In September, 1941 Indianapolis realtor Howard Fieber photographed a distinctive tower in the back yard of the home at 458-460 Agnes Street. The block is today occupied by the IUPUI Campus Center, and the street is now known as University Boulevard. Fieber’s picture has often been the source of curiosity, depicting an unusual and somewhat ingenious two-story outhouse that was built around 1913. Outhouses covered the 19th and 20th-century landscape in the years leading up to modern sewers, but this was almost certainly the city’s only two-story outhouse. The two-story toilet is indeed fascinating, but it also reveals how many Indianapolis neighborhoods were denied modern utility services for a century.
The first residents moved into 458-460 Agnes Street in 1875, and for about 35 years the owners of the home dug conventional outhouses in the back yard. Outhouses were typically simple holes dug in residential back yards and lined with barrels. However, by the late-19th century the ill effects of outdoor toilets were well-known and most cities embarked on sanitary reforms (compare an 1881 discussion of sanitation and typhoid in Indianapolis). Indianapolis developed its first privy ordinances in 1873 regulating construction, privy cleaning, and odor control, and most of these codes continued to be in effect into the 20th century.
Refuse disposal including privy contents was contracted to a host of private firms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; for instance, in the 1890s the Indianapolis Desiccating Company hauled city refuse to a landfill and incinerator on Harding Street along the White River, a property known as Sellers Farm (it is still used by the city’s Department of Public Utilities). Licensed entrepreneurs would periodically empty the contents of outhouses—colloquially referred to as “nightsoil”—and apparently the city council was fixated on the odor of privy contents. In May, 1901, for instance, Indianapolis passed a law “making it unlawful to haul nightsoil or the contents of privy vaults through the streets in the daytime or except in airtight vessels at any time” (in July, though, that ordinance was changed to make it unlawful to haul nightsoil between dusk and dawn).
The home at 458-460 Agnes Street was constructed as a single-story double (that is, two units in the same structure), but around 1913 the owners apparently resolved to upgrade the home. They first added a second story, so the home had four rental units, and it appeared in the 1913 city directory for the first time billed as “The Sunset,” a name it retained through 1928. The four-household home would have meant that its backyard outhouses would fill very rapidly, and the owner constructed an eight-foot square, brick-lined two-level outhouse. The two upstairs households accessed the upper-level along a walkway that extended off the back porch.
The expansion of the Agnes Street outhouse came just as outhouses were being eliminated in many American cities. Progressives championed sanitary reforms in early 20th century Indianapolis, but there was little effort to enforce public health codes or extend city sewer service to many working class and Black communities. A 1917 study found that Indianapolis had the highest typhoid rate among the nation’s 29 largest cities, a condition that the study laid squarely at the feet of the city’s lax sanitary codes. The report noted that “Indianapolis has been exceedingly shortsighted not to realize that it cannot be a healthy city without pure water and sanitary sewers. . . . The law is at present very lenient, in that it permits cesspools to remain even where sewer connections are feasible.” Two years later the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce’s Robert E. Tracy acknowledged that between 10,000 and 15, 000 privy vault outhouses still existed in Indianapolis and had no connection to city sewers. Tracy observed that “many of these are on unsewered streets and the best that can be done is to see that they are screened and constructed in such a way as not to be accessible to flies, and not to be accessible to surface drainage.” Such indifferent sanitary code regulation would ensure that many outhouses remained in Indianapolis well into the 1950s. Those outhouses survived in disproportionately high numbers in working-class and African-American neighborhoods.
All of the residents of Agnes Street were White until 1926, when the first African Americans moved into the Agnes Street home. Two of the new African-American residents were veterans. Gardner Coleman was born in Edgefield, Kentucky in 1876 and served in the Spanish-American War, where his African-American company was part of the 10th Cavalry that captured San Juan Hill in June, 1898. Coleman moved to Indianapolis in 1916, and he moved to Agnes Street in 1926, the same year as Drew Williams. Born in Bowdon Georgia in 1895, Williams moved to Indianapolis in 1917. Williams worked at National Malleable Castings until he was inducted into the military a year later in April, 1918. Williams returned to Indianapolis after the war and moved to Agnes Street in 1926, the same year as Coleman and William Williams (who appears to have been no relation; the fourth unit was unoccupied in the 1926 city directory entry).
The 400 block of Agnes Street rapidly transformed from a universally White neighborhood into a Black neighborhood between 1926 and 1930. African Americans had lived in predominately if not wholly Black neighborhoods just blocks away since the wake of the Civil War, but the homes on the 400 block of Agnes Street were all White households for another half-century. When the home at 458-460 Agnes finally became home to African Americans, there was little or no transition period in which White and Black residents lived alongside each other. Indianapolis did not have the same legal Jim Crow segregation as Southern cities, but much of the city was segregated much like Agnes Street: that is, after the turn of the century blocks of homes were uniformly Black or White, often with little or no color line diversity.
While sewer lines extended throughout the city from the late 19th century onward, home owners gradually began to connect indoor toilets to the city’s sewer. Older homes that had been built with outdoor privies were allowed to remain in use, and the city made little effort to monitor home owners (often absentee landlords) who did not maintain outhouses. Ideologues routinely blamed these conditions on African-American residents, as when a 1917 study concluded that “the increase of the colored population coming from the South and bringing with them the lowest standard of housing and sanitary conveniences, is also likely to create a danger against which the city should be armed by giving the health department adequate powers of condemnation.”
A 1927 city ordinance resolved to eliminate all outdoor toilets, but two decades later privies still covered much of the city. In 1948, for instance, a heavy rain overflowed outhouses on Geisendorff Street (where the NCAA Hall of Champions sits today). Absentee owners argued that the cost of water and sewer service to the homes was prohibitively expensive to the modest homes along the Canal. Such resistance to modern sewers was repeated throughout many Indianapolis neighborhoods. In September, 1955, for instance, African-American residents of a near-Northside neighborhood petitioned the Board of Health for the removal of two outhouses at 314-316 McLean Place. The Indianapolis Recorder indicated that “the stench spread over an area of a block.” Yet the Board of Health argued it “was powerless to force the owners to eliminate the outside toilets because of a law that requires the installation of inside toilets in houses within 100 feet of a sewer main will not become effective for three more years.”
In 1956 an insurance map showed the two-story outhouse in the Agnes Street backyard, but in 1962 the outhouse had been razed. The city directory last listed residents at the home in 1965, and in 1970 Willie M. Cook’s home at 436 Agnes Street was the last standing house along the west side of Agnes Street. Most of the block became a parking lot alongside the Bowers Building, a former stationery store that housed the campus police before the lot was razed for the construction of the Campus Center in 2003.
The mechanics of the outhouse have long fascinated observers, and it has been hard to suppress jokes about the feature, but there certainly were long-term health implications of privies like that along Agnes Street. In July, 1880 Indianapolis physician Moses T. Runnel reported on his chemical tests of water throughout the city, and a year later he warned of the profound public health consequences of unsanitary well water and outhouse conditions. Runnels indicated that in one household with a polluted water source an “infant died of cholera infantum where this water came from, and five adults had continued diarrhoea. I am quite sure that the water caused the trouble in the family.” Those consequences eventually visited Agnes Street in July, 1895, when Andrew and Nettie Chamberlin’s three-year-old daughter Beatrice died of cholera infantum. The Chamberlins shared a sober reality of many American families: In 1900, four of their 12 children had already died. Sewers were already being extended into Indianapolis’ affluent neighborhoods in 1895, but an outhouse would remain in use in the Agnes Street yard another 55 years after Beatrice’s death.
Howard Fieber 1941 outhouse image from IUPUI University Archives
For more on the archaeology at Agnes Street see Archaeologies of Race and Urban Poverty: The Politics of Slumming, Engagement, and the Color Line and Race, Displacement, and Twentieth-Century University Landscapes: An Archaeology of Urban Renewal and Urban Universities (both by Paul R. Mullins and Lewis Jones)