In September 1889 The Indianapolis News provided a laudatory albeit graphic description of the Indianapolis Abattoir’s slaughterhouse operations in West Indianapolis. Incorporated in September 1882, the Morris Street plant focused purely on slaughtering animals for processing by wholesale butchers, and in 1889 they expanded their factory to meat packing as well in their location “on the west bank of the river, a few hundred yards south of the Morris street bridge.” The News admitted that “complaint is made that the abattoir pollutes the river and that it is not an agreeable neighbor.” The slaughterhouse was simply one of a host of industrial factories to emerge in West Indianapolis in the late 19th century alongside a rapidly growing residential neighborhood of laborers working in those factories. Today many of those factories have abandoned West Indianapolis, leaving swaths of space vacant in the heart of the city, but developing these neighborhoods has been punctuated by a problematic environmental legacy, more than a century of dismissive treatment by the city, and ill-conceived development schemes. This week one of the latest development plans for the largest tract in West Indianapolis was again delayed, and the neighborhood is once more starting anew advocating thoughtful design that recognizes West Indianapolis’ distinctive heritage.
One dimension of West Indianapolis’ heritage inevitably is the environmental impact of more than a century of industrial production that has long been contested by West Indianapolis residents. The Indianapolis Abattoir was located near the city’s stockyards, which opened in November 1877 on “three acres of land on the west side of the river at the old Vincennes crossing.” The stockyards sat at the southern end of Kentucky Avenue, eventually expanding to 147 acres on the eve of World War II before declining in the 1950s and finally closing in the 1990s. The stockyards gave Indianapolis two massive meat packing plants on each side of the White River: the Kingan and Company plant opened on the eastern shores of the White River opposite West Indianapolis in November, 1863. By the 1890s Kingan and Company built stock pens, box manufacturing, and a water purifying plant on the west side of the river directly opposite their Maryland Street factory. By the turn of the century the meat packing plants concentrated between Washington and Morris Streets were pouring an enormous amount of waste into the White River and contributing to a cloud of industrial smoke hanging over West Indianapolis. In February 1873 a report to the Indianapolis City Council estimated that 6191 tons of animal offal was already being discarded in the city annually, and “this immense amount of animal matter must either rot on the ground or in our streams of water as it does now, filling the air with its poisonous vapors, or some provision must be made by which it can be converted into grease, fertilizing agents, and other articles of value.”
West Indianapolis’ industrialization was fueled by the arrival of railroad lines that cut through the community in the second half of the 19th century. The 73-mile Terre Haute and Indianapolis railroad was built in 1851, with its line crossing the White River through West Indianapolis at Louisiana Street (compare rail lines on the 1855 Condit Map and the 1870 Luther R. Martin Map of Indianapolis). Seven railroad lines ran into Indianapolis three years later, with a second rail line crossing the White River into West Indianapolis at Georgia Street. These arteries through West Indianapolis would become prime industrial locations in the late 19th century, and residential neighborhoods surrounding these industrial workplaces would grow at the same moment.
While West Indianapolis was often painted as a “blighted” industrial expanse (and sometimes still is painted with the same caricatures), it was initially a planned suburban landscape somewhat idealistically designed to co-exist with surrounding industrial spaces. The expanse between West Washington Street and Oliver Avenue was mostly unsettled in 1880 except for rail lines crossing through the space, and most of the property was held by the Nicholas McCarty estate until the late-19th century. The 20th-century streetscape had been outlined and unevenly settled by about 1889. Oliver Avenue, for instance, was cut east-west by 1875, and it would become West Indianapolis’ central artery with some residents and businesses scattered along the street by the late 1870s. In September 1887 The Indianapolis News enthused about the growth of West Indianapolis, indicating that “Over eighty houses have been built there this year. Mr. McCarty has made two large additions, carefully and amply improved with graded and graveled streets and sidewalks. … Fully 100 new residences and 500 residents, or an addition of 25 per cent., will increase the importance of our western suburb this season.” The Indianapolis News reported in November 1891 that “When Nicholas McCarty, the former owner of the land, laid out a town and began selling additions he decided that every street should have shade trees. That plan has been religiously adhered to and trees adorn every street in the suburb.” In June 1894 The Indianapolis News indicated that “River avenue, in West Indianapolis, is lined on both sides its whole length with full-grown maple trees, and there are in it some pretty homes.”
The maple trees were commonly invoked by West Indianapolis champions of residential development, and their importance was confirmed in 1890 when West Indianapolis residents were alarmed that maple trees that graced the neighborhood were dying because of insects. The Secretary of the City’s Board of Health indicated in June, 1890 that “over fifty fine maple trees have been destroyed in two years” in West Indianapolis. Again a year later The Indianapolis News reported that the “West Indianapolis people look with alarm at the increase in the numbers of scale bugs which are swarming over the thousands of maple trees that beautify the streets of the town.” Most of these trees appear to have been removed by development by the 1920s.
Odor and pollution would produce a continual chorus of complaints into the 21st century. In February 1873 the Indianapolis City Council recommended the purchase of a landfill property at Sellers Farm, which lay between the White River and Eagle Creek at the very southwest reaches of West Indianapolis (where Harding Street now crosses the White River). Even after establishing Sellers Farm as the city’s dump, an enormous amount of pollutants continued to be dumped into the White River, and in June 1874 The Evening News complained that the “stenches from the mouth of the Kentucky avenue sewer are reported by residents in the locality to be almost unbearable. And as if these purtrescent [sic] odors were not enough, loads of garbage and all kinds of filth are deposited on the river bank, near the spot, notwithstanding the ordinance requiring all offal to be taken to the Sellers Farm.” In January 1884 The Indianapolis News described the odors of Sellers Farm as “the quintessence of vile odors” and reported that “a score of last summer’s dead cows and horses lay scattered about.”
In November, 1892 the city of Indianapolis was the defendant in a suit brought by 45 residents, “all residents of West Indianapolis, [who] ask $2,500 damages against the city for maintaining a nuisance.” The residents’ suit against the city complained that “there are many hot days and sultry nights during the summer when the stench from this municipal nuisance spreads over the entire city, almost suffocating the southern wards, and penetrating with sickening effect those which lie to the north.” The plaintiffs “allege that there is a sickening, disgusting and unhealthy effluvium and noxious vapors arising at all hours of the night and day which permeate the atmosphere and penetrate into every room of their dwellings.” Just over a week later an Indianapolis law firm indicated that it was “preparing one hundred more complaints to be filed against the city by citizens of West Indianapolis for alleged damages on account of Sellers farm.” It is unclear how those cases were resolved, but in 1921 West Indianapolis residents again filed a suit against the city seeking to close Sellers Farm (the plaintiffs dropped the case in January 1922). In August 1922 a coalition of West Indianapolis residents collected 4000 signatures advocating for disannexation from the city of Indianapolis in opposition to the continued pollution at Sellers Farm, part of a secession movement in West Indianapolis that had begun the previous year.
In 1900 one of the city’s most prominent factories was established when Parry Manufacturing purchased a West Indianapolis tract. David M. Parry and his brother Thomas H. Parry launched the Parry Manufacturing Company in Rushville, Indiana in 1882 after David purchased a small carriage shop. The buggy manufacturing company rapidly expanded and relocated to Indianapolis in 1886. Their South Illinois Street factory began experimenting with the manufacturing of automobiles in about 1892. The Horseless Age reported in 1895 that “Parry Manufacturing Co., light wagon manufacturers, Indianapolis, Ind., have been experimenting on motor vehicles for three or four years past. They are building several different types of wagons.” In 1896 The Horseless Age noted that David Parry had “recently returned from France, where he inspected the latest improvements in motor vehicles. This company has been at work upon the problem for several years, and expects to soon to be in the market with a practical vehicle.” In January 1900 the company announced plans to produce and sell automobiles, and Parry hoped to be selling automobiles in 1901, telling The Indianapolis News that “We will make all sorts of autos, from pleasure rigs through the list, embracing ambulances, prison vans, patrol wagons and heavy delivery trucks.” Parry confirmed to The Indianapolis News that he hoped to build a new factory in West Indianapolis, noting that “the site for the new plant has not been decided upon as yet, but it will probably be in West Indianapolis. We have a deal on foot for securing a tract of land lying along the Vandalia tracks there, and we think now that the deal will go through.”
The Motor Age reported in March 1900 that the Parry company “has definitely decided to erect its new carriage and automobile factory,” and in April 1900 The Indianapolis Journal confirmed that “the deal was consummated.” All reports agreed that the new factory would be on a scale rarely if ever witnessed in Indianapolis: “The new buildings are to be of stone and brick and substantial in character and on the most extensive scale of any manufacturing plant in this city. The Parry Manufacturing Company now gives employment to 1,400 men and is unable to fill its orders, and when in the new buildings expects to employ at least two thousand people; and as the machinery will be largely new and of the most approved design the company expects to increase its production 50 per cent.” In June 1900 Parry secured permission to construct new rail line to the factory site, enthusiastically proclaiming that “The works were never before so pressed with orders, and one of the proprietors says they must have more room than the present buildings give them that they may increase their production.”
Much of the landscape around Parry’s factory would be part of the earliest automobile manufacturing. In January 1905 the Overland Automobile Company moved to the Standard Wheel Company’s factory alongside Parry Manufacturing at 1170 Division Street, where they were advertising Overlands. But by year’s end The Horseless Age reported that “The Standard Wheel Company abandoned the manufacture of automobiles on December 1. … The factory at Indianapolis will be closed.” With the firm in danger of closing, Parry bought its controlling interest. In July 1907 Parry announced that he was constructing a new factory for the Overland Automobiles on “the west bank of the White River, adjoining Parry Manufacturing Company. … along the bank for two squares north of Oliver avenue.” However, Parry nearly went bankrupt himself in 1907, and in January 1908 Overland was purchased by John North Willys. In 1908 Motor Age toured Indianapolis automobile factories and was shocked by the insubstantial Overland factory at the northeast corner of Drover and Oliver Avenues. In the midst of its lingering debts Overland was “literally building machines in large tents grouped about the factory precincts and every available inch of ground space is crammed with men who are being persuaded to do their utmost to bear their part in the production of the Overland success—for it has been a success, this little machine. … On the dusty, bumpy road that runs past the factory doors test cars tear up and down just as hard as the men driving can send them.” The firm regained its footing and was managing four separate Indianapolis production spaces in February 1909. In addition to the West Indianapolis plant at Drover and Oliver, in September 1908 Overland purchased the 15th Street factory that had formerly belong to the Marion Motor Car Company. In September 1909 the firm changed its name to Willys-Overland Company and announced that it expected to produce about 9000 cars in 1910 in the Indianapolis factory alone.
Parry Manufacturing continued to produce buggies, and by 1916 their production shifted to truck bodies and cabs. In 1916 the factory by one measure covered 67 acres and 1.5 million square foot of factory floor space, when its claim to fame was that it was “the world’s largest carriage factory.” In September 1919 Parry Manufacturing was consolidated with Martin Truck and Body, forming the Martin-Parry Corporation. The West Indianapolis company made truck bodies for auto companies including Ford and Willys-Overland before the Indianapolis plant was acquired by Chevrolet in October, 1930 (Martin-Parry continued in business at other locations).
Chevrolet expected the Indianapolis factory to employ 600 people in the production of commercial bodies for Chevrolet vehicles. The plant announced plans for a significant expansion in September 1935, when the site was bordered by Henry Street, Division Street, White River Boulevard, and the Pennsylvania Railroad line. The expansion was placed under the direction of architect Albert Kahn, and the Kahn-designed plant was dedicated in December 1936. The Indianapolis Star considered the plant “as fine an example of modern industrial architecture as can be found in the country,” and the new factory had the distinction of including a fully functioning hospital unit. Kahn would subsequently design an expansion to the RCA factory in Indianapolis on East LaSalle Street in 1939, and in February 1942 he would again design industrial space in West Indianapolis when it was announced he would execute the design for the Curtiss-Wright propeller factory at 1231 West Morris Street (the factory closed at war’s end and was sold to Eli Lilly in March 1946).
In 1958 the city’s Central Business District Plan provided a tentative shadow for an interstate highway that would run east-west across the White River and cross at Ray Street. In 1966 the businesses and residences along West Ray Street remained much as they had been for a century or more, but the path of the freeway razed the 1300 and 1400 blocks of West Ray Street (part of West Indianapolis referred to as the Valley). In 1966 the city directory identified 29 households in the 1300 block of West Ray Street. By the time the 1967 city directory listings were recorded the state had begun to purchase properties along West Ray Street. In 1967 the city directory identified 15 households on West Ray Street’s 1300 block, and another 13 houses were identified as “vacant,” suggesting they had been purchased by the State. In 1968, just seven homes remained in the 1300 block of West Ray, where Mabel L. Edwards (1316 West Ray Street), Dewie N Turner (1320 West Ray Street), J.C. Cross (1346 West Ray Street), Charles B Doss (1349 West Ray Street), John Povtis (1357 West Ray Street), and Clyde L. White (1357 West Ray Street) were the final residents still in their homes. In 1969 not one household remained on the 1300 block of West Ray Street. In August 1973 The Indianapolis Star reported that “I-70 from Harding to a massive interchange to be built at Capitol Avenue and Illinois Street is either under construction or complete in some areas where bridges are needed.” The state announced in October 1974 that they anticipated I-70 from Harding Street to East Street would be completed in October 1975, and traffic was using the section of I-70 through West Indianapolis in September 1975.
In 1978 a Lilly Foundation report and funding pledge spurred Indianapolis to begin planning a park that would straddle the White River at the Washington Street Bridge. Mayor William Hudnut celebrated the plans for the White River State Park in his January 1979 State of the City address, but he “warned dissident neighborhood groups they will not succeed by arguing instead of trying to solve their problems. `To these groups I say, work with us, not against us.’” By 1982 the west side of the River was targeted for construction of a zoo, and planners eventually decided to re-route Washington Street across a new bridge slightly south of where it had been since the 1830’s. Rather than have it pass through the center of the zoo, the newly routed Washington Street ran south of the zoo along the railroad lines north of the General motors stamping plant, re-joining the 1830’s Washington Street at Bloomington Street (which became White River Parkway West Drive) just east of Harding Street. That plan eventually turned the 1916 Benjamin Luten Washington Street bridge into a pedestrian walkway. A proposal to construct a 750-foot tower (“Indiana Tower”), family amusement park, and “performing arts quadrangle” on the east shore of the White River at Washington Street were eventually shelved (compare Jordan Ryan’s study of the ambitious plans for the White River State Park).
At a January 1979 meeting of a joint state House-Senate committee creating the White River State Park Commission State Representative E. Henry Lamkin told his colleagues that “the only residential areas likely to be directly affected would be a few residences on the IPI [i.e., IUPUI] campus already owned by the university. He said adjacent residential areas would probably increase in value because of the development.” Nevertheless, the space for the zoo did require purchasing private property in Stringtown, and in January 1984 Greely Street resident Clarence McIntire complained to The Indianapolis Star that he did not want to move, saying “`I don’t want to leave. …. I’d rather die.’” That month another Star article indicated that White River Park construction was well underway, suggesting that “Those who live and work on the near-Westside of Indianapolis know it as a force that is ripping out homes and other buildings along Washington Street and in Stringtown. … For four years, the White River Park Development Commission has been buying property and planning for the 267 acre, $200 million park that will straddle White River and reshape the west end of downtown Indianapolis.” In February 1984 The Indianapolis News acknowledged that “Some portions of Stringtown already have been purchased outright for the park,” and a month later a study by the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development concluded that “there will be no negative impact on neighborhoods on the west side of the park.” Construction on the relocation of West Washington Street began in May 1984, and the zoo opened in June 1988.
Like many industrial producers in the Midwest’s “rust belt,” General Motors began to close plants in the 1980s. By Fall 2007 GM confirmed that it anticipated closing or selling the Indianapolis factory by 2011, and in June 2009 GM announced that it was contemplating speeding up plant closures. The closing came in June 2011, and as it approached the city began to hatch numerous plans to re-claim the tract as industrial production, mixed residential and retail space, and a variety of city facilities on what The Indianapolis Star described as “101 acres of blight.” The sale of the property was handled by a trust known as RACER (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response) that was selling 89 former GM production facilities. The city decreed that the property could not be sold to a developer without a firm redevelopment proposal, and no buyers stepped forward. By June 2013 the absence of any potential buyers spurred a demolition of the factory, which was intended to make the property more desirable. In 2014 Mayor Greg Ballard became the most prominent advocate for building a Criminal Justice Center on the stamping plant site, which would include 34 courts and a 3500-bed jail. In August 2014 The Indianapolis Star admitted that “The complex has faced resistance from residents in the neighborhood,” and a series of public meetings were orchestrated to market the project, but resident “Rahnae Napoleon said the neighborhood is far from supportive. `We were basically told it was coming whether we like it or not. … We never had a voice. We are now trying to make the best of what they are serving up to us.’”
In August 2014 a proposal was made to build a 15,000-seat amphitheater called “The Stamp” on the stamping plant site that would incorporate the Albert Kahn structural remains. The theater plan was intended to exist alongside the proposed criminal justice center, and The Indianapolis Star’s columnist Erika Smith interviewed residents of the Valley neighborhood and concluded that they were “disgusted by the idea—and understandably so.” Rahnae Napoleon told Smith that “`It’s like we’re the armpit of the city. … We are treated like we don’t count.’” But the President of Indianapolis’ chapter of the American Institute of Architects enthused that “When I heard that a new amphitheater was coming to Downtown, I have to admit, I got a little excited.”
The amphitheater’s developer hoped to break ground for the project in Spring 2015, and the city identified a developer for the Criminal Justice Center in December 2014. But in April 2015 an exasperated Mayor Greg Ballard ranted in The Indianapolis Star that the project had been delayed by “more than 240 briefings and public meetings,” and he worried that alienating the project developer risked embarrassing the city: “Who, in the future, will want to work with a city that walks away from a high-quality, committed bid?” In May 2015 the proposal was tabled by the City-County Council, essentially reading its death rites, and the agreement to sell a portion of the tract for an amphitheater also died.
In January 2017 a city study concluded that residents hoped a development of the property would open up access to the White River and include more convenient roadway access. RACER accepted a new round of bids for the property in March 2017, and four developers submitted bids. In May, 2017 it was announced that Ambrose Property Group had agreed to purchase the tract with plans to develop over “1300 residential units, 2.75 million square feet of office space, 100,000 square feet of retail, and a hotel would make up the $1.4 billion neighborhood,” and the city pledged $8 million for infrastructural improvements. Four months after Ambrose agreed to purchase the property a national frenzy was started by Amazon when it announced that it proposed establishing a second national headquarters and was accepting offers from American cities. Indianapolis champions pointed to the stamping plant property as an ideal tract matching Amazon’s conditions. In January 2018 a shortlist of 20 finalists was announced that included Indianapolis, but in November Amazon announced that Indianapolis had not been selected. A month later the Lilly Endowment awarded a series of grants that included one to the Central Indiana Community Foundation to fund a search for a firm to develop a design for the former stamping plant. In May 2019 Ambrose announced that three design groups had been selected to present their proposals for the redevelopment of the stamping plant, with a juried competition to subsequently select the final designer from amongst the three firms Hood Design Studio, SCAPE, and Snøhetta .
However, that search for a development design for the former stamping plant was abruptly postponed last week when Ambrose Property declared that it had decided “to focus our business on e-commerce and industrial development both in Indianapolis and nationally. We believe that a focused approach on one segment of real estate development is best for our investors, our clients, employees and the communities where we invest. As part of this decision, we plan to pursue the sale of our mixed-use and office projects,” including the 103-acre stamping plant site. Consequently, the neighborhood within walking distance of downtown remains in place alongside these factory sites, the interstate, and industrial producers including Eli Lilly and Ingredion that remain in West Indianapolis along the south side of the interstate. Inevitably the stamping plant and the fate of the neighborhood again rests on the negotiations those residents have with disinterested city planners, self-interested developers, and short-sighted architects for whom the stamping plant is a blank slate instead of a rich neighborhood heritage.
My research in West Indianapolis was supported by the Waterside Design Competition. The opinions expressed here are mine alone.
1889 Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, West Part of Center Township, Indiana State Library Digital Collection
Nordyke and Marmon 1907 Catalog, Indiana State Library
Overland Auto advertisement The Horseless Age 5 July 1905
Parry Manufacturing Company 1902 image Journal Handbook of Indianapolis, Indianapolis History Collection IUPUI University Library