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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

The Rev. Charles Lizenby was delivering his Sunday evening sermon on October 30, 1938 when a hysterical woman rushed to the pulpit at St. Paul's Methodist Church and shrieked "New York city has been destroyed.... I heard it over the radio."

The pastor said a brief prayer as panicked parishioners tore off their choir robes and fled the church. Elsewhere in Indianapolis, switchboards at both The Indianapolis Star and police headquarters were flooded with calls, anxious residents ran out in the streets, and at least one driver who heard the news on his car radio rushed to a filling station to gas up his vehicle in the event of an evacuation.

Some 20 years later, Indianapolis residents opened their morning papers to news of mass destruction that hit much closer to home. The previous evening - April Fool's Day 1959 -- a mysterious government plan known simply as "Project H" had been set in motion. But unlike the bombing of New York city in Orson Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast, news of the pending obliteration of 42 acres in downtown Indianapolis was not a joke.

Under Project H, more than 200 buildings covering seven downtown blocks were set for demolition. Dozens of businesses would be shuttered and 1,250 people would be forced from their homes. But the plan's approval by the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission was apparently so non-controversial that The Indianapolis Star ran the story on page 13 of its April 2, 1959 edition.

The Project H and H-1 area covered 42 acres and stretched from Michigan Street on the south to Fort Wayne Avenue on the north. The east-west boundaries were East Street and Delaware.

Project H was the eighth in a series of "slum clearance" programs launched by the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission since its creation in 1945. Previous programs - imaginatively named Projects A through G -- focused on the demolition of dilapidated buildings to clear the way for redevelopment, including construction of Flanner House homes on the near westside, installation of a new park on West 16th, and expansion of Indiana University in downtown Indianapolis. But Project H was would prove to be the most ambitious plan ever undertaken by the Commission.

Without doubt, the area slated for demolition had seen better days. Originally built up as a mix of large homes, worker's cottages, and various businesses, the near-northside neighborhood had disintegrated into what The Indianapolis Star described as "debris-littered tenements and crime-breeding slums."

Under Project H, nearly every building on the 42-acre downtown tract would be demolished and replaced by brand new apartment towers designed to lure high-income families and singles back to the decaying city center. Only five buildings would be spared the wrecking ball: the English Foundation building, the Murat Temple, IPS School #2, the Salvation Army and the Zion Evangelical & Reformed Chuch. Even 10 newly constructed or newly renovated commercial buildings were slated for demolition.

Although Project H was generally well received, Mayor Charles Boswell said the Commission's plan to demolish new buildings was "just plain ridiculous." The Indianapolis Star echoed Boswell's concerns, stating in an editorial that the plan to convert a massive chunk of the Mile Square to exclusive residential use seemed to be the sort of city redesign concept cooked up by people "who don't like cities."

But the Commission stood firm. According to Commission officials, Project H would not succeed unless the new apartment city was 100% residential. And if Project H did not succeed, downtown Indianapolis would not survive.

The Commission's position -- while understandably unpopular with the soon-to-be-displaced residents of the Project H area -- was backed by data.

In July 1959, a Chicago-based research firm told the Commission that the flight to the suburbs had reversed course, and people were now seeking homes within walking distance of the central business district. Based on this "tremendous trend," the researchers determined that it was economically feasible for private developers to build and fully lease six apartment towers in downtown Indianapolis with rents ranging from $100 per month for an efficiency to $225 for a three-bedroom apartment ($877 to $1,973 in today's dollars).

This positive forecast strengthened public support of Project H. By September 1960, about 40% of the properties slated for demolition had been purchased. The first demolition contract for "14 large residences" was approved on January 4, 1961.

As demolition got underway, the massive redevelopment project began to draw national attention. The Commission was flooded with inquiries from nearly 60 different developers who were interested in turning the "down-at-the-heels neighborhood" into a gleaming new apartment city, which -- according to then-Commission president Charles E. Wagner -- would be "one of the most beautiful in the country."

Bidding opened in the fall of 1961 on four parcels comprising 20 acres. The Indianapolis Star gushed that the five proposals submitted by developers were "dazzling" and "painted a spectacular picture of towering penthouse structures, community theaters, skating rinks, traffic-free malls, and park-like settings." Most even promised fallout shelters.

Riley Center Corp. won the bidding war with its ambitious proposal to build four 30-story "Crown Towers," six 16-story "Twin Towers," and six groups of 3-story townhouses. When completed, the total project would cost $40 million ($342 million in today's dollars) and would include swimming pools, bowling alleys, shops, restaurants and a theater for films and live performances. Hundreds of trees and shrubs would be planted along winding walkways lined with benches and tables, giving a "Parisian flavor" to the community.

The proposed Riley Center apartment community as shown in a promotional brochure.

Riley Center would be built in three phases, with the option for a fourth phase on land that was still privately owned. The first phase, dubbed "Fountain Terrace Apartments" included two Crown Towers, one Twin Tower, townhouses, a restaurant and a reflecting pool.

The second phase, the "Plaza Apartments," would include a theater and outdoor concert venue. Phase 3, the "Promenade Apartments," would be built in the triangle between St. Clair and Fort Wayne Avenue.

Riley Center officials told the city that each phase would take from 12-18 months to complete. As soon as a completed phase was rented, construction on the next phase would get underway. The entire project would be privately funded.

On the morning of May 9, 1962, construction contracts were signed at 9:30, Riley Center Corp. received the deed to the land at 11, and groundbreaking on the new apartments began at noon. "It was as simple as that," marveled The Indianapolis News in a swooning editorial titled "The Lesson of Project H." This "shows the direct action that can be had when private financing - not government red tape - governs community projects."

Enthusiasm for the new apartment city grew as the first towers began to rise. Three model units opened at L.S. Ayres, generating an "overwhelming" number of inquiries and lease applications. In order to clear more land for redevelopment, the Commission approved Project H-1, which extended the footprint of Project H to Delaware and East Streets. Then in October 1962, Riley Center officials announced that the timeline for Phase 2 construction would be accelerated to meet the demand for downtown living.

The first tenant moved into Riley Center in April 1963. Accompanied by a photographer from The Indianapolis Star, secretary Millie Montgomery crossed the threshold to her new studio apartment carrying a big basket with a picnic lunch.

"It's even better than I thought it would be," Montgomery told the Star. About a dozen of her friends were also planning to move to Riley Center, and she was especially looking forward to utilizing the cabana club and hobby center that would be added during Phase 2.

A promotional brochure for Riley Center touted the downtown lifestyle and the many amenities that would be available to residents when the project was completed.

But as it turns out, Millie Montgomery and her 12 friends would not be enjoying these amenities anytime soon.

A few months later, the developers announced that rentals had fallen far short of expectations. Phase 2 would be put on hold until the Indianapolis community demonstrated greater acceptance of this new way of downtown living,

Meanwhile, the demolitions continued.

Riley Center Corp. had initially been granted a 3-year option on most of the Project H land. After aluminum giant Alcoa acquired a stake in the company, the option was extended to eight years. But as the years passed without any progress, city leaders grew impatient.

In August 1964, the Commission abandoned its original plan to dedicate the entire Project H area to residential use and sold some of the unencumbered land within the Project H footprint to Junior Achievement. The following December, additional land was sold to the Indianapolis Chapter of the American Red Cross.

The beleaguered Commission finally got some good news in January 1966 when Alcoa -- which now owned Riley Center -- gave the green light to Phase 2. Occupancy in the three towers had reached 75%, and there was even a waiting list for studio apartments. The new towers would have a higher percentage of lower-cost studio apartments to meet this demand.

But the project stalled again. And again. And again. Meanwhile, weeds choked the vacant lots surrounding the three towers, while adjacent neighborhoods turned into slum housing for the hundreds of families displaced by Project H.

1960s postcard shows vacant lots east of Riley Towers. Alcoa dropped its plan to build additional towers on these lots in December 1968.

Then in December 1968, the Project H bombshell dropped when Alcoa announced that it had no interest in building any more apartment towers. An economic study had shown that further apartment development in the downtown area was simply not feasible. The 16 acres that had been cleared for Phases 2 and 3 of the Riley Towers project would continue to remain vacant, at least for the time being.

For the next year, Project H sat dormant as UniGov wound its way through the legislature. But then in March 1970, the newly constituted Department of Metropolitan Development announced that it would start accepting plans from nationally known firms for the construction of 1,170 moderately priced apartments.

"We had hoped the project would set the downtown area on fire with interest in the early 1960s, but people didn't want to live in luxury apartments and look out on blight," a DMD spokesman told the Star. But now the timing was right. The pending construction of the new interstate would be a major selling point, not only because it would draw people downtown, but also because it would eliminate much of unsightly blighted areas.

As it turned out, DMD was wrong in 1970 about the timing being right. Although the Indianapolis Housing Authority broke ground on a 15-story apartment building for low-income seniors, F.C. Tucker was the only firm to express interest in building market-rate apartments.

In late 1972, however, Tucker's plans fizzled after a feasibility study showed that it would cost more to build the apartments than investors could recover in rent.

Project H continued to languish throughout the 1970s. But by 1980, the city was feeling optimistic again about the long-delayed urban renewal project. Six developers submitted plans to build housing on the vacant land. Although four of the proposals conformed more closely to the high-rise "apartment city" envisioned in 1959, the city ended up selecting Borns Management's ambitious plan to build a village of suburban-style condominiums. The new development would be called "Renaissance Place."

And in November 1980 -- 21 years after Project H was launched -- the timing was finally right. The proposed condos were placed on the market at 11 a.m. on Sunday, November 8. By the end of the next day, Renaissance Place was sold out.

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