"Biggest Little Thoroughfare in Indianapolis": The History of Pearl Street

I used to work at the corner of Maryland and Meridian and during that time, a frequent lunch spot was the Pearl Street Pizzeria, located in between Pennsylvania and Meridian Streets along Pearl Street, a narrow alleyway connecting the two larger, north-south streets. While hidden in the shadows of modern buildings, and in some places no longer in existence, Pearl Street's history goes back to the original platting of Indianapolis.


As it appears today, Pearl Street is a truncated version of its past self. Never a fully-fledged street like its neighbors to the north and south, Washington and Maryland, Pearl Street was set out as an alleyway from the early platting of the city, although still at fairly sizable 30 feet in width (alleys were set up to be either 15 or 30 feet). Originally, named Cumberland Alley, it appeared by this name on the platting for the town of Indianapolis, as seen below.

This document is a 1913 reproduction of the original platting for the town of Indianapolis, and the original 51-page document may be accessed here. In the original plat, the alleyway was planned to run all the way across the mile square, from East to West Street, with interruptions due to the diagonals of Virginia and Kentucky Avenue. Expansion of the city eventually led the alley to be extended all the way to the Kingen slaughterhouse on the site of present-day White River State Park, with a section continuing across the river in the area now occupied by the Indianapolis Zoo.

Indianapolis history Pearl Street
Credit: Indianapolis Daily Journal, April 2, 1861

Newspapers in the early years of Indianapolis make regular references to “Pearl Street,” but in regard to the street of that name in New York City and Cincinnati, while in Indianapolis, the Cumberland name is used frequently. The change to Pearl Street seemed to happen in phases, starting sometime prior to the Civil War (see the above advertisement with an address on Pearl Street). On November 2, 1863, the Common Council of Indianapolis passed a resolution to change the entire alley, from East to West Streets, to Pearl Street. A week later, this resolution was rescinded, and the named change was limited to just the section between Pennsylvania and Illinois. Streets. On August 30, 1870, the Indianapolis News reported that "East Cumberland Street, between South Delaware and its eastern terminus, was changed to Pearl Street." No reason was given in the newspaper, although the minutes of the Common Council for the city noted that the name change had been requested by a group of petitioners who owned property along the eastern end of the street. In their petition they explained that the street had been renamed Pearl from Pennsylvania to Illinois Street, and the different names for the street was "thus causing confusion which would be avoided by naming and designating the same as East Pearl Street, as herein prayed for."


On November 14, 1870, the Indianapolis Journal reported that "Pearl Street, or Cumberland alley as it is called there, has been bouldered from Tennessee street to the river." Tennessee is now Capitol Street, and bouldering was a type of road repair and paving. At least based on this report, the western section of Pearl was still being known by its previous name. At some later date, it took was changed to Pearl.

Credit: IUPUI Indianapolis Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, 1887 Sanborn (Meridian St. is the north/south street at center).

While narrower than the main throughfares, alleys, like Pearl Street, nevertheless developed into important avenues of business and residences for citizens of Indianapolis. As can be seen in the Sanborn map above, various businesses were accessible via Pearl. One was an early location for the Eli Lilly Co., which was located near the corner of Meridian and West Pearl Street. An often-used image of this early Lilly operation can be viewed here. A plaque on the wall of the southern annex of the LS Ayres building memorializes this, noting that the actual location was at 15 W. Pearl, 110 feet farther west on Pearl. This structure is visible on the above Sanborn at the southwest corner of Pearl and the smaller, north/south alley (called Severn in the original plat) just midway between the "66" and Meridian Street.


In January 1908 the Indianapolis News published a double page spread about the history of Pearl Street (pictured below), the headline for which provided the title for this blog posting: "Biggest Little Thoroughfare in Indianapolis is Pearl Street; From One End to the Other, It Mingles with Multitude of Interests." The article describes the various sections of the street, and notes that the "thin thoroughfare" of Pearl Street "mixes in the pork packing business, takes a hand in craft horse-trading, mingles with railroad yards," and "constitutes the 'Home Sweet Home' of a jargon of tongues..."

On the far east end of Pearl, near East Street, the alley fronted the freight houses for the Monon and Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton (later B & O) Railroads, which resulted in congested traffic from wagons and trucks picking up and dropping off material at the depots and warehouses. As seen in the Baist map below, apartments. liveries, storehouses, and other residential and commercial structures also lined Pearl Street.

Baist atlas Indianapolis history pearl street Washington Street
Credit: IUPUI Indianapolis Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, Baist 1908, #3

Also described on the east end of Pearl is the "Avenue of Trouble," the name given by the News to the section of Peal between Delaware and New Jersey. In this section, Pearl Street was adjacent to the Indianapolis Police Department and Marion County Jail. The tunnel between the latter and the Marion County Courthouse also ran under Pearl.


The image below, from 1916, shows the Indianapolis Police motor fleet, outside their headquarters at Alabama and Pearl Street. Pearl Street is visible on the left (north) side of the building. To the right is open space where the railyards mentioned above are located. Today, the location of the former police headquarters is a parking lot.

Indianapolis history police department pearl street
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

Below is the Marion County Jail as it appeared in 1903. This view is from just north of the intersection of Alabama and Pearl Streets. Pearl Street is the roadway going off to the right of the image.

Marion County jail Indianapolis History
Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

The west end of Pearl Street was called "Trader's Alley," with horse trading, among other activities, being a major business, especially between Missouri and West Streets (where the State Parking Garage now stands). The News mentions this area was known for its craftiness, although this was in reference to the business tactics used along Pearl, versus the sale of skilled trade craft.


The extreme west end of Pearl, where the street hit a dead end at the Kingen Slaughterhouses, was known in 1908 for its large Hungarian population, many of whom worked at Kingen or in the nearby railyards and lived in tenements along Pearl west of West Street. Maps of images of Pearl Street's western reaches in this area can be seen in this blog post from summer of 2021 about the site of the JW Marriott hotel. The News described Pearl Street's jump over the river, although as of 1908, aside from a few cottages, that part of the street was not as developed. In conclusion, the News noted that Pearl Street "has more varied interests, more queer inhabitants and more odd stories told of it than any street in town. It is narrow and dark most of the way, yet is undoubtably the biggest little street in town because of the vast amount of business done in the thirteen squares it occupies."


Passage of time, and the growth of the city modified Pearl Street. The intersection of Meridian and Pearl was adjacent to the home to the LS Ayres department store, with a portion of the store crossing over Pearl Street to the southside of the alley. This underpass is pictured below. With the construction of Circle Center, this portion of Pearl Street, and the underpass, was eliminated. The inset for where Pearl was is still present and had recently served as patio seating for the now defunct Napolese Pizza restaurant which occupied the adjacent space. The Eli Lilly plaque pictured above is also located at this spot, on the wall in the bottom left had corner of the image below.

LS Ayres Indianapolis history Pearl Street
Credit: Historic American Buildings Survey, C. (1933) L. S. Ayres & Co. Department Store,

As redevelopment of downtown advanced, more sections of Pearl Street were eliminated. Circle Center eliminated the section between Meridian and Illinois. The block containing the Simon Building, and the park which predated it, and the Westin Hotel, eliminated the section between Capitol and Senate. A vision for the future development of the city presented in 1953 proposed turning Pearl Street into a multi-level thoroughfare, with cafes on the upper levels, while the lower level would be a "fashion promenade." Details of this plan were discussed in this Historic Indianapolis post by Libby Cierzniak.


Today, Pearl Street survives only in sections. Probably the most prominent section is the piece previously mentioned between Pennsylvania and Meridian (below, looking east), where Pearl Street Pizza is located. The street is heavily used for cut-through pedestrian and vehicular traffic, as well as deliveries.

Pearl Street Indianapolis history

East of this location, the line of Pearl Street can be traced in the driveway between the Marion County Jail and Julia Carson Transit Center, and then restarts as a street in between Alabama and New Jersey before terminating at East Street at the Indianapolis helipad (image below, looking east).


A small section of Pearl also still survives behind the Fair Building, at 311 W. Washington Street (history of this building is discussed here). The surviving section (seen below) is more alley like and is much less than the 30 feet noted in the original city plan. This image is facing east, with the tower of the Marriott Hotel visible in the background.



Sources


Indianapolis Indiana Journal: November 14, 1870


Indianapolis News: August 30, 1870, January 8, 1908


Indianapolis Star: September 27, 1953


Indianapolis Daily Journal: April 2, 1861


Common Council for the City of Indianapolis, 1863, 1870


Indianapolis Police Department Automobile Fleet, 1916, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc013/id/385/rec/5


Marion County Jail, 1903 (Bass #820), 1903, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc012/id/4692/rec/16


Historic American Buildings Survey, C. (1933) L. S. Ayres & Company Department Store, 1 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, Marion County, IN. Indiana Indianapolis Marion County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/in0365/.


Plats of the town of Indianapolis, Indiana State Library,

https://cdm16066.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15078coll8/id/3821






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