Victorian Houses of Indianapolis

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The richly ornamented 1873 Kemper House displays a notable High Victorian front porch with paired columns and fancy gingerbread.

The richly ornamented 1873 Kemper House displays a notable High Victorian front porch with paired columns and fancy gingerbread.

In the post-Civil War era, Indianapolis’ north side, located just beyond the city’s business district, was home to Hoosier movers and shakers of all kinds—presidents, poets, business leaders, and socialites. The large, fashionable buildings along its tree-lined streets celebrated its residents’ wealth and importance.

Today, despite the effects of time, growth, and modern intrusions—highways, big apartment buildings, and commercial construction—in this once-exclusive residential enclave, the opulent High Victorian mansions and more modest late 19th-century cottages of the Reconstruction period continue to steal the spotlight in the Old Northside and Lockerbie Square Historic Districts. As luck and a hard-working preservation community would have it, several of the best High Victorian examples are now museums of history and period decorative arts, and many others have been carefully rehabilitated by private owners.

Museum-Worthy

A prominent arcaded, two-story porch distinguishes the 1865 Morris-Butler House.

A prominent arcaded, two-story porch distinguishes the 1865 Morris-Butler House.

The Morris-Butler House Museum at 1204 N. Park Avenue is a great place to begin looking at the Victorian legacy of the Hoosier capital. Constructed between 1864-1865, this 21-room, mansard-roofed beauty is an exuberant example of French-inspired Second Empire elegance. Upwardly curving, double-sloped mansard roofs on the main block and central tower are the hallmark of the Second Empire style. An Italianate flair is also evident in the huge central tower (or campanile), round-arched windows, and especially the elaborately decorated arched entrance. The tower’s brick walls are punctuated with lighter-colored stone belt courses at each story; a highly decorative porch with arched openings, crowned by a balustraded deck, is tucked into a front corner.

The Morris-Butler House was built by architect Dietrich A. Bohlen, a German immigrant who practiced widely in Indiana, for Indianapolis businessman and politician John D. Morris and his family. The family of the second owner, prominent attorney Noble Chase Butler, lived there until 1958. Since being restored and furnished by Indiana Landmarks in 1964, it’s been a decorative-arts museum illustrating the unabashedly opulent lifestyle of wealthy Indianans of the Victorian age.

What American city wouldn’t be proud of its own presidential home site? Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd Chief Executive, built this Italianate mansion in 1875 and added the neoclassical wraparound porch in 1896 after he left the White House.

What American city wouldn’t be proud of its own presidential home site? Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd Chief Executive, built this Italianate mansion in 1875 and added the neoclassical wraparound porch in 1896 after he left the White House.

In Indianapolis, High Victorian doesn’t have to mean huge. Locals sometimes refer to the 1873 Kemper House at 1028 N. Delaware Street as the “Wedding Cake House”—an apt nickname, as it was a bridegroom’s gift to his wife. (The National Register of Historic Places lists it as the Pierson-Griffiths House, for the first two owners.) The architect of this fanciful mélange of frothy Classicism with hints of everything from Gothic Revival to Italianate is unknown, but his work has enchanted generations of Northside visitors and residents. Eli Lilly, founding force of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (now Indiana Landmarks), led the battle to preserve it. The one-story house has a glorious abundance of ornamental paired columns and decorative brackets on its long front porch; a big, forward-thrusting dormer boasting a broken pediment and arched double windows; towering brick chimneys; and a dauntingly decorative (and unusual) acroterion, the topmost element at the roof’s edge.

A late Queen Anne with some early 20th-century details.

A late Queen Anne with some early 20th-century details.

The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site at 1230 N. Delaware Street is a National Historic Landmark. Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States—grandson of our ninth president, William Henry Harrison—was a prominent Indiana attorney and politician in 1874-75 when he built this impressive 16-room Italianate-style brick house designed by H. Brandt. Harrison added a classical-columned wraparound front porch in 1896, after returning to Indianapolis following his single term in the White House. The large and elaborate stone-trimmed, lozenge-shaped attic windows in the front wall frieze are repeated on side bays and simulated elsewhere. The house is open to the public and is furnished with many objects that belonged to the Harrison family.

International Influence

South of Old Northside and east of downtown, the area known since the 1850s as Lockerbie Square included an earlier neighborhood called Germantown. Immigrants from Germany and German-speaking areas of France settled here in the first half of the 19th century, building their homes, shops, and churches. Many of these still stand, and a walking tour of the area reveals a charming picture of a middle- and working-class neighborhood during the years before and after the Civil War.

Lockerbie Square’s finest mansion, the Italianate James Whitcomb Riley House.

Lockerbie Square’s finest mansion, the Italianate James Whitcomb Riley House.

Several houses around Lockerbie Square today were rescued from other endangered locations in the 1970s, and moved there as part of a major preservation effort by Indiana Landmarks, but many reflect the original working-class origins of the square. Small, two-story, gable-front houses with minimal front porches shaded by simple shed roofs are typical. Later owners have sometimes built substantial additions and repainted, refurbished, and rehabilitated the houses to modern standards—while carefully hewing to Indiana Landmarks’ guidelines. But prosperity was by no means foreign to 19th-century Lockerbie Square.

A picturesque Arts & Crafts home with Old English details.

A picturesque Arts & Crafts home with Old English details.

The most celebrated of the square’s Victorian homes is the James Whitcomb Riley House at 528 Lockerbie Street. The Hoosier Poet, as he is most often designated in literary circles, didn’t own this house—or any other, for that matter. His dear friends, Major and Mrs. Charles Holstein, were the owners, but Riley lived and worked there as a paying guest for more than two decades at the end of his life. Built in 1872 by Mrs. Holstein’s father, a prosperous bakery owner, the substantial brick residence was designed by Robert Platt Daggett in the Italianate style, with a truncated hip roof, many-bracketed wide cornice, round-arched window and door openings, and scrollwork corner porch. Right across the street is the cottage home of the Holsteins’ longtime housekeeper, Katie Kindall, who was also the first hostess of the museum house established by Riley’s friends after his death.

Like many close-in urban neighborhoods, Old Northside has had its share of downturns and setbacks, losing some of its grandest mansions, watching others decay, and suffering the addition of modern architectural anomalies. For decades, however, residents and other enthusiasts have been bringing back once-neglected houses. Led by local activists such as the Lockerbie Square Peoples Club and encouraged by the powerful Indiana Landmarks, preservationists have rallied to reclaim significant remnants of the city’s Victorian elegance and charm.