Alternate Indy History: What if Butler University Had Remained Downtown

Updated: Jul 30

A week ago, I ran across a posting on Twitter by Jeffrey Tompkins, asking one to consider how Irvington would look if Butler University had not relocated from its campus on the eastside of downtown to Fairview Park in Butler-Tarkington. The tweet, pictured below, featured an image of Butler's campus in Irvington, superimposed over the present-day structures and neighborhood on the site of the university (or more appropriately, college at that time).


I found this interesting, not only for imagining Irvington with Butler still at that location, but also how my own neighborhood would have changed had Butler never moved to Fairview Park in 1928. This led me to consider another ‘what if’ involving Butler University: How would Indianapolis appear today if the university had never moved from its founding location on the near northside of downtown? Butler was first formed as the North Western Christian University (hereafter “NWCU”) in 1855. One of the school’s founders was Ovid Butler, a prominent Indianapolis resident, abolitionist, retired lawyer, and owner of land north of the city limits, in present day Old Northside.

Indianapolis history Butler University
Credit: Warner et al, Map of Marion County and Indianapolis (1866), Library of Congress

Butler provided 25 acres of land (some sources say 20 acres) for the university, northeast of the corner of present-day College Avenue and 13th Street, and he actually lived just about a block away from the university site. There are conflicting sources on whether the land was sold or donated by Butler to NWCU. (Note: Historic Indianapolis also looked at the site the NWCU in this post from 2011) A large brick and stone academic building was built on the site to house the new university and was completed in time for the inaugural class in 1855.

North Western Christian University Indianapolis History Butler University
Credit: Bass Photo, Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission Image Collection, 1904

Designed by William Tinsley in a Collegiate Gothic style, the building was referred to as the 'University Building,' and was only completed to about 1/3 of its planned original size. An engraving of what it was supposed to look like is pictured below. The building was to be expanded as the university grew.

North Western Christian University history Indianapolis history
Credit: Butler Digital Collections, Butler University Buildings and Grounds Collection

As noted, the university was located to the northeast of the present day College and 13th intersection. In 1855, the location was on the far northside of the city, and well outside of the downtown core. By the early 1870's, the city was growing out of the mile square and was creeping towards the NWCU campus. With development opportunities for the area growing, land values also began to rise, and the university sold the College Avenue campus. To replace this, the university selected a new site on the eastside of Indianapolis along Washington Street/National Road, and just east of the suburb of Irvington.

Indianapolis New, June 27, 1908

Having sold its campus, the university moved to its new location in Irvington in 1875. In 1877 NWCU was renamed Butler after its most prominent founder. Following Butler’s move to the Irvington site, the former NWCU land began to be divided up for development, and the University Building was used as an orphanage, and then a medical school, before the building was demolished in 1910, and the land completely subdivided for residential use.


Today, the location of Butler University's original home is marked by a historical marker, but the campus itself is almost entirely occupied by the North Split for Interstates 65 and 70. The map excerpt below shows the university grounds as seen in the 1887 Sanborn map for Indianapolis. The campus from 1855-1875 stretched from College to the present day Monon Trail (right side of map) which was originally the Peru-Indianapolis Railroad. Today's 13th Street is the "Home Avenue" at the bottom of the shaded area. Since this map is from a decade after the university left, several non-NWCU buildings appear in the shaded area.

Butler university Indianapolis history North Western Christian University
IUPUI Sanborn and Baist Collection, 1887 Sanborn Map,

The large "L" shaped building in the lower left quarter of the shaded area is the original University Building pictured above. The same area today appears below, with the North Split occupying the majority of the land.

But how would the near northside, and Indianapolis, been impacted if the university had never moved to Irvington, but chose to expand its footprint at College and 13th? One possibility is the route of the interstates through downtown would be dramatically different. If a university the size of Butler in the 1960’s had existed at the site of the North Split when the interstates were being built through downtown (see image below from 1972), it seems likely that the interstate would have been routed differently.

Indianapolis history butler university North Western Christian University
Map Indy, 1972.

Another change is how the Old Northside neighborhood would have developed had the university expanded at that site. Considering its residential character now, it is possible the area around the university campus would have developed the same way. Although the expanding development and the landlocked nature of the site may have been a check on the overall growth of the university.


For Irvington, it seems logical that if NWCU had not moved to its campus at that site, the area around Irvington would have continued to develop as it has today. Irvington was already something of a suburb of Indianapolis when the university moved there in 1875, and I think it likely the neighborhoods now occupying the former campus would have developed even without the Butler campus. Although the impact of college's presence on how quickly Irvington was built up is certainly open for discussion.


At the same time we can consider how Butler-Tarkington would be different. Fairview Park was still operating at the time of its sale to Butler in the early 1920’s, but its future without that sale is open to speculation. Looking at other privately owned “trolly parks” in Indianapolis which were contemporaries of Fariview may help guide this ‘what if’ scenario. The Riverside amusement park opened in the early 1900’s and closed in 1970, and eventually was turned into residential development. The Broad Ripple amusement park, originally called the White City, opened in 1906 and in some form continued to operate until 1945 when it was purchased by the Board of Park Commissioners. It seems likely that had Butler not moved to Fairview Park, the park would have either been obtained by the city for use as a park, or sold for development as the neighborhood expanded.


What do you think? How would the near-northside look if the Butler University we know today was still located along College Avenue? Can you imagine Hinkle Fieldhouse sitting alongside College Avenue, or overlooking the Monon Trail?




Sources


Indianapolis News: February 20, 1873, June 27, 1908


Warner, A., Worley & Bracher & Bourquin, F. (1866) Map of Marion County, Indiana. Philadelphia: C.O. Titus, Publisher. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593173/.


Ziegler, Connie J., Indianapolis Amusement Parks, 1903-1911: Landscapes on the Edge, https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/1805/1595/thesismerged.pdf?sequence=1


Engraving of the University Building on Butler University's College Avenue campus, Butler University Digital Collections, Butler University Buildings and Grounds Collection,

https://palni.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/BldgsGrnds/id/1492


Butler University Buildings and Grounds Collection, https://libguides.butler.edu/ld.php?content_id=55607605


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