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Neighborhoods in a City of Homes


East Washington
Lockerbie Square Historic District
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology

Alexander Ralston’s 1821 plat for the City of Indianapolis encompassed a Mile Square, and for at least a decade, that was sufficient land for the few hundred hardy settlers who lived in town. Streets were unpaved and housing consisted of vernacular log or frame buildings.

When the first train pulled into Indianapolis on the Indianapolis & Madison line in 1847, things began to change more rapidly. Soon, precursor routes to the Pennsylvania, Big Four, Monon, Nickel Plate, and other railroad lines arrived. As the old Mile Square filled with more commercial buildings, housing became scarce. Land speculators surveyed and filed plats outside the Mile Square on all sides of town. Indianapolis was still a “walking” town. Lockerbie Square, with its large and small houses densely packed into narrow lots, is the best example of a neighborhood that once typified pre-Civil War Indianapolis.

The railroads themselves attracted more residents and also shaped where people lived. The south side of the city thrived with German American neighborhoods, but with multiple rail lines often blocking access to the area, most wealthy citizens chose to live north or east. As industrialists set up shop along the rail lines and the Belt Railway, constructed in 1878, middle and upper class home owners were further alienated. Rail technology opened large portions of outlying farmland to residential and satellite commercial development. It was not, for the most part, steam power that made the transformation possible at first, but instead, horsepower, or more accurately, mule power. Investors formed the Citizens Street Railway Company in 1864. By 1890, the successor firm had established electric streetcars.

A new generation of suburbs began to develop after the Civil War, thanks in part to streetcar service. Herron—Morton Place and Irvington are examples of streetcar suburbs. Also in the 1890s, interurban companies formed and ran streetcars on Indianapolis streets. Interurbans were light, electric, self-propelled streetcars that ran between cities. By the early 1900s, an extensive network of interurban lines served nearly every town of any size in the state. Their local network included Homecroft, Cumberland, and Speedway.

Citizens expected water and sewer lines, fire protection, schools, gas lines or electric service, and improved streets in areas where they might build homes. Public parks were also high on the list. George Edward Kessler’s Park and Boulevard System of 1909 included formal parks, parkways, and small parks that spurred residential growth.

Woodruff Place Historic District

Woodruff Place Historic District
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

The early 20th century was a golden age for Indianapolis. Between 1900 and 1920, the population nearly doubled from 169,164 to 314,194. An expanding industrial base anchored in auto parts makers, furniture making, grain processing, pork packing, and railroad repair shops attracted thousands of families from the rural Midwest and overseas. With streetcar lines improving transit, suburbanization could extend as far as demand would take it. With sources of employment spread out along the Belt Railway and no limitations on land in place, single family houses quickly became the norm in Indianapolis neighborhoods.

More and more, how far one would travel to work downtown began to classify suburban areas into poor, middle and upper middle class, and wealthy areas. The automobile was changing the landscape. Land speculators began to drop the alley from their plats as superfluous. Instead, owners wanted side driveways and room for garages. Indianapolis residents were proud of their city, because it lacked the crowded neighborhoods so common elsewhere. The city continued to sprawl outward with neighborhoods of single family houses. The Indianapolis News used the descriptive banner “A City of Homes” on its front page during the early 1900s.

Domestic architecture in Indianapolis ranges from a handful of surviving Upland South-influenced vernacular houses to a fine collection of Arts & Crafts homes. Because of overwhelming redevelopment during the 1870s and 80s, very few if any downtown neighborhoods have surviving early vernacular architecture. T- or L-plan cottages with simple Italianate or Queen Anne details typified working-class neighborhoods of the late 19th century. Away from the coal soot, those who could afford the commute began to find respite. The (Old) Northside Historic District was among the early developments that attracted home owners an unheard-of 16 blocks from downtown in the 1870s and 80s. Neighborhoods like Herron—Morton Place and Woodruff Place illustrate the middle and upper income life of the 1890s. Every Queen Anne design feature was at home here, including tall porches with lathe-turned posts, circular towers, offset bay windows, and imbricated wood shingles.

Meridian park Historic District

Meridian Park Historic District
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

The 1900s brought new architectural ideas to Indianapolis. Frank Lloyd Wright never designed one of his Prairie style homes in the city, but several of his followers did. Other out-of-town proponents of the Arts & Crafts movement had significant commissions here, including Price & McLanahan, Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Home Builder’s Club, Howard Van Doren Shaw, and Robert Spencer, Jr. A talented corps of local architects, contractors, and builders also played a significant role in interpreting the modern Arts & Crafts style. Neighborhoods like Meridian Park are known for their Arts & Crafts housing.

Indianapolis citizens later changed tastes toward the period revival styles beginning in about 1915. By the late 1920s, builders replaced the Bungalow with the more traditional Tudor Revival cottage. The well-to-do chose North Meridian Street or Pleasant Run Parkway in Irvington as ideal sites for larger Colonial Revival or Tudor Revival homes.

Home building revived just before the war in the late 1930s. Small Tudor Revival cottages and Cape Cod houses were most popular. America’s entry into war curtailed home construction for four years, though branches of the military built several apartment complexes to house workers during the war. With the population explosion of the post-war period, developers went further afield to lay out ranch-house tracts. Builders filled several areas with prefabricated units sold by National Homes of Lafayette, Indiana. More permanent versions of the ranch house followed the starter neighborhoods.