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

Advertisements

A Day in the Life of Venice – Part II

Today my lunch consisted of a stale oatmeal raisin cookie left over from a Friday-night fundraiser combined with a generous smear of chunky peanut butter on a slice of Wonder Bread from the middle of the package which, unlike the slices near the open end of the package, didn’t glow green when placed under a black light.  As for the peanut butter, it was smooth when I bought it, but I’ve long since learned to not make eye contact with my food because, after all, a mom’s got to do what a mom’s got to do.

But why so pathetic a lunch, you ask?  Because, a) I didn’t plan well over the weekend and b) we live miles and miles away from the nearest store of any kind so on any given day, we have no choice but to make do with what’s on hand.

While I love living in the middle of nowhere, it usually requires a level of organization and planning that escapes me all too often.  If I don’t make a list and carry it with me, then I won’t know what to buy at the store, but if I carry the list with me, my husband and kiddies can’t add things to it so it becomes useless anyway.  You can see my problem.  And please don’t get me started about toilet paper.

So, today I munched on a stale cookie and dubious peanut butter and laughed.  Today I foraged for what’s on hand.  Last week, hunky Italian men with names like Renaldo and Luca delivered handmade pasta, fresh seafood and bottles of wine to me while I murmured “grazi” before “accidently” dropping my fork so they would have to bend over and pick it up. 

Sadly, as you can see, today’s lunch was a bit of a downgrade.

So forgive me if I tend to dwell on my Venetian adventure.  Because, had I been in Venice, even if I didn’t WANT to go out to eat (which I don’t see happening any time soon), I could have waddled just a few blocks to the nearest market where fresh produce, gallons of wine and unimaginable piles of seafood would have beckoned to me like Renaldo’s and Luca’s bent over behinds.

Which leads us to today’s blog entry – Part II of the every day life of Venice.  Let’s start with the food, shall we?  And while you’re reading this, I’m going to go burn that peanut butter….

Tomatoes the size of my head – what’s not to love?

This is my idea of a sandwich shop!

Don’t even get me started on the fresh seafood.  I live in Indiana, after all.  The closest thing to fresh seafood around here are the snapper turtles in Flatrock River.

As for the wine, I like to buy in bulk, don’t you?

Should my peanut butter make me violently ill, I’ll have to call 911, but in Venice, I could go to the hospital in style.

Not to mention, the hospital pharmacy is just that darn cool.  I wonder if they carry Viagra…

On second thought, maybe I WILL just go out to eat.  Just think of the time I’ll save by not having to do dishes.

The real question is, which ristorante do I pick?  Decisions, decisions….

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?

I want to ‘Go with Oh’ to Venice

One hot stormy afternoon in the 1970s when my siblings and I were being difficult little brats, my mother caved and uncharacteristically turned on the TV in the middle of the day if for no other reason than to get us out of her over-permed hair for at least a half hour.  But when the little black and white TV hummed into life and the picture finally came into focus, she stopped dead in her tracks, dropped her basket of laundry and plunked down on the footstool behind her.  And, for the next 45 minutes, my workaholic mother didn’t move.

We were stunned.  The only time that woman EVER sat down was for dinner and mass, so to see her immobile on a midday afternoon was shocking at best.  And what, pray tell, drew her attention away from chores and children?  It was the site of Katherine Hepburn strolling the moldering alleyways of Venice, with Rossano Brassi in tow, in that classic movie, Summer Time.

The movie was already half over when we stumbled upon it that day, but even as a child, I took in enough to realize that Venice was the central character.  Whether it was the canals or Rossano that held my mother’s attention I’ll never know for she still won’t tell, but as a lover of all things nautical, I was hooked.  The fact that a city of canals actually existed ignited my boat-obsessed imagination like never before and I vowed then and there to visit her someday, preferably sans annoying siblings.

But now I’m the mother of chores and children myself, and Venice remains as elusive to me as a pair of size four jeans and a single chin somewhat resembling a right angle.  I still hold out hope that I’ll get there before she sinks forever into the ocean and when I do, I’ll make the most of it by:

1)   Becoming a temporary permanent fixture in Piazza San Marco.

As tourists, we Americans seem to prefer quantity over quality, rushing headlong from one landmark to the next, fanny packs a swinging, barely taking in all that each has to offer.  But Venice is worth lingering over, and linger I shall, preferably in the Piazza San Marco.  Getting there well before sunrise, I’ll stake out the perfect table, order a café late and sit.  For to sit is to see, and to see is to be enthralled as the everyday life of Venice unfolds like a multi-tiered wedding cake tipped over by a drunken groom.  Pigeons will be fed and locals will be observed and tourists will be spotted.  Books will be read, bell towers will be sketched, pictures will be taken, and I will sit and I will breathe and I will enjoy and I will wear Depends.  *Sigh*

2)   Dressing like it means something

Standing in line one Friday night at our local Wal-Mart, behind what I can only guess were three generations of one family all clad in flannel PJs, I felt decidedly overdressed in my blue jeans, turtleneck and brown leather boots.  One can only hope they were of Scottish heritage and overly proud of the family plaid.  But I’m thinking no.  In short, a fashion Mecca Indiana is not.  Rather, ours is a blue jean and t-shirt kind of comfortable world, but oh, not so in Venice. 

In Venice, one dresses for the occasion that is life, for to be Venetian means to embrace the spectacle that good clothing paired with the right accessories has to offer.  For in Venice the theatricality of its food, fashion and atmosphere enable her inhabitants to glide beautifully over the ugly realities of life, whether it be poverty, taxes, earthquakes or war.  So I will wear a flowing floral dress as I shop her cobblestoned streets for handmade sandals, and my jaunty Jackie O sunglasses will beg the question, who’s behind those gleaming dark lenses?  A silk scarf will frame my face – hiding the stubborn gray, mind you – and no one will look at me and assume for an instant that I own a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Who’s Your Mama” or that I live in stretchy but forgiving polyester yoga pants the better part of the year. 

3)   Becoming one with the peach bellinis at Harry’s Bar

As a Hemingway fanatic, hitting Harry’s Bar for a peach bellini is a given, no matter how much of an overblown touristy ritual that may be.  Yes, I’ll admit it.  I want to sit at the bar and drink them by the pitcher full, but not so much so that the toilet smells like a fruit salad afterwards.  No, I only want to get just tipsy enough so that when I close my eyes, I can realistically pretend, if even for a moment, that it’s the 1920s and I’m a colorful ex-patriot writer starving my way across Europe on the Grand Tour.

4)   Making like Mario Batalli and whip up a seafood feast

As a seaport city,Venice is dripping with creepy crawlies fresh from the ocean, just waiting to be devoured with splash of wine and a squirt of lemon.  And traveling with “Go With Oh” means the potential for stellar access to a kitchen – a tempting combo calling to my inner chef – hence I will make like Mario and cook, cook, cook!  Much as I love having someone else clean up the mess, experimenting in the kitchen is one of the few everyday rituals I don’t consider to be a chore.  Thus, inVenice, I will hit the markets for every conceivable slimy crustacean imaginable and experiment.  And then I will sit on my balcony, pop open a bottle of pinot and make like an American and pig out.  And, for that, I may even break out my yoga pants.

5)   Kayaking my way up the canals

While I will definitely wile away at least one afternoon in a gondola – singing Oh Solo Mio as off key as the next tourist – paddling my own rented kayak on a guided tour is an even better option.  With kayaks come a certain level of freedom not obtained in a pole driven gondola and, what I lose in the attractive Italian gondolier, I gain in the ability to paddle close and really observe.  There are sights to be seen in Venice that one can only appreciate from the water, and paddling my own craft, I can compose the perfect photo op that will forever capture my version of Venice.

It’s said that before filming the Summer Time scene where she walks backwards off of the pier into the canal, Katherine Hepburn plugged up every hole in her body to avoid infection from Venice’s dirty waters, going so far as to fill her ears and nose with waxy plugs, doing God knows what down below, and clamping her lips ever so tight at the last moment before taking that fateful plunge.  But she forgot about her eyes and is said to have picked up an infection that stayed with her for weeks. 

While I too wish to bring home ample memories of Venice, a lingering infection isn’t high on the list, though for this floating vision of heaven, I’m willing to risk it.  Whether it be handmade shoes, Murano glass or an imported bacterial bug, I’ll take it, because to bring home a little of that magnificent city is to keep her in your heart all year long.

For more information on Go with Oh or for a chance to win four fantastic prizes, check out their link at:

http://www.gowithoh.com/

By Robin Fritz, writer, artist, photographer and owner of bad American clothes.