Historic Meridian Park: A Community of Porches

Washington Court in the 1930s. Photo from the David Bartley collection.

by Sheryl D. Vanderstel

A porch has always been a welcoming, outdoor living room and gathering place for any homeowner lucky enough to have one. Nestled in the middle of Mapleton-Fall Creek is an area that could easily be called the “Community of Porches.” Though this neighborhood takes that welcome to its most charming extreme, it is known by a more sophisticated moniker, Historic Meridian Park (HMP). The neighborhood is bounded by 34th and 30th streets to the north and south and Pennsylvania Street and Washington Boulevard to the west and east.

The north side of Indianapolis has always been home to the some of the city’s most affluent residents. Late-19th-century maps show the city center and south filled with commercial buildings, industrial complexes, railroads, and stockyards. Working-class homes were crowded around these areas. The larger homes and influential churches were all located to the north of downtown, away from the dirt and noise. But as the century closed, the hustle, smog, and dirt began moving north, too.

As Indianapolis annexed more land, the city installed utilities and extended transportation routes northward. Consequently, by 1900, middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods developed between College Avenue and Meridian Street and well north of Maple Road, now 38th Street. The area that became Meridian Park lay directly in the path, and presented the perfect opportunity for two enterprising landowners to develop farmland into a neighborhood.

Elias Atkins had donated a parcel of land to the Baptist Convention to construct a college. When this plan did not materialize, Atkins repurchased the property and in 1890 platted “University Place,” located between 32nd and 34th streets and east of Meridian Street to Washington Boulevard.

Mason Osgood also owned land in the area. His daughter, Ida, inherited property at his death in April 1901, and platted Osgood’s Meridian Park and Osgood’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Meridian Park additions. All of Osgood’s Meridian Park and parts of the additions, along with the earlier University Place, make up HMP today. The Baist real estate atlas shows homes on nearly every lot by 1916.

CRAFTSMAN STYLE

During the early years of the 20th century, all things “modern” were enthusiastically embraced. Architects were departing from traditional styles and embracing comfortable homes filled with conveniences for the occupants. Indianapolis architects especially responded to the Arts and Crafts style that predominates in HMP. True Arts and Crafts homes are constructed of natural materials and historically stained brown or green to blend with nature. American Foursquares (boxy two-and-a-half-story houses) and bungalows (one- or one-and-a-half-story cottages), found throughout the neighborhood, also lend themselves to Arts and Crafts features. These include deep, overhanging eaves, exposed rafters and corner eave braces, and large covered porches or porches with pergolas. Interior details include quarter-sawn oak woodwork, beamed ceilings, brick fireplaces with flanking inglenooks or glass-doored bookcases, and window seats and built-in cabinets, all in dark-stained wood. Residents of Meridian Park embraced the trend, making the neighborhood unique and cohesive. The following are a few examples that all have porches.

The home at 3064 N. Delaware was constructed in 1911 and has been thoughtfully restored to reflect its Arts and Crafts roots. The house has a steeply pitched gable roof covering a deep front porch. Triple casement windows flank the center front door and a stylized yin-yang motif is found on the roofline fascia board. The current owner is in the process of creating a landscape that reflects early-20th-century style using period perennials, shrubbery, and trees.

Originally constructed in 1912, the unique multilevel Arts and Crafts residential building the Esplanade contained 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom luxury units. Charles Hollinsworth and Charles E. Plummer developed the unique building to offer each unit a feeling of privacy from neighbors. The building had both flats and townhouses, each with an outside entrance and a sitting porch. The interiors were appointed with leaded glass doors and Craftsman woodwork and detailing.

Time was not kind to the Esplanade but a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 enabled the first attempt to restore the structure. After several efforts the Esplanade is complete, restored with details such as period lighting and woodwork. Each unit retains its historic feel. True to HMP, large and inviting porches graces the front of the building.

The Indianapolis firm of Rubush & Hunter (renowned for their work on the Circle Theater, the Columbia Club, and other architectural gems listed on the National Register of Historic Places) designed a unique Dutch Colonial Revival home at 3363 N. Washington Blvd. for William Walker in 1907. The home has a classic Dutch curved step gable end roofline and arched windows. A pergola over the side porch seems to be the architects’ nod to Arts and Crafts style. Through the years the home suffered and was divided into a two-family dwelling. The exterior has undergone extensive renovation for more than a decade. The owner is dedicated to restoring original details such as the pergola-covered porch and the metal arches that supported the roof overhang.

Washington Court. Historic Landmarks photo.

WASHINGTON COURT

The Arts and Crafts jewel of Historic Meridian Park is Washington Court. This quaint lane of houses reflects the true goal of Craftsman styling: natural materials reflecting simplicity and function, with interiors reflecting the same high-quality design and craftsmanship. The lane originally contained 11 residences, with homes at 3240 and 3242 Washington Blvd. flanking the walk leading to the Court. Sadly, one of the two homes was lost to the ravages of time in the 1970s.

In 1911, the Jose-Balz Building Company purchased two large, deep lots on Washington Boulevard with the intention of creating a courtyard of homes. This concept was then extremely popular nationally, following the Craftsman philosophy of a retreat from the hustle of daily life. Adhering to the principles of craftsmanship and simplicity, Oscar Jose designed nine of the 11 similar but not identical American Foursquare homes with Craftsman details. A 1912 Indianapolis Star advertisement describes the homes as having “every convenience and luxury to be put in a house” and lists beamed ceilings, window seats, sleeping porches, and hardwood floors in each seven-room house. For the homeowner’s comfort and convenience each home has “American radiators, the best heating system known,” all for $1,000 down and monthly payments of $45.

Differing interior and exterior design elements provide individuality to each house. Exterior massing, porch designs, and even differing window design lend distinctiveness to each of the residences. Interior differences can include mirror image floor plans, varying staircase configurations, or window seat placement.

The arrangement of the Washington Court homes fostered friendships among neighbors for decades. The same holds true today thanks to an organic neighborhood renewal that began in the 1990s. Over the years homeowners have breathed new life into these courtyard abodes. For example, the home at 201 underwent needed structural repair and reinstallation of second floor woodwork, all while staying true to the home’s original design. On the first floor, layers of paint covering the tiger oak woodwork were removed. Even the original radiators had to be sandblasted.

REVITALIZATION

By 1960, the neighborhood was feeling the pressure of continued residential expansion to the north and northeast. As large homes were sold they were reconfigured into multi-family homes. Homes that banks had “redlined” against mortgages to nonwhites were difficult to sell, so many were turned into rental properties.

Eventually, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, intrepid young families and singles looking for affordable housing and appreciating the design and grace of older homes began to look at Meridian Park as a sound investment. Some residents tell stories of living in one or two rooms as they slowly reclaimed their homes from the ravages of time and abuse. The breakthrough for the future of the area came in 1982 when a Crime Watch group decided to form a neighborhood association.

In 1988 interested neighbors began documenting the homes, architecture, and history of the area for a proposed National Register nomination, and in 1990 the neighborhood received official designation as a historic district. This helped HMP receive tax incentives and win grants to further the stabilization and restoration of the neighborhood.

The residents took advantage of the new designation almost immediately. According to current homeowner David Bartley, the Washington Court neighborhood petitioned the City for a much-needed fire hydrant after a fire inspector noted: “We could get a fire hose back here, but we’d have to run it through your neighbor’s living room!” Bartley also obtained a grant to purchase and install reproduction 1912 lampposts on the court. In 2006, Ball State School of Architecture students conducted a charette examining the ideas and goals for the future of the neighborhood.

Bartley discovered his home while on a bike ride in the area. “I loved the Arts and Crafts style,” he said, noting that more contemporary homes may have no porches or only decks in the back. “But the neighbors were what sold me on it. Even in 1994, it was a special community—and not just in Washington Court. The neighborhood had it all along. We’re all really good friends.”

The neighbors originally organized home tours to showcase the neighborhood and all the work being done to reclaim derelict homes and create an oasis in the city. Bartley has noticed that the annual cleanups no longer involve throwing discarded furniture into the trash. “Now, it’s cleaning storm drains and sweeping sidewalks to maintain infrastructure and curb appeal—and not just in front but also in the alley behind homes,” he said. Begun in 1993, the periodic home tours continue to give participants an opportunity to tour as many as a dozen homes of various styles and sizes. Home tour profits are spent to beautify the neighborhood and benefit all the residents.

The idea of a “pocket park” came from resident interviews conducted during a 2011 Mid-North Quality of Life Plan. With several busy north-south streets through the neighborhood, safe play areas for children were scarce. With no greenspaces, gathering and socializing spaces were a high priority for the neighborhood. Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and the HMP Neighborhood Association (HMPNA) partnered in designing an accessible and sustainable community gathering place that Bartley said “helps bring neighbors together and builds a sense of identity.” Using grant funds and Home Tour and other fundraising proceeds, HMPNA purchased a vacant lot on 33rd Street and work began on the park in 2013. Created and tended by the neighbors, the pocket park is now a haven within the hustle of urban life.

Midtown Oasis: Pocket Parks

But life in Meridian Park is not all quiet serenity. The neighborhood takes great pride in seven original social gatherings. In 2004 residents organized the Meridian Park Chili Cook-Off as the first all-neighborhood gathering, now part of the annual fall festival. According to longtime HMP resident and former neighborhood association president Lorraine Phillips Vavul, the winner received “a large and indescribably gaudy ladle” that is passed on from year to year. A cornbread competition soon followed. That lucky winner receives a fork of equal size and decoration. Both are coveted awards. Other events include a Cajun brunch, which serves as a new neighbors reception; a summer barbecue; a progressive dinner; and a winter holiday gathering.

The St. Patrick’s Day Porch Crawl occurs each March, and during the summer there are Neighbor Dinners, usually taking place on their porches. Even the 2010 Home Tour was called “Welcoming Porches,” and all home tour participants were invited to sit on a porch for a while and visit. “There is a graciousness in our community, and part of it is the composition of the neighborhood—we welcome all,” Vavul said. The neighborhood website announces upcoming activities both new and ongoing in this “Community of Porches.”

Sheryl D. Vanderstel is a historian specializing in local history, historic preservation, and historic foodways.

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