Monday, January 30, 2012

Opinion — Indianapolis Places, A Little Personal History (Part One)

Some friends of mine in Indianapolis posted photographs of historic buildings on Face Book. They didn’t seem all that “historic” when I lived there. Just part of what made the city what it was. Those images set in motion what is all too easily set in motion these days, trips back in time, remembering and trying to remember people, places and events.

On one such recent excursion, my brother and were talking about a home our family lived in briefly. It was the best house of our lives. Big hall, grand stairway to the second floor. There was a back stairs that connected the breakfast nook to a small bedroom upstairs, I suppose for a housekeeper. Today it would be perfect for the upwardly mobile young family in need of space for the nanny.

We weren’t rich, not at all. What happened was that my parents stumbled upon a real deal, a short-term lease on land scheduled for development. The rent was low because the house would, in a couple of years, be torn down to make room for the expansion of a shopping center. Because there was an age gap of 20 years between the oldest and youngest of the five sons, we older ones had ventured out on our own while the younger ones were still at home. My older brother and I returned to join them for the terms of the lease. We were a whole family for a time, for the first time. Though it wasn’t a mansion, it was large enough to accommodate a family of seven. It had a formal dining room, where we had dinner together just like those families in television sitcoms. The house also had a fireplace in the living room, a two-car garage, a gigantic porch and a large, wooded back yard.

I can picture the house clearly. Or thought I could. My brother asked during our mutual reminiscence, “where was your bedroom?” I didn’t know. I couldn’t picture it. How could that be? Days and now weeks after our talk, I still can’t remember a thing about the room in which I apparently slept. This bit of history no longer exists for me. The brain has many rooms, it seems and some come up missing. Puzzling but not devastating. That’s the way memory works. Unless there is something there to remind us, these things can slip away.

With regard to the beautiful home we lived in, we were forced to leave when the lease was up. The house was torn down as promised. However, the development never happened, meaning the house was demolished for nothing. A handsome, well-built, comfort inducing home was sacrificed on some measure of real estate speculation. In this case, a solid piece of architectural history was ignored by the promise — only the promise — of profits.

This, in turn, reminded me of something similar. In the 1950s, many strange things happened. The whole House of UnAmerican Activities emerged. We became frightened of Communists and bombs. Something else happened in many small towns, especially in the Midwest, I think. Stores on Main Streets were torn down or refaced in flashy “modern” style that often clashed with the county courthouse across the square. There was something about old and established that was considered bad. Indianapolis — unlike say Boston or the entirety of Europe — went with the “old is bad, new is good” idea. Many buildings and homes in Indianapolis were torn down or “remodeled” to death. And they are irretrievable.

So goes part of city’s character. One of the biggest crimes against historical preservation was the destruction of the English Hotel and Theater. What an incredible place the Circle would be if this grand old building still existed. It was torn down in 1948 to make way for J. C. Penny, which was torn down to make way for some mundane office buildings. The historic “Monument Circle” lost a huge piece of history and generations and generations of Indianapolis residents will not have a sense of what a grand city Indianapolis was in the 1900s.

Though I live in San Francisco now, I keep up with what’s going on in my hometown. I do so for personal and professional reasons. Personally, I have friends there and 50 years worth of memories, some obviously clearer than others. I have an ongoing private eye mystery series set in the "Crossroads of America." I'm working on the eleventh in that series — and it will have a lot to do with memories and the loss of them.

The thing is, we, as individuals, are temporary (some might say transitory), but we hope that those who have the power to keep our history alive, do so.

Meanwhile, I will try to get back to that room in the house that is no longer there. It’s left a hole. It’s possible, I suppose, as they say about people not quite living in the real world: “the elevator doesn’t go to the top floor.” Perhaps I am a house where not all the rooms are lit. Even so, I have high hopes for Indiana’s capitol city, now particularly alive and bustling. (CAPTIONS: Top: English Hotel; Bottom: Tomlinson Hall).

Check back on Wednesday for Part Two.


Jeff Gildea said...

Hi, Ron,

I was one year behind Robin at School 83 and Arlington HS. On my Facebook page, I have some historical photos of Indianapolis. Beyond that, I have hundreds of photos of old high schools and gyms all over Indiana, with more being added daily.

Jeff Gildea

Ronald Tierney said...

Hello. I'll check that out. I wish more folks — me included — would have photographed more of the city (and state). I could find no photos of the old Keith's Theater. I wish I'd taken some. Thanks for checking in.