A Brief History of the Commons on Capitol


Sometimes while on my way to pick up coffee or to have lunch on the Circle, I will walk through the green space south of the Simon Building which is today known as Hudnut Commons. This area was previously known as Capitol Commons and used to occupy the entire block bounded by Capitol and Senate on the east and west, and Washington and Maryland to the north and south, prior to the construction of the Westin Hotel, and later the Simon Tower.

The commons area sits on top of an underground parking garage, and various structures in the park are actually related to the garage, including ventilation shafts and elevators, in addition to a fountain, benches, and quite a bit of landscaping. During warmer months, the commons is a popular place for downtown workers to sit and have lunch, including those from the Simon Tower's whose back entrance opens directly into the Commons. Within the park is a two-side historical marker, noting the former location of the headquarters for the Indianapolis Times newspaper, which moved to this block in 1924.


The marker provides a brief description of the Times and its accomplishments while the paper was being published in the city, including winning the Pulitzer Prize for its efforts in exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s operations and control in the city and the state. This post isn't really about the Times, but if you want to learn more about the paper, check out this page from the Indiana Historical Bureau discussing the above marker (make sure to read the annotations), or this post about the Times from Ray Boomhower. Also, digital access to the Times is available from Hoosier Chronicles.


However, thinking about the newspaper's headquarters on this present-day park area made me wonder what the block looked like 100 years ago when the Times was operating. Back then, the block was all commercial, flanked on its west side by Senate Avenue and bisected north-south by the alleyway known as Roanoke Street, and east-west by Pearl Street. Prior to the turn of the previous century, the block had been the site of several homes, in addition to a few commercial operations, before transitioning entirely to commercial. The earliest aerial photograph of the area is from 1937, and shows the block in its pre-Commons state, and full of various commercial buildings, the individual homes which had once been common on the block long since demolished. Note the diagonal of Kentucky Avenue visible in the bottom right corner of this image. This section of Kentucky was later eliminated by the construction of the Hyatt Hotel and the Indianapolis Convention Center.

Indianapolis history aerial image
MapIndy, 1937

A helpful notation on the 1937 aerial image identifies the Indianapolis Times building, on the south end of the block facing Maryland. However, this appears to be inaccurate. The 1927 Baist Atlas, below, shows the Times building as being located next door to the one noted on the map above, and on the eastside of Roanoke Street. In addition to the Times, other buildings on the block include hotels, warehouses, a union hall, the Salvation Army, a theatre, a furniture store, and other industrial operations.

Baist Map Indianapolis history capitol commons Simon Building
Credit: IUPUI Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, 1927 Baist Atlas

The 1941 Baist map confirms the location of the Times building, and shows little change in the block, aside from the removal of a few structures on the southwest corner. The historic marker for the Times in the Commons is located close to the northwest corner of where the Times building once stood.

Indianapolis history Baist map Simon Building
Credit: IUPUI Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, 1941 Baist Atlas

A photo from not long after the Times moved to this location is found in the digital collections of the Indiana Historical Society, and shows the block as seen in 1925, looking northwest from the intersection of Maryland and Capitol. The Times building, along with the Indianapolis Belting Supply Co. building, both which appear in the Baist maps above, are shown in the image below (the Times is on the left side). The same scene as it appears today is also below.



The Times closed in 1965, and during the 1970's the block was cleared and transformed into a surface parking lot which persisted into the 1980's before the Capitol Commons was established in 1988. The Westin Hotel was constructed in 1987, on the western side of the block, in the right of way of Senate Avenue, eliminating that street between Washington and Maryland. The aerial image of park below, from 2002, shows the Westin on the west side, as well as the fountain which was constructed in the center of the Commons.

MapIndy 2002

Envisioned as a connection between the statehouse, new hotels in the area (namely the Westin and Hyatt), and the new convention center on Maryland, the Indianapolis Star described the commons as a spot for convention goers to gather. The large fountain at the center of the commons (see image below) was met with some controversy regarding its design, as were several other components of the commons. Steve Mannheimer, a professor at the Herron School of Art at IUPUI, wrote a column in the Star on October 23, 1988, about the new greenspace, and pointed out that the way the commons was designed, including trellised walkways blocking views into the commons from the street, created a sense that the commons was private property. Additionally, his column described a review of the construction plans revealed no features in the commons would be aligned with the south entrance of the statehouse, which was apparently a concern for city and state officials. This resulted in the walkway along the western side of the Commons being moved slightly west so it was aligned with the statehouse door. This walkway is also close to the line of former Roanoke Street which used to bisect the block. Mannheimer also acknowledged the camouflage benefits of the commons, noting that "this plaza is by far the most pleasant thing that has ever happened to a parking garage in greater Indianapolis."

Indianapolis history fountain Westin Hotel
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

The Capitol Commons area remained as it was until 2004, when the Simon real estate company sought to construct a new headquarters on the north end of the Commons, along Washington Street. As would be expected if a greenspace was at risk, there was opposition to the construction. Office workers who used the space for lunch expressed dismay about the change, and staffers from the administration of Gov. Robert Orr, who had been governor when the Commons was constructed, said that he had believed there was an understanding with the city that the Commons would always allow an "open vista" between the statehouse and the convention center. The city noted there was no written agreement to this effect, and Mayor Bart Peterson praised the plan, stating in the May 28, 2004, Indianapolis Star, that "we have lots of green space downtown," pointing specifically to White River State Park and Military Park.


Other complaints were directed towards the design of the new Simon Tower, and its lack of pizazz. In a column by James W. Burnes in the Indianapolis Star on September 16, 2004, the proposed new building was referred to as a "background building," and not one which would "excite the eye." The design was modified, and the construction was approved, with the new Simon Tower taking up about 1/3 of the north end of the Commons. The original fountain was also replaced with a circular model, although the shape of the old fountain lives on, and can still be seen, as a decorative grate over what appears to be garage air vents/lighting fixtures (below). This design also seems to incorporate a version of the Indianapolis mile square map, which can also be seen on the 2002 aerial view of the Commons.


The most recent major change to the Commons was a renaming in 2013, when the Capitol Commons was renamed Hudnut Commons, in honor of four term mayor William Hudnut. Hudnut had pushed an aggressive redevelopment plan in downtown in the 1980's and 1990’s, which saw the construction of the Hoosier Dome, Convention Center, and Circle Centre, among other projects. The southside of the Commons hosts a statue of Hudnut which was dedicated on December 14, 2014, with Hudnut in attendance. Hudnut died two years later, in 2016. The Commons area which now bears his name is maintained by The Capitol Improvement Board and is not a part of the Indy Parks system.

While Hudnut Commons is located in the middle of downtown, and close to the Convention Center, the area is rarely busy with people using its greenspaces or benches. I think the private property concerns mentioned by Mannheimer, above, are still valid today, as the Commons seems set apart from the adjacent properties. The construction of the Simon building, and its southern entrance on the Commons with adjacent outdoor seating, seems to reinforce this feeling that the area is more of a private, formal garden, than a public greenspace.



Sources


Indiana History Bureau, Indianapolis Times, https://www.in.gov/history/state-historical-markers/find-a-marker/indianapolis-times/


IUPUI Baist & Sanborn Collection, 1927 and 1941, https://ulib.iupui.edu/digitalcollections/sanbornjp2


Maryland Street, Indianapolis Times building, Billy Fleischer's Restaurant, 1925 (Bass #92067-F), https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc012/id/9891/rec/42


50 South Capitol Avenue, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll53/id/3798/rec/3


The plaque on the back of the William Hudnut statue.


Indianapolis News: September 20, 1988


Indianapolis Star: October 23, 1988, May 28, 2004, September 16, 2004, June 20, 2006, December 15, 2014

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