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Uncovering the Past: The Ruins at the JW Marriott

Last weekend a Tweet was circulating Indianapolis Twitter celebrating the 25th anniversary of the opening of Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis. The Tweet included two photos; the first when the baseball stadium first opened in 1996, and the second a more recent photo. While the stadium looks about the same (it has aged well), the downtown cityscape in the background has changed immensely, with the JW Marriot across the street from the stadium as one of the more noticeable changes.

The JW Marriot’s presence kicked off a side discussion and some opinions about JW’s design. Personally, I’m fine with it. I’m not an architect or designer, but I do recall the simple box like structure which was first proposed, and I like this one better. However, this discussion also triggered another memory from the construction of the of the complex.

In June of 2008 there was a short report on local news that the partial ruins of an old building had been uncovered during the construction of the hotel. My recollection was that aside from a few quick photos, the ruins did not stop the construction and the partial status of the ruins was soon made complete. The Indianapolis Star reported on this, under the headline “Creating the future, digging up the past,” on Friday June 27. A representative from REI Real Estate, who was developing the site, was quoted as saying “[w]e saw a little bit of structure there on Monday, and it has been taken out.” He also indicated that crews at the scene determined the structure was not old enough to warrant reporting the find to the state for archeological review. The Star article noted that the laws in force at the time did not require notice be given to state authorities, and the property was not in a historical district which would have also triggered a notice requirement.

JW Marriott old structure historical preservation #indyturns200
Indianapolis Star, submitted photo with June 27, 2008 article.

The article discusses what the ruins could have been and detailed various structures previously at the site, including a fire station, a junk yard, various brick buildings, homes, and in more modern times, a gas station and homes. The article also notes the ruins were uncovered during excavations for part of the parking garage for the hotel. That does not clarify where on the property the ruins were found. From the image above, the uncovered remains of the building appears this could have been part of a basement or cellar constructed with brick. Compare images of the Catacombs at the city market to this image (or just Google ‘City Market Catacombs’) and you can see the similarities in the brickwork of the archway. The catacombs at the Market are under the portion of the property where Tomlinson Hall used to stand. Tomlinson Hall was constructed in 1886 for reference purposes.

Maps for JW Marriott site do show a variety of structures, and the best place to look first are the Sanborn and Baist insurance maps. Starting with one of the earlier Sanborn maps we have available, 1887, this block of the city appeared as follows:

sanborn map Indianapolis history #indyturns200
1887 Sanborn Map, Indianapolis

West Street is on the right, with Washington at the top of the image, and Maryland at the bottom. The structures colored in Pink are constructed of brick, yellow is wood construction, and green, according to the legend on the map, is identified as a "special" material. A row of brick structures is present along Washington Street, including a drugstore, feed and furniture stores, and a restaurant. Additionally, a fire station is located on the corner mid block near an alley, with two liveries across the way. On the southwestern quarter of the block are several other brick structures which appear to be row houses. Various warehouses, sheds, and other unidentified structures are also present. The 1914 Sanborn for the block reflects several changes, although many things stayed the same.

Sanborn map Indianapolis history #indyturns200 fire station 6
1914 Sanborn, Indianapolis

The Fire house, now identified as Fire Station 6, still occupies the same location, although many more brick structures have been constructed. The Vendome Hotel is on the northwest quadrant, various tenements are noted, as well as the wood and concrete block constructed Roumanian Baptist Mission. Fire Station 6 was an impressive structure with a cupola which topped out at 60 feet. It stood at this location until the mid-1930's when it was closed and eventually demolished. Photos below show the station in 1926 (left) and 1911 (right). Credit to the Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection.

Over the years there was quite a bit of turnover on the JW Marriott site, and most of the block was gradually demolished. The 1941 Baist map still shows the brick buildings along Washington and West Streets in place, although the fire station is gone. During the 1950's and 60's, additional buildings are demolished until in the mid-1960's, a hotel is constructed on the site, the precursor to the larger complex built in 2008-2011. The photo below is from around 1960. The red outlined area is currently occupied by the JW Marriott complex.

Indianapolis history #indyturns200 downtown Washington Street JW Marriott
Aerial View of Indianapolis Looking Southwest Credit: Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society

For a progression of the site as the older buildings were removed to until the first hotel appeared, check out the photos below from Indy GIS Zoning map site. Years left to right are 1950, 1962, and 1972. North is up, intersection of West and Washington is in the upper right of all images.

Unfortunately, I can provide no answers as to which building was uncovered in 2008. The present hotel complex has several entrances to its parking garage, and I would guess the garage occupies the entirety of the underground space of the property. Without knowing where the ruins were encountered, or where the image at the beginning was taken, I can only guess which building was uncovered during construction. The developer noted in the Star article that running across old buildings was common in construction projects, but it would have been nice for a slightly more detailed review of the structure, even for a few hours, before it was demolished. The state's Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology (part of DNR), is literally a stone’s throw from the site of the hotel. However, I suspect in situations like this, a developer would prefer that any ruins are evaluated by its on-site personnel as not having any historic value so that construction timelines can be maintained.


Indianapolis Star: June 27, 2008, Creating the future, digging up the past.

Indianapolis Times: July 26, 1933, Day is Done: 77 Year Old Bell is Discarded by City Fire Station; March 12, 1932, City's Oldest Fire Stations 'Are Doomed;' 60 Year Old Structures May Be Replaced.

Aerial View of Indianapolis Looking Southwest (ca. 1960), Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection

Fire station #6, 533 W. Washington Street, Harold Brown Adkinson Fire Photo Collection, Indianapolis Digital Collections.

Station 6 Western, Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection; Harold Brown Adkinson Fire Photo Collection, Indianapolis Digital Collections

Indianapolis Sanborn and Baist Collection, IUPUI: Sanborn (1887, 1914), Baist (1941).

1,233 views3 comments


Joan Hostetler
Joan Hostetler
Jul 24, 2021

Hi, Ed. The Indiana Album has scanned two photographs from this block that might interest you (although neither help solve the mystery). The C. W. Abraham Hay and Grain Store was located in a small brick building at 20 South West Street ( and Mary Fling's boarding house was located at 34 South West Street (

Ed Fujawa
Ed Fujawa
Jul 25, 2021
Replying to

Thanks Joan! If the photo taken by the construction crews had included any horizon, the mystery would likely be solved. But who knows how many buildings in that area had brick cellars.


Jul 24, 2021

That first picture is fascinating. It looks like the entrance to a crusader tunnel in the Middle East.

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