Down Under in Downtown Indy

I’m standing on Whistler Plaza just west of the City Market in downtown Indianapolis on a gray, dripping wet Saturday afternoon waiting for my friend, Libby, who is joining me for a tour of the market’s underground “catacombs” provided by the Indiana Landmarks organization. But today the tour is starting five minutes early and she’s running about five minutes late which is ironic since she’s a downtown lawyer who bills her clients in six minute intervals.

Time to take a tour

Time to take a tour

Fortunately, the tour starts with a very interesting lesson on the history of the market, so as we stand on the plaza listening to volunteer tour guide, Craig Barker, talk about the large brick arch anchoring the southeast corner, Libby is able to check in, sign the waiver and catch up in time for me to tease her about lawyers having no real sense of time. Armed with a dry wit herself, she’s just in time to hear Barker say the large brick arch beside us actually remained hidden away for years, prompting Libby to ask as dryly as possible, “Wait, hidden? How? It’s seems a pretty big thing to hide.”

Big and hidden indeed. But, unbeknownst to many who frequent downtown, it’s not the only sizeable architectural gem that has spent some serious time out of sight and out of mind. For beneath our feet lie even more large brick arches, in addition to tunnels, and it’s these hidden gems which comprise the subject of the catacomb tour we are about to undertake.

As I stand there listening to Barker tell how the arch was hidden between two buildings no longer standing on the site and wasn’t rediscovered until the early 1970s, I can’t help but wonder how many times I passed through this plaza while working downtown, and never really contemplated what the arch was or why it was there. Now, thanks to Mr. Barker and Indiana Landmarks, I know.

This arch and the series of arches beneath our feet are the last standing remnants of Tomlinson Hall, an imposing auditorium that once dwarfed City Market in size and played host to political rallies, speeches, conventions, musicals and dances, including Count Basie and his world famous orchestra which performed at a Valentine’s dance in 1953. The hall was built in 1886 to compliment

An advertisement for a dance at Tomlinson Hall

An advertisement for a dance at Tomlinson Hall

City Market and the former Marion County Courthouse across the way on Market Street, and the “catacombs” beneath Tomlinson served as underground storage for the hall and the market next door.

During its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, City Market was the one-stop shop of its time, a forerunner to today’s supermarkets, while Tomlinson Hall was an entertainment destination with a main hall that seated up to 3,500 people. Unfortunately, Tomlinson Hall suffered a serious fire in January of 1958, leading to its demolition with the arch from the southeastern tower being the only above-ground feature still intact. Fortunately, nearby City Market and the underground storage area also survived the fire.

After the history lesson, which included several pictures of Tomlinson Hall and City Market from their horse-and-buggy days, Barker led us into the market’s modern-day west wing and down a flight of stairs to a rather industrial looking hallway beside a rather nondescript gray metal door. For a moment, it made me think of Willy Wonka right before he opened the tiny door into his chocolate factory, but rather than finding Ompaloompas, I wondered if there were be some rather healthy rodents waiting on the other side instead. Sadly, no on both accounts.

The last standing remnant of Tomlinson Hall

The last standing remnant of Tomlinson Hall

Leading the way, Barker took us through the door, flashlight in hand, past some modern utility pipes to the right at which point we turned left and, low and behold, there they stood, the brick arches of the catacombs, calling out to be explored.

Technically, the area in question isn’t a real catacomb as nary a grave, skull or body can be found – which may or may not be a disappointment, depending upon your personal tastes – and, which in reality was once just a fancy basement to a large building at one time, but what basement it was. Built of a series of brick arches that angle off in every direction, it IS an imposing sight to see and is just well lit enough to be somewhat spooky. Call me crazy, but when I explore something underground called catacombs, I love a little ambiance and, in this case, the combination of low light and ample darkness delivers.

I won’t give away the particular secrets of the tour as it really needs to be taken to be appreciated. Needless to say, Barker led us throughout the space and regaled us with various tales of happenings down below which make you want to explore Indianapolis’ history even more. Walking through this space, touching the worn bricks and getting a “catacomb kiss” – a drip of water from the rain falling overhead – has you wondering what else is hiding away in downtown Indianapolis that has a history and stories to share and which deserve to be told.

Fortunately someone with Indiana Landmarks felt that way about the catacombs, though no one can recall who first came up with the idea for the tours. According to Kelly Gascoine, Program Coordinator for Indiana Landmarks, the organization began offering the tours to guests in town for the Super Bowl in 2011. The tours proved to be so popular, the organization decided to continue offering them on a more regular basis and they’ve been popular ever since.

Tours are offered in 30 minute increments from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of May through October, but groups of 10 or more can schedule tours at other times throughout the year too. In short, Indiana Landmarks is willing to work with you as it is proud of Indiana’s heritage and it never hurts to ask.

Tomlinson Hall back in the day

Tomlinson Hall back in the day

The tours have proven to be so popular, that Indiana Landmarks recommends making reservations, though on the Saturday we attended, they were able to accommodate several drop in visitors, including Margareta Thorsen and Jenny Shih, the president and vice president respectfully of the National Association of Women in Construction, who were visiting Indianapolis for an industry convention and who were able to share their knowledgeable opinions about the structure. After the tour, in fact, Thorsen and Shih both commented that in earthquake prone California where they both live, such a tour couldn’t even be offered to the public due to liability issues.

The tours cost $12 for people ages 12 and up, unless you’re a member of Indiana Landmarks at which you can take the tour at the discounted price of $10. For ages 6 to 12, the price is $6. Proceeds from the tour are split evenly between Indiana Landmarks and City Market, with Indiana Landmarks’ portion used to help preserve historic sites in and around Central Indiana and the state.

If tickets are bought in advance through Eventbrite, one can select the time of the tour preferred and print them out at home or you can take a chance and drop in on a tour which normally start at the top and bottom of the hour. Three volunteers were on hand the Saturday we visited, and we broke up into two groups of 10, but the weather was uncooperative that day and may have damped attendance so be forewarned. In essence, drop in guests may miss out if the weather is nice and downtown is hopping with activity.

The online ticket I purchased stated in large letters that attendees must wear covered shoes, but for those of us like me who only notice that warning while standing in line moments before the tour need not fear as drop-in guests in flip flops and unobservant idiots in sandals like myself were not turned away. Looking back at the website days later, I noticed that it states covered shoes are recommended – as opposed to required – as is stated on the ticket.

Tour guide Craig Barker shares a story down under

Tour guide Craig Barker shares a story down under

Participants do need to sign a liability waiver as the dirt floor is very uneven, and guests in wheelchairs, walkers, or strollers or even those with canes can’t be accommodated at this time which is unfortunate, but which is a reality when touring a space that hasn’t seen the light of day in over a 120 years.

The tour is rather quick, but well worth the $12 as it catapults you into a space that harkens back to a simpler time. Looking at old sepia-toned pictures of Market Street crammed with horses and vendor stalls and people before Tomlinson Hall fills you with a sense of wonder. Our downtowns from Indianapolis to Greensburg to Madison at one time really were the place where one went to get it all. From meat to milk to nails to haircuts, they were the heart and soul of our communities. Yes, time marches on and things change, but sometimes we would do well to spend a little more time contemplating what life was like in another era.

The City Market catacomb tour is one such opportunity.

For more information on Tomlinson Hall and the catacomb tour, visit Indiana Landmarks’ website at http://www.indianalandmarks.org/tours/calendar/Pages/SearchResults.aspx?EventID=567. Tickets for the tour can be purchased online at https://catacombs2014.eventbrite.com.

For more information on Indianapolis’ historic treasures, check out Historic Indianapolis.com. My friend, Libby, is a contributing writer to Historic Indianapolis and walks the walk from her restored home in the old historic Northside District where she sits on the board of the Old Northside Neighborhood Association. You can catch up with Libby and her articles at http://historicindianapolis.com/heritage-steward-libby-cierzniak/.

Follow my blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Reprinted with permission from the Greensburg Daily News and the Indiana Media Group

Send My Big Butt Up A Mountain!

Backpacker Magazine is sponsoring a hike and climb up Mount Whitney and they’re organizing teams now.  They’ve opened up the selection process to readers and, naturally, I want to go.  One, it’s for charity.  And two, I love a good adventure.  And, three they are shamelessly open to social media pandering which is where you come in, fair readers.

Mount Whitney

I want to go.  I want to go so bad I’ve been practicing peeing in the yard in a snowsuit with a backpack on.  Trust me, it ain’t easy.  Especially since we’re averaging 90+ degree days in the shade.

But nothing worth doing is easy and I’m a long shot by far, so if you want to see and hear about me hauling my heavy hiney up the highest mountain in the lower 48, hit up the comment section and tell them why oh why they need me by their side, partly because I’ll make ’em look good.  The following is my entry. 

Breathtaking views, provided I’m still breathing….

Comment away, my trusty friends, comment away.

Backpacker Magazine Entry:

I live in Indiana.  The only jagged peaks I see on a daily basis are the towering stacks of my beloved Backpacker magazine I cuddle at night along with my precious, but now defunct, National Geographic Adventure magazines which I probably fondle a bit more than my husband.  

And here’s the other thing – in terms of the “wow” factor, my backpacking trip experience will pale in comparison to most of those who will enter.  And I’m probably not your typical target market.  I stand five foot tall, live amongst the Amish, telecommute from a desk job, am the middle-aged mother of two teenagers, and own more pairs of relaxed fit jeans than I care to admit.

Wait!  Don’t delete me yet!!!  Whew – that was close!  Ok, so why, you ask, should you consider me?

Don’t worry… I know where he lives…

Well, for starters, I am the poster child for every adventurous tomboy who finds herself stuck in the body of a responsible working mother.  We’re out there by the millions, picking up socks, fixing suppers, and puzzling over the giant holes in our husbands’ tidy whities.  Meanwhile, inside of us beat the hearts of our younger, freer, adventurous selves who now all too often only get to come out to play on the occasional weekend.  After the kiddies’ soccer practice, that is.

That can be tough to swallow because my dream is to hike, hike, hike – the AT, the PCT, anywhere – but while my present responsibilities keep me grounded in Indiana for the better part of the year, I AM out there, rain, shine or snow, on a daily basis with my 20-pound Sierra Club day pack on my back.  Granted, me hiking Hoosier hills with a 20-pound pack is not “scaling-Mt.-Whitney sexy,” but what I lack in exotic scenery, I make up for in shear miles.  And I’ve loved every corn-covered inch of it.

It’s no Mt. Whitney, but at least I did it!

Also, I work out daily, and I’m strong as an ox even if my muscles are covered with an extra layer of chub to keep me warm.  I ride bikes, I jog, I hike, I kayak, I camp, you name it – if it’s done outdoors, I want to do it.  As a farm kid born and raised, I’m no princess – I turned in my tiara for trekking poles decades ago.  Also, while I’m not fast, (I clearly won’t be the first one to the top), I’ll be the little-engine-that-could plugging away non-stop with my tree-trunk thighs of steel.  And, I’ll be smiling and laughing all the way because that’s my approach to life – live it, love it, laugh it off. 

So while my daily circumstances may be normal, my approach to life isn’t.  I don’t sit back watching the kiddies try all of the fun activities like so many other Hoosier mothers.  I climb the rock wall.  I ride the mechanical bull.  I scale the towering sand dune. I play in the waves.  And I want to hike to and conquer Mt.Whitney. 

See! This blog post DOES make my butt look big!

For more information on the Mount Whitney climb and the charity Big City Mountaineers, check out this link to Backpacker Magazine.  And tell ’em I sent you!

http://www.backpacker.com/climb-mt-whitney/destinations/16758

Robin “Thighs of Steel” Fritz

Me ready for an adventure

Where For Art Thou, New York?

It’s not often I’m glad I’m short.  Clocking in at five foot tall, if I don’t see the dust on the top shelf of the pantry, it can’t possibly be there.  I have no idea if my husband has a bald spot and I’ll often forego ice cream because the freezer is just too darn far.  When I shave my legs, I save hours compared to poor Heidi Klum who has to deforest four-foot-long stems.  Then again, she can afford to have her leg hair hand plucked by indentured Chinese servants, so I doubt she complaints much about the time difference….. but I digress.

The gang's all here!

No, it’s not often that I’m glad I’m short, but on a 12-hour bus ride toNew York Citywith 42 teenagers and a handful of vertically gifted chaperones, I actually found myself thankful to be eligible for a booster seat.  Taking up minimal amounts of room has its advantages in small bus seats and overcrowded cities.  Whereas the lanky high school athletes were no doubt in a bind, I could actually stretch my stubbins on occasion.  Combine that with the fact that teenagers avoid moving port-a-potties on wheels like the plague, leaving me with a my own private commode equated to one hell of a decent time for me on the trip out.  Relatively speaking, that is.

Riding the subway

But the bus ride wasn’t the point.  The point was a high school choir trip over spring break 2012 for a group of farm-fresh Hoosiers headed to the big city.  We’re country people and ours is a small community.  I didn’t poll the kids, but I have my suspicions that this was a first-time visit for 95% of the people on the bus, my 17-year-old daughter included.  That we would be cultural fish out of familiar waters was a given, and as we rolled through Pennsylvania for what seemed like 150 hours, I couldn’t help but wonder what the next few days would bring.

For me, this wasn’t my first trip to the Big Apple.  Working in the finance industry, I’ve visited a few times both pre and post 9/11.  In September 2000 I spent several days taking a bond management class at the New York Institute of Finance in Tower Two of the World Trade Center.  Two years later, I made the trip again, though this time I stayed in mid-town, unable to bring myself to tour the gaping hole that was now residing on our trip itinerary as the 9/11 Memorial.  Such is the capriciousness of life.

 So when we rolled into town that morning and were immediately deposited in Central Park – a trip to our hotel would have to wait until 9 p.m. that night as we were staying in New Jersey– I was ready to greet a fond friend with open arms once again.  And over the course of the next few days as we ran from one site to the next – Soho, Grand Central Station, the Empire State Building, Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, so on and so forth – one thing became readily apparent to me.

View from the Empire State Building at sunset

New York, for the most part, has changed.

For one, it smells better.  A LOT better, in fact.  On some of my visits, I distinctly remember the smell of urine.  This time, I didn’t catch so much as a whiff, not even in Chinatown which seemed tantalizingly close to the New York of the 1990s.  And it’s cleaner too, though I can’t say why as I barely saw a trash can in sight.  Where it’s all going, I have no clue as I’ve heard Staten Island has long since told Manhattan to haul it crap elsewhere.  Are New Yorkers just greener than the rest of us?  Or are there some old abandoned subway tunnels we outsiders don’t know about crammed full of high-class city garbage?  Is that where the rats went?  Who knows? Who cares?  It’s just different.

And it’s quiet, oh so quiet compared to my memories of New York of old.  Our tour guide, a local woman who lives in a condo where George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue but which now apparently smells ironically like urine because the woman has four cats for heaven’s sake, didn’t notice that it was quieter.  When asked, she guessed it may have something to do with a $350 fine for honking.  As someone who thinks $350 is a pretty heinous penalty for a few seconds of spouting off, I’d say she’s probably right.  After all, flipping the finger is much quieter.

Though, even finger flipping was few and far between, oddly enough.  New Yorkers, relatively speaking, have gotten nicer too.  Tragic world events that unfold on a local scale often have a way of gut-checking people about the things that really matter.  Could it be that New York really is a kinder, gentler place?  And could it be that the New York of my memories is, in reality, it’s evil twin, Skippy, never to be seen or heard from again?

That remains to be seen.  For now, it’s enough to contemplate the  older, wiser, more mature city that never sleeps.  Whether it sticks remains to be seen.  But for now, it’ll do.

Fish market in Chinatown. IT didn't even smell.... ok, maybe a little...

More on our big city shenanigans will follow next week .  But I’ll leave you with this teaser to whet your appetite – tickets to the very physical Broadway musical “Chicago,” skimpy costumes plastered on the taut, twisting bodies of professional dancers and 42 wide-eyed, hormonally unbalanced teenagers packed in the theater seats.  Up close.   Need I say more?

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

A spring break trip survivor.

Jackie and I hanging in Times Square with our NYC travel buddies. Do you have your travel buddy?