbuilding survive and are all used by Marian for offices and for art studios [Fisher buildings no longer standing].

Flanking the Fisher tract to the north at Marian is the former estate of James Allison, the business genius who shaped many of Fisher’s imaginative investment ideas. Allison built a monumental brick and concrete mansion between 1912 and 1914 on a 77-acre tract. The Riverdale Springs estate impressed visitors both with the costly home designed by architects Herbert Bass and William Price and the immense landscape design created by famed Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen. The home featured a Prairie Style exterior and a sumptuous interior in which mahogany paneling, Rookwood tile, and white marble gave luster and elegance to daily living. The landscape consisted of an informal design structured around five artificial lakes extending below the house to the west and a formal garden to the south. Marian University now houses the president’s office in the Allison house and hopes eventually to restore the rich Jensen landscape.

The third partner in the Speedway, Frank Wheeler, together with partner George Schebler, manufactured the first successful carburetor for automobile engines. At the same time Fisher and Allison were building their estates, Wheeler hired William Price to design a brick mansion on 30 acres to the south of Blossom Heath. The buff-brick house with green tile roof was a mixture of Prairie and Mediterranean design on the exterior and contained over 25 rooms with richly detailed wood and stone finishes. Exotic feature on the estate included a 320-foot covered walkway to west, connecting with a seven-car garage and four-story water tower that pumped well water for the estate, a lagoon, several servants’ cottages, and a Japanese garden with tea house imported from Japan. Marian University now uses the Wheeler House for offices, rentals, and special programming.

The home of Arthur C. Newby, fourth partner, stood at 4020 N. Meridian Street, but was replaced by the Tarkington Towers apartments in the 1960s. The field stone wall that Newby built along the perimeter of his property survives.

Besides residential landmarks, a couple of the Speedway founders have also left places associated with business ventures. Frank Wheeler’s carburetor factory at 1035 Sanders Street, near Fountain Square, is now the Wheeler Arts Community, a project of the Southeast Neighborhood Development Corporation and the University of Indianapolis. The Town of Speedway was a creation of Carl Fisher and James Allison as a model industrial city, and the neat gridiron lay out of worker’s houses and business buildings on Main Street continues. Finally, the original offices and factories of James Allison’s highly successful Allison Engineering Company at 1220 Main Street survives in Speedway.

James A. Allison Mansion, photo by Jack Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1970

James A. Allison Mansion, photo by Jack Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1970

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