Urban churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries had few rivals in design, materials, and decoration. Carved wood and stone, stained glass, gilding, and stenciling testified to the importance society placed on houses of worship. In the current century, many of these wonderful landmarks sit neglected or vacant, sad artifacts of social, religious, and demographic change.
In Indianapolis, Central Avenue Methodist Church stood out as a poster child for this distressing trend. Many called it an eyesore, with a rust-covered metal roof at eye level for thousands of motorists daily on the elevated I-65/70 inner loop.
Beyond the deterioration, Indiana Landmarks saw the inspiring architecture, the irreplaceable heritage, and the adaptability. The nonprofit preservation organization restored and converted the three-building complex into the Indiana Landmarks Center.
For many decades following its construction in 1891, the church’s ministers and lay leaders helped shape the business, civic, educational, and social life of the city and state. As the church grew, it added a Sunday school wing in 1900 and a classroom building in 1922.
In a widely shared pattern, the Central Avenue church experienced a long, slow decline following World War II. From its position as the largest Methodist congregation in the state, it shrank to less than 30 members before it closed in 1999. In April 2008, a 30-foot section of the domed ceiling collapsed, splintering the pews beneath.
Indiana Landmarks envisioned a reuse that converted the sanctuary and Sunday school to cultural and performing arts venues and its state headquarters, and appealed to the Cook family of Bloomington, Ind., to help convert dream to reality. (Bill Cook, founder of a medical equipment company, was long ranked as Indiana’s richest person, and among the richest in America.)
The organization had partnered once before with the Cooks, in the rescue and restoration of the West Baden Springs Hotel in French Lick, Ind., and the team followed the same approach adapting the church. The Cooks contributed more than $16 million of the $20 million cost.
The result bears resemblances to West Baden Springs in the stellar quality of the restoration and the clever adaptation, from the gilded and stenciled organ pipes to the dramatic colored lighting options inside under the dome and outside in the cupola and the gilded caps on its nine towers and domes.
The Grand Hall — formerly the sanctuary — seats 400. Cook Theater, with walls and ceilings of intricately laid wood, is used for performances, receptions, and meetings.
When asked why he tackled the project, Bill Cook said his family believed in the community impact of restoration and Indiana Landmarks’ pivotal role: “It’s not just about old buildings. It’s about building for the future and benefiting entire communities,” he said. The Indiana Landmarks Center opened in April 2011, one day after Bill Cook passed away at age 80.
In the 1960s, the organization’s first restoration was the Morris-Butler House, a Second Empire-style Victorian house next door to Indiana Landmarks Center. It’s a campus that’s worth a visit next time you’re in Indianapolis. You can take a free tour of the Indiana Landmarks Center at noon on Fridays and Saturdays through October, and you can bookend your visit with the organization’s free tours of Monument Circle at 10 a.m. and Morris-Butler House at 1 and 2 p.m.
When You Go:
July 14 Treasure Hunt
Explore the area around the Indiana Landmarks Center, known as the Old Northside, during the first annual Treasure Hunt, a free event from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. You’ll find all sorts of deals, starting with booths of vendors selling antiques and architectural salvage. Pick up a Treasure Hunt map at Indiana Landmarks listing the locations of neighborhood sales, with historical information about the area.
Monument Circle Walking Tour,
10 a.m. (every Friday and Saturday through October): Departs from South Bend Chocolate Company on Monument Circle.
Indiana Landmarks Center Tour,
noon (every Friday and Saturday through October): See a 19th-century church restored and adapted as a theater and reception hall.
Morris-Butler House Tour,
1 and 2 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays through October): From the dramatic formal parlor to the private living quarters, this Victorian home reveals how an upper-middle class family and their servants lived.
City Market Catacombs Tour,
11:30 a.m.; noon; and 12:30 p.m. (every Wednesday and fourth Saturday of each month through October): Indiana Landmarks leads tours of the Romanesque underground remains of Tomlinson Hall, an imposing 1886 building destroyed by fire in 1958, now covered by the City Market’s Whistler Plaza. $10 per person at the door (call in advance for groups of 10 or more).
Check www.indianalandmarks.org for more information.