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

At Home with Indiana Artist T.C. Steele

I’m standing in a living room, admiring the bold olive green paint, the dark polished woodwork and the shelves lined with books. But it’s the west wall that keeps grabbing my attention. Nearly every available space is covered in paintings, including landscapes and portraits, all skillfully done and breathtakingly beautiful. But, in the home of Hoosier artist T.C. Steele in southern Brown County, staring at his amazing works of art, I shouldn’t expect otherwise.

T.C. Steele's paintings grace the wall of his front parlor at his home near Nashville, Indiana.

T.C. Steele’s paintings grace the wall of his front parlor at his home near Nashville, Indiana.

I’m visiting the T.C. Steele State Historic Site just two miles south of Belmont off of State Road 46 west of Nashville and I’m thoroughly enjoying the blissful atmosphere. Any Hoosier who’s ever traveled in Brown County in the fall knows that the leaf peeper traffic can sometimes rival that of I-465 during rush hour, but turning on to T.C. Steele Road – which is NOT well marked, by the way – it’s possible to leave the thundering Harleys behind. This quiet, winding, tree-covered road is, in places, barely big enough for two cars to pass and is gravel in spots. On the Saturday I visited, I saw not a single one as I drove to the 211 acre site.

Coming to the former homestead of Indiana’s foremost landscape artist, one is immediately taken by the beauty of the place. Steele’s former home is an amalgam of towering oak and tulip trees, formal gardens, sweeping lawns, climbing vines and goldfish ponds which once served as emergency water sources for the home in its early years when it lacked running water. Dark red buildings – from the artist’s former outdoor studio to his larger, dream studio, to the home he shared with his second wife, Selma – dot the landscape and, frankly, as an amateur artist, it made me want to grab an easel and paint.

Inside the home of T.C. Steele

Inside the home of T.C. Steele

The grounds and formal gardens, which Selma Steele created for her husband to do just that, paint, are free for visitors to explore along with several hiking trails scattered about the 211 acre site. I popped into the office/gift shop to inquire about a tour and, discovering I had a 45-minute wait, I gladly spent it exploring and hiking. A slow idle among the gardens to the goldfish pond rewarded me with not one but 21 frogs sunning themselves on lily pads, and I had the pleasure of dodging dozens of falling acorns as I explored the Dewar log cabin which Selma Steele rescued from demolition and had moved to the property in the early 1930s.

After a half mile trek on the aptly named “Trail of Silences” which is not aptly rated as moderate given my desk-job physic, I waited outside the doors of Steele’s large studio for the tour. By this time a handful of other visitors had arrived, but, still, we barely constituted a crowd. After a brief background on Steele, his wife and their home, known as The House of the Singing Winds, Indiana State Interpreter John Moore unlocked the studio door and we were plunged into the world of the artist.

Theodore Clement Steele – T.C. to family and friends – was the most prominent artist of the Hoosier Group, a circle of talented, nationally recognized Indiana artists which also included Otto Stark and William J. Forsyth. Born in Gosport, Indiana in 1847, Steele lived most of his life in Indiana with the exception of five years spent training in portraiture at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. While in Germany, Steele was exposed to the work of landscape painters who embraced en plein air impressionism – a style of painting aimed at catching natural light while painting on site and out of doors – and it would eventually change his own style of painting and lead him to this out-of-the-way hilltop in remote Brown County.

Upon returning to the United States in 1885, Steele began making his fortune as a portrait artist in Indianapolis– this being the pre-selfie days of ever present cameras – and he and his first wife, Libbie, amassed enough money to purchase a summer home in Brookville where he practiced his landscape painting skills. That Steele once called Brookville home was news to me, and it turned out to be just one of the many interesting tidbits I learned during our tour of Steele’s studio and home. To know that one of my favorite artists once lived as close to me as Brookville was surprising to say the least. One can’t help but wonder what may have happened to Franklin County had Steele remained in Brookville, rather than forsaking it for Brown County in 1906.

One of Steele's paintings from his Brookville, Indiana days

One of Steele’s paintings from his Brookville, Indiana days

But forsake it he did, leaving Brookville in grief after the death of his first wife. Eventually Steele met his second wife, Selma Neubacher – who, at 23 years his junior, was an artist friend of his three children – and, after scouting around Brown County for some time, Steele purchased this hilltop as the site of his next summer home in 1907.

That same year the Steeles built their home, expanding upon it over time and adding other outbuildings as needs arose. During their years at The House of the Singing Winds, the view from the porches – as seen in many of Steele’s paintings – was expansive as the area had been logged and farmed, unlike the rather wooded grounds surrounding the home today. On the day I visited, it was possible to compare an actual view of the home with one Steele had painted decades ago from the same vantage point. The Indiana State Museum manages the site and with over 300 of Steele’s paintings at its disposal, changes the exhibits often, but as the home is featured in many of his paintings, you will most likely have the same opportunity to do so yourself, should you visit.

Outside Steele's dream studio at his home near Nashville, Indiana

Outside Steele’s dream studio at his home near Nashville, Indiana

T.C. Steele died in July, 1926 and is buried alongside Selma on the grounds which proved to be another surprise for me as I hadn’t planned on standing at his grave, but was honored to do so. Selma Steele struggled financially after his death, but remained at The House of the Singing Winds until her death in 1945. Upon her passing, it was discovered that Steele’s last painting – a still life of Selma’s peonies – was still upon his easel.

Selma left the property and paintings to the State of Indiana as a tribute to her husband and his work, but it fell into disrepair until the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Indiana State Museums and Historic Sites took over its care in the 1980s. Extensive repairs, renovations and restorations were undertaken, and Steele’s paintings were restored. Today, it is a testament to T.C. and Selma’s individual talents, his with a paint brush, hers with a garden trowel.

One of T.C. Steele's paintings of his home near Nashville, Indiana - The House of the Singing Winds

One of T.C. Steele’s paintings of his home near Nashville, Indiana – The House of the Singing Winds

The T.C. Steele State Historic Site is open year round, Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. and Sundays from 1 to 5 P.M. The site is closed on Mondays and holidays. With the exception of the Dewar Cabin, the buildings are not open to the public except during the daily guided tours which are frequent and well worth the wait and cost. Parking is free and readily available, and visitors can explore the grounds, gardens and trails for free too, but admission is charged for tours. Prices are $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and $2 for students and children over the age of three. Children under the age of three are free. Group rates are available too and members of the Indiana State Museum or any one of its other 10 historic sites get free admission.

For more information on the T.C. Steele State Historic Site or to plan your visit, check out the following links.

Friends of T.C. Steele – http://www.tcsteele.org/

Indiana State Museum – http://www.indianamuseum.org/explore/t.c.-steele

Follow my newspaper blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz or email at outaroundwithrobin@gmail.com

Me working on a community art project - painting crosswalks in Shelbyville, Indiana.

Me working on a community art project – painting crosswalks in Shelbyville, Indiana.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Reprinted with permission from the Greensburg Daily News