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Then & Now: Laying the Cornerstone of the Central Library

This will be a short ‘then and now’ post due to a few other non-blog related projects (still history related) taking up most of my time. By early March I should be back to the regular longer form posts which are standard on this blog.

While working on these other projects, I ran across a few images from the setting of the cornerstone of the Central Library building in downtown Indianapolis at St. Clair and Meridian Streets on March 24, 1916. The new library building would replace the older building located at Ohio and Merdian Streets. Poet James Whitcomb Riley had donated part of the land (allegedly valued at $100,000) upon which the library was to be built.

The first image shows mortar being placed atop the library’s cornerstone, and roughly the same view today. The individual spreading the mortar in the photo is Edmund Eitel, nephew of James Whitcomb Riley. The cornerstone is located on the southwest corner of the Central Library building. The images are accessible via the Digital Indy website and are part of the Indianapolis Special Collection Room’s archived materials. Riley did not attend the ceremonies, even though his accomplishments and his contributions to the library were extolled by the various speakers. In his later years Riley would frequently spend winters in Florida due to poor health and long-term medical issues, which is where he was in March of 1916. While still alive at the time the cornerstone was laid, Riley would pass away a few months later following his return to Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Star reported that within the cornerstone was a box containing books, newspapers, articles, and other items. The books selected for the time capsule (my term, not one used at the time) included 'Rhymes of my Childhood' (by Riley), the book 'Hoosiers, and 'Centennial Indiana' by Max Hyman. An American flag was included, as were lists of the library's trustees, members of its advisory committees, and employees. Library reports and newspapers were also placed in the capsule. A photo of Riley and Govenor Ralston was supposed to be included, but was provided too late, and the box had been sealed. The photo was reportedly placed on top of the box and held down with weights. The trowel used by Eitel was to be kept by him and gifted to Riley. I'm not sure whether that was ever done, or whether the trowel included in collection at the Riley Museum in downtown Indianapolis or Greenfield, Indiana.

Another image (below) shows the crowd gathered for the occasion and is taken looking west from the site of the cornerstone. The cornerstone location in this photo is just to the right of American flag, near where the group of men in suits are standing. If you look closely, the crowd appears to be listening to a speaker, who is positioned near the right side of the flag. I believe the speaker is author, newspaper editor, and politician Meredith Nicholson. Nicholson and Joseph Keller, president of the Indianapolis Public School board, were the main speakers at the event.

In the background is a church building. The church at the time hosted the Meridian Street Methodist Church although the church's congregation later moved to a new location farther north in the 1950's. The church would go through a few owners before being redeveloped as condominiums, having undergone renovation in the 2006-2007. The image from the day the cornerstone was placed, and the scene as it appeared the morning of January 29th, 2023, is below.

A final image is an overall view of the cornerstone event. Taken from the intersection of Meridian and St. Clair, looking east-northeast, the panoramic image shows the crowd gathered for the occasion, as well as the cornerstone being lowered into place by a crane, left of center. A link to the full photo is here. If you open this link, take a few minutes to zoom in and inspect the various people captured in this image. Some are oblivious to the camera, and are observing the event, or chatting with their companions, while others are very much aware that a photo is being taken.

To the right of the image is what would become Veterans Memorial Plaza, but at the time it was known as St. Clair Park. Of the buildings in the background of the image, I could identify only one which still stands: The Sylvania apartments at St. Clair and Pennsylvania (red arrow below), nearly at the center of the photo behind the onlooker standing on building materials.

A Google Street view of the Sylvania Apartments is shown below, from a slightly closer point of view. The Lodge, Cathcart, and Plaza apartments, located just to the north of the Sylvania on Pennsylvania at 9th Street were also present in 1916, but I do not think those are visible in the panoramic view above.


Indianapolis Star: March 25, 1916, February 15, 2007

Edmund H. Eitel spreading mortar, Digital Indy, Indianapolis Special Collections Room, Indianapolis Public Library

Cornerstone ceremony panorama, Digital Indy, Indianapolis Special Collections Room, Indianapolis Public Library,

Photograph of spectators at cornerstone laying ceremony for Central Library, 1916, Digital Indy, Indianapolis Special Collections Room, Indianapolis Public Library,


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