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Irvington Historic District

Irvington Historic District
Irvington, East Washington Street
Irvington Historical Society

Irvington was among the first planned suburbs of Indianapolis and is important for its Victorian Romantic winding street pattern, the varied architectural styles and types, and for its cultural and educational role in the city. Sylvester Johnson and Jacob Julian, prominent abolitionist lawyers from Centerville, Indiana, bought the site in 1870 and hired surveyor and friend Robert Howard to lay out the winding street pattern. Johnson recommended using the design of Glendale, Ohio, as a model. Irvington included a public park, proposed educational site, and deed restrictions against “vicious” land uses. A town board formed and incorporated the area in 1873.

In the early 1870s, Northwestern Christian University announced a competition for a new site. Irvington won, and by 1875, the school had completed a Main Building and opened its doors, soon changing its name to Butler University in honor of its founder Ovid Butler. Its policy of admitting any person regardless of race or gender was highly unusual, reflecting the Quaker abolitionist background of the town’s leaders. Butler University remained in Irvington until it moved in 1928 to its present north side location.

Layton Allen House

Layton Allen House
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

In 1900, the Indianapolis & Greenfield Rapid Transit Company laid tracks down the center of Washington Street and followed the National Road to Greenfield and beyond, giving Irvington efficient light rail service.  Soon Citizen's Street Railway moved its new electric trolley line up to Washington Street.  Taking advantage of this dramatic change in transportation routes, business owners quickly built commercial blocks on Washington Street.  A new school (IPS #57) and other  improvements and services from the city drew many new residents after the City of Indianapolis annexed Irvington in 1902. Developers filled lots with new houses during the first decades of the twentieth century.  George Edward Kessler completed the final planning stages of the community with his 1909 Park and Boulevard System plan.  Ellenberger Park and the Pleasant Run Parkway were finished much as he intended in the ‘teens and ‘twenties.

In the early 1900s, Irvington became a favorite haunt of the city’s best fine artists and writers including Kin Hubbard, creator of the nationally syndicated cartoon Abe Martin.  An art colony gave the community a namesake art movement, the Irvington Group.  Led by noted Indiana painters William Forsyth, Dorothy Morlan, Clifton and Hilah Wheeler, and others, the group drew national attention in the 1920s and 30s.  Pleasant Run Creek was a favorite plein air site for the artists. 

Architecture in the district displays a variety of late 19th and early 20th century styles.  These include the  French Empire Benton House at 312 S. Downey, the brick Italianate George W. Julian House at 115 S. Audubon, the outstanding Victorian Gothic Eudorus Johnson House at 5631 University, and the fine Arts & Crafts home of State Librarian Demarcus Brown at 251 Audubon.

The Benton House is best remembered for its association with Silence Benton, who served as president of Butler University for several terms in the 19th century.  The Julian House was the home of George Washington Julian, who relocated from Centerville, Indiana, in 1873, to follow his brother Jacob, a co-founder of Irvington.  Julian won two terms in Congress in the late 1840s and 1860s, and he also ran unsuccessfully for vice president of the United States on the Free Soil ticket in 1852.  Famous for his abolitionist stance, Julian welcomed Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to his Irvington home. His daughter, Grace Julian Clarke, a lifelong resident, was a statewide leader of the Indiana suffrage movement and the first female columnist for the Indianapolis Star.

Farther west at 5350 University Avenue stands the last remaining complex of buildings associated with Butler University.  The tan brick Bona Thompson Memorial Center was built in 1903 as the college’s main library.   Architect Jesse Johnson used refined Greek Ionic columns for the flush portico executed in Indiana limestone. Inside, Irvington Group art shows are on display. The red brick complex to the rear, 222 South Downey,  served as the Butler affiliated Sarah Deterding Davis Missionary Training School and the International Headquarters of the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) from 1928 to 1995.  It is currently elderly housing restored using the federal historic preservation investment tax credit.  

Irvington’s business district is lined with  antique shops, curiosity stores, and restaurants for several blocks near Ritter and Washington.  The former Irvington Bank at the southeast corner of Ritter and Washington dates to 1913, as the tablet in the parapet reads.  The commercial block stretching from Layman to Audubon on the north of Washington dates to 1928, as revealed by its Tudor Revival gables.

Churches of many faiths came to Irvington with new residents.   Irvington United Methodist Church, in the middle of North Audubon Road just north of Washington, is an excellent example of Tudor Revival designed by local architect Herbert Foltz in 1925.  Facing south, the 1911 Tudor Revival house of Jacob Forest and later Thomas Carr Howe was saved by the congregation for offices.   Presbyterians rebuilt their church at 55 South Johnson in 1928 turning it into a grand limestone Tudor Revival designed by Merritt Harrison.   Up the parkway are period revival houses.

Plan your visit
Irvington Historic District is five miles due east of downtown, bounded by Emerson Ave., Pleasant Run Parkway, Arlington Ave., and the CSX Railroad. The district extends about 5 blocks either side of the 5000 to 5900 blocks of East Washington St. Most buildings are private homes. Open to the public are Benton House, 312 S. Downey (call 317-353-1210 for an appointment); Bona Thompson Memorial Center, 5350 University Avenue (call 317-353-BONA for hours); Irving Circle Park and Ellenberger Park and Irvington Branch Library, 5625 E. Washington. Events include: Farmers Markets at Ellenberger Park – 2nd Saturday, May – October; Ice Cream Social, Bona Thompson Memorial Center, 5350 University – first Sunday in August, afternoon; Benton House Home Tour – September, call 317-353-1210 for more information; Halloween Festival with live music, children’s events, food the Saturday before Halloween on Washington St.; Luminaria Night – entire neighborhood illuminated by candlelight, Sunday night before Christmas. INDYGO bus line from downtown: #8 East Washington, disembark at Ritter Ave.
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