Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Spring break 1968. Girl Scouts Gone Wild. Or at least that's how I recall one memorable day when I was 11 years old and our Girl Scout troop headed south from Kokomo to explore the big city. We toured the Statehouse, visited the Children's Museum, and then capped off the adventure by setting up camp at a motel in the 1500 block of North Meridian Street, just north of downtown Indianapolis.
The Manger Motor Inn was a far cry from our usual primitive accommodations. Not only did it have indoor plumbing, but according to a postcard I saved from the excursion, it was "Indianapolis' finest," with 178 rooms, a year-round swimming pool, and two dining options - the "elegant Hearth and Embers Restaurant" and the "luxurious Purple Tree Lounge."
As our Girl Scout troop gathered outside the motel to begin our trip back to Kokomo, I had no idea that the plot of land where we had spent the night had previously been owned by two swindling doctors, the Vice President of the United States and a founder of the city of Indianapolis. I did not know that two United States Presidents had once trod the same ground where my sneaker-clad feet now stood. And my 11-year-old self certainly did not foresee that by the time I entered high school, our ad hoc Girl Scout camp at 1522 North Meridian would gain infamy as one of the city's hot spots for prostitution.
But some 50 years later -- thanks to the saved postcard -- I did remember the name and location of the Manger Motor Inn when a fortuitous find on eBay started me on an electronic road trip through time that began with the founding of Indianapolis in 1820 and ended two centuries later in a vacant lot behind Walgreen's.
Earlier this year, a seller on eBay auctioned an article from the January 1917 issue of The American Architect that featured plans for Hampton Court, an elegant new apartment complex in Indianapolis. I was unfamiliar with Hampton Court, but after a few Google searches, I discovered that the since-demolished luxury apartments shared the same location as the former home of Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks, the Manger Motor Inn, and the vacant lot behind the Walgreen's where I had purchased my pandemic masks the day before.
As this is the city's bicentennial, that got me thinking about the layers of history that lurk beneath the surface of every piece of property in present-day Indianapolis. Many of the buildings we see today on the main streets heading to downtown are just the latest costume change in an ever-evolving city that must continuously adapt to survive.
From forest to farmland to residential to commercial, a single plot of land on North Meridian could easily have been the site of an Indian camp, a farm house, a mansion, a gas station and an office building. If dirt could talk, each piece of property would have quite a story to tell. But to paraphrase a famous line from an old TV show, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is just one of them."
The recorded history of 1522 N. Meridian dates back to January 6, 1821 - the day that the General Assembly approved the selection of the new state capital and voted to name the city "Indianapolis." In accordance with the legislation, Gen. John Carr of Clark County was elected as agent of the state and three commissioners were chosen, including Samuel Booker of Wayne County. This group was tasked with hiring a surveyor to lay out the city. To Indianapolis' good fortune, Alexander Ralston was retained.
Carr was responsible for advertising the sale of the first lots, which took place 199 years ago this week. He also plunked down $560 for property at the northwest corner of Delaware and Washington Streets - the highest price paid for land in the fledging city. Directly across from the lot set aside for the courthouse, Carr's choice corner lot was a safe bet to soar in value as the city grew. Property outside of the newly platted city - the so-called "outlots" - was far less valuable but still viewed as a potential investment.
In November 1822, Carr and Booker pooled their resources and paid $1 an acre for 80 acres in outlot 12 - an area roughly running from 10th to 16th streets between Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Booker died the following year, and in 1825, Carr sold the land to John Johnston for $400. Then in 1834, Arthur St. Clair purchased a portion of the property for $450, and subsequently platted it into 14 large suburban lots lining both sides of North Meridian Street.
Over the next few decades, a handful of mansions would be built in St. Clair's Addition, but nearly half a century would pass before development reached Lot 14 on the southwest corner of present-day Meridian and 16th streets.
In 1887, local pump manufacturer Albert S. Comstock purchased the southern half of Lot 14 for $5,840 and built a gracious Victorian home. After he died in 1901, Charles W. Fairbanks bought the house and land for $17,000.
Fairbanks was a U.S. Senator in 1902 when he and his family moved into 1522 N. Meridian, but his political star was rising fast. In 1904, Fairbanks was selected as the running mate for President Theodore Roosevelt. As was the custom in those days, the contenders for the top of the ticket eschewed the national party conventions, and instead were formally "notified" of their selection by a party of dignitaries who traveled to their home.
The Notification Committee departed from the English Hotel around noon on August 3, 1904 and drove parade-style to Fairbanks' home at 1522 N. Meridian in a procession led by the Indianapolis Military Band and 100 or so members of the Marion Club clad in blue serge suits, white gaiters and caps of the "automobile variety."
The conduct of the guests as they gathered on the lawn of Fairbanks' flag-draped home was described by The Indianapolis Star as "dignified." Notably, "dignified" was not the same term used by the Star some 60 years later to describe the three men arrested on the former site of the aforementioned lawn for "entering the bedroom of the opposite sex" and "associating with a prostitute." But the downfall of 1522 N. Meridian from Vice President to vice squad mirrored the metamorphosis of the near northside in the first half of the last century.
In May 1907, President Roosevelt stayed at the Fairbanks' home when he traveled to Indianapolis to dedicate the statue of Gen. Henry W. Lawton on the courthouse lawn. Four years later, President William Howard Taft visited 1522 N. Meridian during a trip to Indianapolis to deliver a speech to the Marion Club. But as The Indianapolis Star noted, the Fairbanks family would soon depart the 1500 block of North Meridian for a newly built home a mile and half north. This meant that Taft's visit would be the last hurrah for a gracious old home that had earned a place in the city's history.
The following year, Fairbanks' home was purchased by Dr. David M. Bye, who then leased it to his son-in-law, Dr. L.T. Leach. Dr. Leach ran a sanitarium across from Military Park that boasted spurious claims of cancer cures and was eventually shut down in 1929 after the Indianapolis Better Business Bureau called it "the most disgraceful institution that has ever been permitted to operate for any length of time in the City of Indianapolis, and one of the worst, if not the worst, in the whole country." His father-in-law was no angel of mercy either, peddling a mail-order "cure" for cancer that was later found to be a combination of cottonseed oil and tonic.
In 1915, Leach convinced his ailing father-in-law to transfer the deed to the Fairbanks home to him. This transaction was later overturned as fraudulent because Bye was of "unsound mind," but not before the house was demolished and replaced with luxury apartments.
When the new Hampton Court apartments opened in the summer of 1916, they were touted as "the most attractive and interesting apartments" in the midwest, with each three-story unit beautifully decorated and boasting its own servants' quarters.
Some of the city's most affluent families were among Hampton Court's earliest residents, but by the time former Indianapolis Star managing editor Lawrence S. Connor and his family moved there in 1934, most of the apartments housed large Catholic families who took in boarders for extra money.
But despite the changing demographics, the 1500 block of North Meridian was still a nice place to call home. As Connor chronicled in his 1995 book, "Hampton Court: Growing up Catholic in Indianapolis Between the Wars," Hampton Court "was a wonderful place for a child." Neighbors looked out for one another, children played on the large front lawns, and no one ever remembered to lock their doors.
Hampton Court was demolished in 1962 to make way a luxury motel. When the Manger Motor Inn opened in May 1963, The Indianapolis Star hailed it as "progress" and a "worthy addition" to the city's quest to reclaim its position as a first-rank convention spot.
And for the next few years, the Manger lived up to its hype. The mid-town location was well-suited for events, and the Purple Tree Lounge was a popular nightspot for both locals and tourists, featuring the piano stylings of Susan Gilner, a "vivacious, red-head" who sang in five different languages.
But by the late 1960s, midtown was beginning to melt down. Employees at the Purple Tree Lounge were held up at gunpoint in September 1966. Then in 1968 - the same year that my Girl Scout troop stayed there - three men were arrested and fined $1 each for "entering the bedroom of the opposite sex and associating with a prostitute." The following year, a local salesman was arrested at the Manger for recruiting teenage boys to sell packets of pornographic photos.
In 1971, the Manger was converted to a Quality Inn, although "quality" was a bit of a misnomer. By that time, the stretch of North Meridian from 15th to 23rd streets had turned into the infamous "strip," with prostitutes openly vying for customers from every street corner.
Over the next 25 years, the property began cycling through a series of owners. The Quality Inn became a Ramada Inn which turned into the North Meridian Inn which was reopened as a Howard Johnson's. Then in 1995, any pretense of quality was stripped away when the once-modern and luxurious motel was converted to an Econo-Lodge.
In 2006, Sandor Development purchased the old motel and the adjoining lot to the north and announced plans to build a new Walgreen's drugstore at the corner of 16th and Meridian. A 7,000 square foot retail or office building was tentatively planned for the lot that formerly housed the home of a vice president, the Hampton Court Apartments, and the Manger Motor Inn.
14 years later, the lot behind Walgreen's is still vacant, like a stretch of unpainted canvas in the midst of a cluttered streetscape. But while the future story of the lot formerly known as 1522 N. Meridian has yet to be written, perhaps it's time we memorialized both its glorious and not-so-glorious past. Here's a suggestion: