MERIDIAN STREET: A Past Worth Preserving

by Thomas P. Healy

Lifelong Indianapolis resident Jodi McClain has lived in her Meridian Street home for 55 years. Her neighbor across the street lives in the former Indiana Governor’s Residence—a place McClain remembers fondly from childhood.

“I grew up around the corner on Hampton,” she said recently. “I remember roller skating around the former governor’s mansion. There were sidewalks everywhere. We all learned to skate and ride bikes on the sidewalk,” she said. “It’s marvelous. It’s a real family on Meridian Street.”

Dubbed “One of America’s Great Streets” on the National Register of Historic Places, the North Meridian Street Historic District is a showcase of architectural styles set off with mature trees and large landscaped lots. There is cultural history embedded as well—novelist Booth Tarkington’s former home is on Meridian Street; Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s childhood home is just around the corner on Illinois Street; and journalist Janet Flanner grew up just across 40th Street from where Tarkington Park was eventually built.

McClain said that when she and her husband bought their house in 1960, friends questioned their decision. “It’s a perfect house—built like the Rock of Gibraltar—we didn’t want to move.” But not all of her neighbors shared that sentiment. Between expensive upkeep and perceived safety concerns, homeowners began to leave the area, which led to an era of decay. In response, the Meridian Street Foundation (MSF) was formed in 1960 to support preservation of the historic, scenic, and aesthetic character of the district. Residents were concerned about commercial creep and distressed by a proposal in the mid-1960s to erect a 16-story upscale apartment complex on the site of the former Flanner home.

When Tarkington Tower was completed in 1966, MSF members were moved to further action. The result was the establishment of the Meridian Street Preservation Commission, in 1971. “We’re the only street in the state that has its own law,” McClain said proudly.

The nine Commission members are appointed by the Mayor of Indianapolis and the Governor of Indiana to review petitions for variance of development standards or changes in land use. The Commission meets on a monthly basis, chaired by a Department of Metropolitan Development employee.

Another wave of disinvestment and decline threatened the district in 2004, which disturbed two former MSF presidents, Kathy Shorter and Cindy Zweber-Free. “There were 8 or 10 vacant homes and a lot of others in bad shape,” Shorter said recently. “Nobody was feeling like it was a good place to invest.” While acknowledging that the situation wasn’t as dire as in previous decades, Shorter said it wasn’t headed in the right direction. “Drivers seemed to increase speed as they came into the historic district,” she recalled. “We were clocking speeds of 55 miles per hour coming into areas where we wanted people to be comfortable walking and crossing the street. It was starting to be a really negative influence on the neighborhood.”

Shorter and Zweber-Free felt something was needed to pull the neighborhoods together to solicit support from the City. “No one neighborhood organization was going to be able to get the kind of positive attention from the City we needed. We needed to be unified.” The result was the creation of HARMONI, a loose acronym for Historic Midtown Neighborhoods Initiative.

Operating under the MSF’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, HARMONI began reaching out to adjoining neighborhoods and pitching the notion of a district—dubbed Midtown—that could work with the City and advocate for private investment as well. With funding from the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Maple Road Development Association, and several MSF members, in 2010 HARMONI hired professional planners to find a path forward: the Midtown Future Plan. Besides articulating aspirations for connectivity, greenspace, and other quality-of-life elements, a market analysis identified areas ripe for strategic public/private investment.

A $10,000 bequest to MSF was applied toward Alice Carter Place, a nondescript park at the southwest corner of Meridian Street and Westfield Boulevard. It became a focal point for initial traffic-calming and place-making projects. Planted medians and striped crosswalks were installed at the intersection. Landscaping, a plaza, and sidewalks helped turn the park into a connected destination—a proof-of-concept for principles that could be applied throughout the district.

HARMONI received its own 501(c)(3) status and changed its name to Midtown Indianapolis, Inc. Shorter served two terms as president and Zweber-Free is the current president. But the Meridian Street Foundation sowed the seeds for success.

Current MSF president John Peoni said that after years of ups and downs, the neighborhood sees the benefits of projects like Alice Carter Place Park. “By extending sidewalks and adding sidewalks where there weren’t any before, you create a sense of community. Now you see young families and people walking, jogging, and bike riding—that’s what’s going to keep the neighborhood vital.” Engaging this next generation of families to be members and serve on the board is important, he said. “We want to keep MSF active and don’t want to take anything for granted.”

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of the magazine.