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The (Almost) State Centennial Plaza

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

I started this blog in 2018 and missed the bicentennial for the state of Indiana, and haven't really delved into any Indianapolis centric stories related to that event. However, a recent Twitter post about the state’s 1916 centennial piqued my interest about the events leading up to that notable occasion which impacted not only the state, but also the city of Indianapolis. The Twitter post was by Jordan Ryan, an architectural archivist and activist scholar in Indianapolis who operates a historical consulting service at The History Concierge. Their tweet depicted a piece of concept art for a proposed plaza, with gardens, pathways, and lagoons, just west of the Indiana state house as part of the centennial celebration in 1916.

Twitter Jordan Ryan state centennial plaza #indyturns200

The plaza in this form never materialized, and many of the responses to Jordan’s tweet asked why the Centennial Plaza was never constructed. Those familiar with the statehouse complex today will know that there is a kind of plaza which extends west of the statehouse itself, with the line of Market Street forming the base of the plaza, and flanked on the north and south by Indiana Government Center North and South. The former is the original state office building constructed in 1960. Beyond that is White River State Park and Military Park, and the State and Eiteljorg Museums. In the lead up to the state’s bicentennial in 2016, the plaza was reconstructed to make it more pedestrian friendly, removing the road way, and making it more of a park-like atmosphere, with art pieces and landscaping.

kessler Indianapolis park boulevard plan

Going back to the image in the Tweet, the origins of the Centennial Plaza plan had begun well before the state's centennial, and began at the city level. The Indianapolis News reported on August 17, 1909, under a headline “Fine Plaza in the Place of Eyesores,” that the president of board of park commissioners, Dr. Henry Jameson, described a plan for a plaza and “state civic center” expanding westward from the statehouse to Military Park. A wide boulevard from Military Park would continue west to connect to the city’s boulevard and park system along the White River. George Kessler, the landscape architect working on the city’s park and boulevard plan, and the park board had been discussing the need for city/state cooperation on projects like the plaza. In fact, the plaza adjacent to the statehouse is noted on a map (above, note the yellow lines to the left of the statehouse), contained in the 1908 annual report for the Board of Park Commissioners which showed park property in Indianapolis, along with proposed additions (yellow lines) to the park and boulevard plan prepared by Kessler.

Jameson further noted that the land values were, at the time, more reasonable in price for the construction of the plaza, and the state purchasing the land “would essentially tie the property of the state to Military park….and absolutely eliminate a great deal of undesirable, ramshackle old property.” He further noted that “[i]n connection with the work, it seems feasible and practical that the state and the city co-operate in connection with an idea of a festival or carnival in connection with the centenary of the state’s admission to the Union in 1916.” Around this same time, state officials, including state librarian Demarchus Brown, raised an alarm about the lack of space in the statehouse, especially for the state library and museum. Jameson suggested the construction of state buildings facing the proposed plaza which could house these institutions, and which could also help celebrate the state's upcoming centennial. In terms of cost, Jameson suggested that the state would purchase the land from the statehouse to Military Park, and pay for the improvements, while the city would be responsible for the connection of the plaza to the boulevard along the White River.

The following March, during their March 31, 1910 meeting, the Board of Park Commissioners heard a proposal from Arthur Bohn of the architectural firm Vonnegut & Bohn, to prepare “perspective drawings” of the State Plaza proposed to be constructed west of the state house “as a complement to the general parkway and boulevard plans of the City of Indianapolis…”.

March 31, 1910 Board of Park Commissioner Minutes

The proposal was passed unanimously by the Board of Park Commissioners, which resulted in the drawing seen in Jordan’s Tweet and credited to the Vonnegut & Bohn and Kessler. The October 29, 1910 edition of the Indianapolis News dedicated an entire two page spread to this proposal, with the center piece being the rendering prepared seen in the Tweet above.

Indianapolis Indiana centennial plaza plan park rendering #indyturns200
Indianapolis News, October 29, 1910

Taking a closer look at the plaza proposal, the plans show a broad park-like plaza running west from the west entrance to the statehouse, with a central waterway or lagoon going down the middle, and four large buildings to house state offices, two on the north and south of the plaza. The October 29 article described that the Central Canal would be redirected to create the lagoons and waterways, while still being routed westward to power the turbines at the water company’s Washington Street station. The enlargement of the planned layout below shows the statehouse on the right, the White River on the far left side, and Military Park in the middle.

The article also noted that the opponents to the plan argued that the plaza would not fit in with that section of Indianapolis, which at the time was primarily industrial and commercial, with some homes still in the place on the west side of Military Park. The state medical college, a brewery, lumber yard and hotel, among other commercial interests, occupied the sections directly west of the statehouse (See the 1908 Baist Maps below).

On February 5, 1911, Governor Thomas Marshall, who was supportive of the Centennial Plaza proposal, told the Indianapolis Star how he had wished the state had obtained the land to the east of the state house which, in combination with the westside plaza. “What a pend thing it would have been if this ground between the White River and the moment ha been purchased and all the city, county, and state buildings erected on that spot.” He also parroted prior suggestions that new state buildings commemorating the centennial be constructed on the land west of the state house, along with the lagoons and gardens. Two days later, an editorial in the News advocated for the plaza plan, noting the wisdom of acting now before the city grew more, and pushing for the governor to name a commission to help move the plaza plan forward.

A letter to the editor in the Star on February 20, from Russell T. MacFall, a resident of Indianapolis, was also supportive of the plaza, and advocated for a centennial memorial involving the State Library and Museum to be brought into a “harmonious relationship” with each other, and with the Indianapolis Park Boards plans for a connection with the boulevard network. MacFall concluded with a plea: “Let the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis co-operate to the end that necessary ground may be saved for the future use of the state, that the Capitol building may be beautiful and made a matter of pride to both the state and city.”

MacFall also referenced another aspect of the plaza proposal which had been mentioned in a few sources, the inclusion of a hospital. The ground for the proposed plaza already included a medical college, but Robert and Clara Long, had donated money to Indiana University for the construction of a hospital for the medical school to use for teaching and for the care of indigent citizens. There were discussions of including this hospital in the plaza plan, or have it constructed at Military Park. Eventually, the hospital was constructed at the corner of Barnhill Drive and Michigan Street in 1914.

On March 1, 1911, Governor Marshall signed Senate Bill 228, which created a Centennial Commission, and was entitled “A Bill for An Act Relating to the Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the admission of the State of Indiana in the Union by the Construction of a State Educational Building.” The legislation created a five member commission, and the General Assembly also got onto the bandwagon for a new state building by describing the duty of the commission was to “formulate plans for the celebration of the centennial…by the erection of a State building and its dedication in 1916, to be known as the Indiana Educational Building. The plan of such building shall provide for the proper housing of the State Library and Museum, Public Library Commission, and the education and scientific office of the state.” The legislation did not explicitly mention the proposed plaza, although the commission would have the power to choose the site of the building and the “grounds surrounding such building.” Lastly, under Section 8 of the act, the commission members were directed to “consult with the board of park commissioners of the city of Indianapolis, and the board of commissioners of the county of Marion, as to the purchase by the State of Indiana, the city of Indianapolis and the county of Marion of any real estate for such educational building and grounds.”

Also on March 1, an article printed in the Indiana Magazine of History advocated for a new library and museum building, noting those two entities were the easiest to remove from the statehouse, and a new building would result in the state having “something that will be a perpetual source of pleasure and profitable information to all visitors to the State's capital.” The article also noted that Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana University History Club were also in support of the plan, although no mention was made of the broader plaza plan.

In addition to the local support for the library/museum building and the plaza plan, some support came from out of state. Delbert J. Haff, the president of the Kansas City Park Board, advocated for the state plaza plan, and the overall boulevard and park system, during a speech to the Indianapolis Commercial Club in May of 1911. The News reported his support for the state plaza, and that he referred to the state house as “a handsome diamond in a dirty shirt," a reference to the area surrounding the statehouse. He also discussed how his city’s park and boulevard improvements were a good financial investment, and that the people of the city, had seen their property value rise thanks to the improvements. Of note, George Kessler had designed the Kansas City park system in the 1890’s, and also served as that city’s landscape architect.

Indianapolis centennial plaza proposal
Indianapolis News, October 13, 1911

However, by the latter half of 1911, doubts started to be cast about the plaza plan, primarily related to the fate of the existing structures in that area, and the cost of buying that land. On October 13, 1911, under the headline “Plaza Plan Endangered by Business Projects,” the News detailed opposition to the plan. Information was received by the Indianapolis Civic Commission, a city commission which appears to have been connected with the Chamber of Commerce, and which had been promoting the plaza, that within a week a Chicago company, the Crane Co., was expected to let contracts for a 7 or 8 story building within the plaza space. Additionally, the foundation for a new hotel had been placed, and Kahn Tailoring Company had also proposed an expansion of their existing factory within the plaza area. These developments would add to the cost of obtaining the land. The News noted that the three entities interested in the plaza plan, the Civic Commission, Board of Park Commissioners, and the state’s Centennial Commission, needed to work together on the plaza plan. Dr. Frank Wynn of the Civic Commission (he was later chairman of the Indiana Centennial Celebration Committee, a citizens organization would handle the arrangements for the centennial celebrations in subsequent years) told the News that “[u]nless something is done at once the state stands in a fair way to lose the proposed plaza, for if it is to be built up with large and expensive buildings before the next legislature meets, that body might decide that some other method of celebrating the centennial as advisable.”

On November 5, 1911, the Star reported that the Crane, Co. building being constructed on the southeast corner of Missouri and Market Street “may put an end to the proposed state plaza plans.” The Star noted that state senator Frank M Kistier, had suggested that no political party would risk taking on the debt that the state plaza plan entailed and that “[w]ith the present depleted condition of the state’s finances there is little chance for the project to bear fruit.” Even with the growing doubt about the plaza plan, the Vonnegut & Bohn plan was still included in a 1912 publication called "Suggestive Plans for a Historical and Educational Celebration in Indiana in 1916." The pamphlet covered a wide range of topics related to the centennial history of Indiana and related events and programs, although the plaza was merely pictured:

Vonnegut Bohn Indiana statehouse plaza centennial plan #indyturns200 Indianapolis centennial
Plaza image from 1912 publication "Suggestive plans for a historical and educational celebration in Indiana in 1916."

Pursuant to Section 8 of the Centennial act, the Centennial Commission met with the Indianapolis Board of Park Commissioners in an effort to identify a location for the state education building. Additionally, as described in the Centennial Commission’s 1913 report to the General Assembly, “earnest efforts” were made in these meetings make the education building part of the proposed plaza plan. The Commission pointed out that the Act anticipated coordination between the city and state for the proposal, since the Act proposed that Indianapolis bear a portion of the cost of the plan. The commission members commended their city counterparts for the assistance provided in working to obtain the property west of the statehouse. However, the Board of Park Commissioners were not able to convince the Centennial Commission that “sufficient aid” would be provided by the city, to help pay for the plaza. The Centennial Commission report also noted that a railway which cut through the proposed plaza (along the line of Missouri Street) made the proposal difficult to move forward.

Aside from the railroad, the cost of the real estate in the area was significant. Appraisals were made of the land west of the statehouse (block 49) found massively inflated prices. The land to the north of the statehouse (block 33) was also considered for the site of the education building (currently a parking lot). In the June 2, 1912 Indianapolis Star, it was reported that if the property to the north of the statehouse came back as costing less than that to the west, the plaza plan on the west side of the statehouse would likely be "tabled permanently." The Star also noted that the city of Indianapolis was "figuratively holding the balance of power in the situation. If the park commissioner would give the Centennial Commission definite promises as to the eventual progress of the plaza plan, so far as the city's part of the tentative agreement is concerned, the members of the commission declare that the centennial site probably would be selected west of the State House." However, block 33 was expensive. The commission approached owners in that area, but had difficulty in getting sale prices from some, while those who did respond, were seeking a sale price which was "exorbitant." The 1913 report provided an example of these prices, and cited the southeast corner of the block where a "rather old hotel building was located," which was assessed for tax purposes at $69,700. The owners of the property demanded $200,000. The Commission also looked at Block 49, west of the statehouse, but the price to obtain this land was over $700,000, which was deemed "highly excessive."

The Indianapolis News noted that in the 1913 report, which was released to the public in December of 1912, the commissioners were recommending that the state purchase the south half of block 33 for $800,000 (via a bond issue) and that the commission's report detailed "[t]he story of the stumbling blocks that have strewn the path of the commission in its two-year period of labor..." The News also noted that the commission never seriously considered land to the west of the statehouse, due to the cost, and the close proximity of manufacturing and commercial interests.

Reading the 1913 report of the Centennial Commission, it seems its members may have been frustrated with the lack progress on the plaza proposal and the education building Two commissioners, state librarian Brown and Charles Jewett, made their own proposals. Jewett supported the decision of the commission, but also noted that the state owned the land to the north of the statehouse (presently the parking lot directly outside the north doors of the statehouse) all the way to the middle Ohio Street. He recommended the education building be built in this area, noting that even with part of Ohio Street being taken, the roadway was still wide enough for transportation use. Meanwhile Brown, the state librarian, still pushed the use of block 49 for the education building, while working with the city of Indianapolis on the plaza and boulevard proposal. Other were frustrated as well. Jacob P. Dunn, at the time the secretary of the Indiana Historical Society, was quoted as claiming the commission "fooled away years" in the process of reaching a non-result in their efforts to set up an education building for the centennial.

In the end, no education building or plaza was constructed for the 1916 Centennial. Not long after the Centennial Commission's 1913 report, legislation was proposed which called for a vote on a centennial memorial plan. Literally, the proposal on the ballot would read "For a Centennial Memorial," follow by a "yes" and "no." The legislation, if it was approved by the voters, called for the construction of the education building, and to work with the city of Indianapolis for the purchase of additional property bear Military Park, and and according to the February 12, 1913 Indianapolis News, to "open its boulevard system to the west entrance of the state capitol grounds." This proposal was put to the voters of the state in 1914, and was resoundingly defeated (86,779 in favor, 353,178 opposed), with only Allen and Marion counties voting in favor.

Indiana statehouse sunrise #indyturns200 Indianapolis centennial
Statehouse as viewed from the present day plaza in Oct. 2018. Photo: Ed Fujawa

The present-day State Library building was constructed in 1935 on the northern half of block 49, to the northwest of the statehouse, one of the locations considered for the 1916 education building. As noted at the beginning of this post, the site of the proposed plaza eventually did become a plaza in the early 1990's. Prior to its construction, Steve Mannheimer, an associate professor of painting at the Herron School of Art, wrote a review of the new government center plan in the April 8, 1990 Indianapolis Star, under the headline "[p]roposed mall has beauty battling thrift." He summed up the long history of a proposed state plaza, noting that it was an "idea whose time has come....and gone....and come....and maybe gone....or maybe not."


Report of Indiana Centennial Commission to the General assembly : Indiana. Centennial Commission, 1913

Suggestive Plans for a Historical and Educational Celebration in Indiana in 1916 : Indiana. Centennial Celebration Committee,

Indiana Centennial Library and Museum Building: Two Documents, March 1, 1911,

Indianapolis News: August 17, 1909, November 5, 1909, October 29. 1910. February 7, 1911, May 6, 1911, October 13, 1911, February 12, 1913, November 6, 1914

Indianapolis Star: February 5, 1911, February 20, 1911, June 30, 1911, October 14, 1911, November 5, 1911, June 2, 1912, September 22, 1912, November 1, 1914, April 8, 1990

14th Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1908,

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