The names of the men and women painted across Indy’s street signs are often an indication of their measured efforts. These efforts created a burgeoning industry matched with their particular talents within the growing city. Names such as Alexander Ralston, Eli Lilly, Calvin Fletcher, Ovid Butler, Oliver P. Morton, and many more adorn the structures, streets, and restaurants of our metropolis as silent reminders of the entrepreneurial spirit required to grow a city from a swamp.
Another common fixture, The Indianapolis Star daily newspaper, made its debut in 1903 boasting that” [Indiana’s] wealth and trade increase materially day by day” crowning the blooming city as “Queen of the Central Western States”. Quite a specific comment, but flattering nonetheless. It turned out the new daily paper was on to something, the quiet town of 48,000 (in 1870) had grown to a bursting 170,963 by the turn of the century. Along with the 250% growth Indianapolis had been adorned with 60,000 structures and by 1900 an excess of 4,000 building permits had been issued (to the tune of $5,530,732)(MIBOR,2011).
The originally dubbed “Governor’s Circle” was renamed Monument Circle following the completion of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in 1901. This central hub, initially only a one-mile square at the city center had become the nucleus of an ever-stretching industrial powerhouse. The Knights of Pythias building, a vital part of our history, born at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Mass Ave. gave Indianapolis its first skyscraper. The 11-story, V-shaped structure was soon eclipsed by the 17 story Merchants Bank tower in 1912 which held the record for nearly a half century.
More innovation moved in when Frederic M. Ayres opened the first fireproof department store in Indianapolis, October 1905. Fulfilling his father’s dream, L.S. Ayres and Company opened up on West Washington in the heart of downtown boasting fix floors of dry goods and a basement filled with economy items. In addition to such an array Ayres featured a soda fountain with over 120 beverage varieties and their famed tea room where ladies would assemble in their finest to enjoy small plates and conversation adorned in white gloves and floral hats. L. S. Ayres maintained an important relevance to the city with their electric bronze clock guarded by a mysterious cherub that appeared in 1947 on the eve of Thanksgiving. This friendly holiday greeter along with the annual holiday window displays drew crowds similar to the famed Macy’s on State Street in Chicago.
Just down the way at 15 W Pearl Street another baron of the ages was applying his stamp to the city. A retired Civil War officer, Eli Lilly, was toasting 40 years of business in his two-story brick apothecary producing homemade elixirs, pills, tonics and salves. Union Station, now sleepily obscured by buildings downtown, was the nerve center for a number of both commercial and passenger lines. The complex maze of tracks ran on for 136 miles just within Marion County lending to the city’s famous moniker as “The Crossroads of America” (MIBOR, 2011)
Multiple industries pushed the city outwards and upwards through burgeoning enterprises including the automobile industry. A major innovation, partnered with the birth of a suburb through brilliant marketing, gave us the internationally recognized Speedway City (now known simply as Speedway). Carl G. Fisher, one of the city’s first visionaries and a real estate developer brought investors together with the idea to build a “large vehicle-testing and racing track” in the form of a “2.5-mile oval paved entirely of brick” (MIBOR, 2011).
Paired with Fisher’s real estate interests he marketed a novel promotion “$10-down, $10-per-month” to attract new residents. Opened up in 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway initially held motorcycle and balloon races but on May 30, 1911 nearly 80,000 spectators gathered around the track to witness the inaugural Indianapolis 500-mile Race. Driver Ray Harroun would go on to capture the first checkered flag in his Marmon “Wasp” in 6 hours, 42 minutes.
Indianapolis bore witness to the birth of culture and tradition known around the world. These minds and many others set the bar for innovation and metamorphosis in a city build from a swamp.
Is Indiana-polis in a state of evolution or is our history of innovation repeating itself?