Edward Pierre: Architect of Midtown’s Character

Oxford Gables photo from Edward Pierre's client porfolio courtesy of Lisa Hendrickson.

by Connie Zeigler

If you live in Indianapolis, you may know architect Edward Pierre as the civic leader who had the vision to light up Monument Circle every Christmas. But if you live in Meridian-Kessler, Butler-Tarkington, Historic Meridian Park, Washington Park Historic District, or Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhoods, there’s a good chance that you’re within an easy walk of an Edward Pierre–designed building. In fact, you may be living in a Pierre–designed house!

Edward Pierre. Photo courtesy of Lisa Hendrickson.

Fort Wayne native Edward Dienhart Pierre began working with engineer partner George Caleb Wright in 1925, designing housing, commercial, and public buildings in Indianapolis and central Indiana. When that partnership dissolved in 1944, Wright began working with Kurt Vonnegut Sr., and Pierre continued on his own. By the 1970s, he was an elder statesman of design in this city, having also drafted numerous city plans and established several civic booster programs.

Born in 1890, Pierre graduated in 1915 with a degree in architecture from Chicago’s Armour Institute, now the Illinois Institute of Technology. He apprenticed at the Detroit office of architect Albert Kahn, and then was drafted, after his exemption request was denied, into service in World War I with the U.S. Army Engineers Corps. In 1920, the Indiana Construction Record noted that he joined the Indiana Society of Architects in Indianapolis. In Pierre’s own records, now in the Drawings and Documents Archive at Ball State University, he recorded that he started his business in a hotel room and landed his first commission in Indianapolis in 1920. His second job came a year later.

By 1924, according to his records, Pierre was designing houses for local builders and developers. For Katharine B. Mott he drew the designs for a “housing group” at 42nd and Delaware streets. He wrote in his notebook: “Dear Mrs. Mott — how we tried to get away out in front on her small house group — they are still standing and rented.” Pierre was a vocal proponent, along with Mrs. Mott, of the “small house” movement that was sweeping the country in the 1920s, an effort to help address a national housing shortage. He presented a paper on the subject in Washington, D.C., in 1927.

Pierre had designed the Harry Bowser residence at 42nd Street and Central Avenue for builder/developer Taylor Power. Power was constructing houses on speculation throughout the suburbs north of 40th Street during the 1920s. A half-page article in the Indianapolis Star in August 1925 shows the new home Power built at 28 E. 46th Street for his own family. Numerous contractors and finish suppliers are mentioned in small ads surrounding the article about the Colonial-style house, but nowhere is an architect mentioned. Fortunately, Pierre noted that job in his list of designs for 1924.

He also made note that year of the house he designed for his brother-in-law, Ernest A. Gard, 5137 Delaware St. He wrote ironically in that entry: “He [Pierre] designs a home for his brother-in-law, and it is copied thruout [sic] the land, while he starves.”

A year later, Pierre added even more housing to the neighborhood, and more entries to his notebook: “Frank Wocher, 57th and Penn. [5694 N. Pennsylvania]; Dr. J. O. Ritchey, 43 W. 43rd; Mrs. Lillian Abbott, 54th and Washington Blvd.” That year he expanded beyond residences with the brick and terra-cotta Clinehens building at 54th and College Avenue (now housing the Jazz Kitchen, Yats, and other small businesses), about which he wrote: “Went out into the country to start a shopping center — thought the owner was crazy — he wasn’t.”

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The firm Pierre & Wright would have an enormous impact on the built environment of Indianapolis, particularly in the new additions and subdivisions of Midtown and beyond. The firm became a sensation in 1925 when they designed five new show homes in Williams Creek for an “Ideal Homes” cooperative exhibit, sponsored by a local newspaper as part of the Home Complete Exhibition at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. “A brand new firm of Architects makes the first page of the Indianapolis News for six successive months. 200,000 people ‘saw’ the houses,” Pierre wrote in his notebook about that lucky break. It was a watershed moment for the two young men. Among the many residential jobs that followed the opening of the News houses were the Guernsey Van Riper home at 5856 N. Pennsylvania St. and the Louis Bernatz house at 4445 Washington Blvd. Edward Pierre was elected president of the Architects Association of Indianapolis in 1926 and stayed busy designing houses built at 4031 N. College Ave., 4053 N. Pennsylvania St., and 5870 Washington Blvd.

Oxford Gables stairwell. Photo by Connie Zeigler

That year he also designed the remarkable Oxford Gables apartment building at 3815 N. Washington Blvd., which was (and still is) unusually beautiful. Constructed of concrete and external brick-clad walls supported by tile block, the building—with its leaded glass windows, limestone medallions, curving central staircases, milk doors that allowed delivery directly onto kitchen counters, stone fireplaces, and tile and slate floors—remains a somewhat undiscovered gem at the southern edge of Meridian-Kessler. Pierre wrote of the U-shaped apartment building: “Could not finance building, so we doubled its size and got it financed.”

Oxford Gables Apartment 212. Photo by Grant Schlegel.

Edward Pierre himself moved into the Oxford Gables with his new wife, Louise Strasser Pierre. Their only child, Mary Dienhart Pierre, was born there in 1928. Although the Indianapolis City Directory shows that Edward Pierre occupied apartment 204 that year and in 1929, the building’s current owner, Grant Schlegel, believes that must be a typo. He’s convinced that Pierre must have lived in the spectacular two-bedroom apartment 304 with its marble fireplace and view of what would at that time have been Maple Road, today’s 38th Street. According to Pierre’s granddaughter, Midtown resident Lisa Hendrickson, who lovingly transcribed her grandfather’s work notebooks, Edward and Louise Pierre later moved to a carriage house at 41st and Illinois streets, a building since demolished and where IPS School 43 now has an empty lot.

Luckily for Midtown, because Pierre was so productive, much of his work still graces the streets of the neighborhoods. A brief list of additional homes in the area, as noted in Pierre’s records, includes these, to name just a few:

  • 3605 Central Ave.
  • 4202 Central Ave.
  • 4505 Delaware St.
  • 5654 Delaware St.
  • 4057 and 4063 New Jersey St.
  • 4532 Pennsylvania St.
  • 5676 Pennsylvania St.
  • 4530 Park Ave.
  • 3058 Washington Blvd.
  • 5601 Washington Blvd.

In 1940, the Indianapolis Star reported that the entire row of “brick, frame, and stone” Colonial– and Cape Cod–style houses in the 5400 block of Graceland Avenue was designed by Pierre & Wright and built for “Good Homes, Inc.” by Robert L. Mason, realtor. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that nearly every Midtown street between 38th and 62nd has at least one house designed by Edward Pierre standing on it.

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Several of Pierre’s commercial buildings outside of Midtown have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the original Bush Stadium and the Old Trails Building on Washington Street. He designed in nearly every popular style, and his work also included schools and other public buildings, the Indiana State Library among them.

Edward Pierre remained active in Indianapolis as a designer and planner until shortly before his death in 1971. His legacy is slowly being whittled away, though. One after another, his commercial and public buildings bite the dust. Sadly, a prolific career in architecture in Indianapolis also correlates with a high number of losses. Fortunately for our city and its residents, a leisurely cruise through Midtown can still reveal the artistry of Edward Pierre at almost every turn.

Historian Connie Zeigler is a consultant who writes frequently about historic preservation issues. Her website is cresourcesinc.com. Photo of Edward Pierre courtesy of Lisa Hendrickson.