33. Experience 19th Century Indianapolis

James Glass
Column that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on

Indianapolis is known for its many outstanding sports events, as the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 calls to mind. But did you know that some of the city’s most compelling attractions have to do with the 19th century? The state capital held sway as a major political, literary, and industrial center in the country between the end of the Civil War and World War I. Some leading figures of this age lived in Indianapolis, and several of their homes have been preserved and can be visited. Other landmarks of the post-Civil War era, which both famous and ordinary people used, are also standing.

On a national scale, no Indianans of the late 19th century were better known than the state’s only president, Benjamin Harrison, and his friend James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier Poet. New appraisals of Harrison’s presidency are judging him as perhaps the most effective president between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. He set aside over 31 million acres as national forests in Western states and is considered to be the founder of the national forest system. He made the strongest push of any post-Civil War president until Lyndon Johnson to restore the right to vote for African Americans in the South. He was one of the first presidents to actively promote trading relationship with other nations in the Western Hemisphere. He strongly promoted the creation of a modern American navy, and his administration built enough ships for the United States soon to maintain fleets in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Harrison supported passage of the first anti-trust legislation, and he personally campaigned successfully for creation of a federal court of appeals system. His 1874-75 home, a National Historic Landmark at 1230 N. Delaware Street, recreates the household of the nation’s First Family with many furnishings and mementoes of Harrison’s presidency.

A short distance away, at 528 Lockerbie Street, stands another National Historic Landmark, the home of one who if he were living today would surely be recognized as the nation’s Poet Laureate. James Whitcomb Riley’s nostalgic and droll poems written in the dialect of rural Hoosiers became so popular that they became required readings in schools from coast to coast. None other than Mark Twain was an admirer of both Riley’s poems and his deliveries of verse as a featured performer on the stage. Riley produced also evocative and emotional poems on solemn occasions, such as the dedication of the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, or the funeral of his friend, former President Harrison. The poet’s 1872 home is considered one of the finest preservations of a late 19th century or early 20th century home in the country. Virtually all of the furnishings, decorative painting, and personal effects of Riley and his host family, the Holsteins, were retained by the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Association (now the Riley Children’s Hospital Foundation), when they opened a museum to Riley in his home.

A gifted lawyer, Harrison tried cases before the Indiana Supreme Court in the State House, and the Capitol building and Supreme Court Courtroom have been restored to their 1888 splendor for visitors to enjoy. Harrison and Riley on countless occasions boarded and arrived on trains that passed through Union Station, an 1887 Romanesque masterpiece that is now an event and convention center for the Crowne Plaza and Omni-Severin Hotels. The Soldiers’ and Sailor’s Monument of 1887-1902, where Harrison spoke at the corner-stone laying and Riley delivered his poem at the dedication, stands in all of its restored glory, at the center of the city.

Other notable landmarks of Harrison’s and Riley’s worlds include the 1891 Propylaeum at 1410 N. Delaware Street, originally the home of beer baron John W. Schmidt; the Indiana Medical Museum at 3045 W. Vermont Street, an 1896 time capsule of the science of pathology at the turn of the 20th century; and several late 19th century churches. Especially worth visiting are the 1857-61 Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral on the Circle; the former Central Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church of 1891 (now Indiana Landmarks Center) at 1201 Central Avenue; the 1876 Roberts Park United Methodist Church at 401 N. Delaware Street; and the former First Lutheran Church at 701 N. Pennsylvania Street of 1875-85 (now the Sanctuary event center).

Restored north court, Indiana Statehouse, with Italian Renaissance design, 2015. James Glass

Restored north court, Indiana Statehouse, with Italian Renaissance design, 2015. James Glass

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