Grand Old Manor Houses: The Meridian Street Story

Former Indiana Governor's residence, the William N. Thompson house. Public domain image.

by Will Higgins

North Meridian Street, lined with one big fantastical old house after another, made an impression on young Kassie Ritman.

She’d be southbound on Meridian, heading from the family’s modern, 1960s ranch house in rural Boone County to visit her grandmother, who lived near the Indiana State Fairgrounds. In the back seat of her parents’ car, Ritman’s head would be spinning as the fancy, ornate mansions whizzed by.

“I thought they were castles, and that fairy-tale people lived in them,” she said.

Ritman, who is 59, by now knows that Meridian’s houses weren’t castles and the fairy-tale people were sometimes just really unusual: A dissolute-sinner-turned-fiery-evangelist whose radio sermons reached millions (Howard Cadle, 4411 N. Meridian); not one but two Pulitzer Prize–winning novelists (Booth Tarkington, 4270, and Meredith Nicholson, 5417); a Republican hero from Watergate (William Ruckelshaus, 4320); a one-legged car dealer who drove his own vehicle in the inaugural Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (Frank P. Fox, 4311); and professional wrestling legend Dick the Bruiser’s mom (Margaret Johnston, 5354).

This and more Ritman learned while spending five years researching each of the 175 houses on Meridian between 40th Street and Westfield Boulevard, the stretch that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

She got two books out of it: Meridian Street, part of Arcadia Publishing’s nationwide series of local histories, and the self-published Meridian Whispers. Both came out in 2019.

Meridian Street is a cataloging of the houses, with photographs and captions that identify the builder, the year of construction, the name and occupation of the owner, and in some instances an interesting factoid about the owner. It’s arranged by address for easy access. It would be a handy thing to have on a self-guided walking tour.

Meridian Whispers, however, is a straight-up good read. There is weird and interesting micro-history here. Ritman tracked down and interviewed dozens of Meridian Street residents, past residents, and people whose forebears were early residents. She tracked people across the country, she said—“One person I talked to was in Romania. They were all happy to talk to me.” The family lore, which in many cases Ritman confirmed or enhanced through old newspaper reports, is the good stuff.

Consider the second wife of “straight-laced, staunchly Episcopalian” businessman William Pond Chapin, of 4011. He and his wife and their three young children moved into their Meridian Street home in 1922, but within a year his wife died of appendicitis. Months later Chapin did an impulsive thing: He married Elfrieda Mais. She’d worked in the steno pool at Chapin’s office. She was available, having recently divorced the race driver Johnny Mais. Elfrieda sometimes moonlighted as a wing walker at air shows and also did quite a bit of daredevil work at carnivals. At a time when few women even drove cars, Elfrieda’s act was to hurtle hers toward a flaming wall made of wood and smash through unscathed. Sometimes dynamite was involved. Her marriage to staid Chapin did not last—nor did Elfrieda, who, after divorcing him and marrying twice more, died doing one of her stunts.

People like these were extraordinary even by Meridian Street standards, not the norm. Most residents even in that more colorful time were comparatively humdrum. They were doctors, lawyers, bankers, business owners, and insurance executives, as they are today.

The houses, solidly built and since the 1980s under the jurisdiction of a preservation commission with teeth, look today much as they did when they were built. Most date to the prosperous 1920s, when cars were new and people were getting rich off them like they are today off tech. Several top manufacturers were headquartered in Indianapolis, including the Stutz Motor Car Co., whose president built 4343, one of Meridian’s standouts. It later served as the governor’s residence, and Ritman has listed the celebrities who were guests there, among them Roy Rogers, Richard Nixon, Jack Webb, Jayne Mansfield, John F. Kennedy, and O. J. Simpson.

Today in fancy subdivisions the rules sometimes say the houses have to look alike. But on Meridian Street it was the opposite. “Under the covenants,” said Ritman, “no two of the same style could be side by side next door to one another.”

The result is broad architectural diversity. The styles represented include French Eclectic, French Renaissance, Italian Renaissance, Renaissance Revival, Southern Colonial, Colonial Revival, Georgian Revival, Neoclassical, Craftsman, and Tudor.

How did the original builders decide between, say, Tudor and Italian Renaissance? In the 1920s international travel was new to all but the richest Americans, and many Hoosiers, even the high-end folks who’d wind up on Meridian, were going abroad for the first time. They were getting their first glimpses of serious, old-time, high style. “Many of these people were self-made,” said Ritman, “and they were over there seeing things they hadn’t seen before, these grand old manor houses.” That’s the life for me! they said, and came home and built grand old manor houses of their own.

“Then, James and Hazel went abroad and were dazzled by the sights of Turkey,” Ritman writes in Whispers, explaining certain design decisions, since reversed, that were made concerning 5323.

The houses are, technically, fakes, or at least derivative of days gone (way, way) by—England’s Tudor era, after all, ended in 1603. But so what? Like most people who drive past, Ritman is a big fan of Meridian Street. Her favorite house is 4906. “It’s kind of French, kind of Tudor, there’s a lot going on,” Ritman said. “That one just kills me.”

Will Higgins is a former writer for Indianapolis Star/Gannett/USA Today. He and his wife, the artist Dorothy Stites Alig, live in Indianapolis at 4305 N. Meridian in a house Kassie Ritman describes in her book Meridian Street as “quite controversial” and “sharply opposed by many” when it was built in 1953. Ritman’s books are available at her website.