Historical Significance of the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood

38th Street The Butler-Tarkington area lies within the northwest quadrant of the old city limits of Indianapolis, bordered by 38th and Meridian Streets and the old Central Canal.  It draws its name from Butler University, which relocated to the district in 1928, and Booth Tarkington, a well known Hoosier author who – at one time – maintained his home in the area on Meridian Street.

The area developed as the direct result of the establishment of electric street railways (”trolleys”) in Indianapolis. Appearing on the scene in the late 1880’s, trolleys provided city residents with a fast efficient means of mass transit that made possible residential development in areas farther removed from the city’s core. By 1898, some 350 streetcars were in business, providing rapid access to all parts of the growing city.

The city’s transit utility, the Indianapolis Street Railway Company, sought to boost its ridership through a series of promotional schemes.  One such scheme was the development of a recreational park at the suburban terminus of one of the company’s routes.  To this end the company purchased 200 acres of wooded hills and ravines along the Central Canal north of Crown Hill Cemetery and developed the area into a park.  Fairview Park (as it was called) featured a restaurant, bowling alley, refreshment stand, merry-go-round and picnic areas.  Outdoor plays were staged on the banks of the canal, and band concerts became something of a Sunday tradition.

The park, and before that Crown Hill, helped redeem the image of the canal which until then had been considered something of a nuisance and an eyesore.  Crown Hill Cemetery, founded in 1863 on the site of Strawberry Hill (a nursery farm), was a popular destination for picnickers from the city before the establishment of Fairview Park.  In 1885 the Indianapolis Water Company (who owned the canal) offered canal boat rides to the cemetery from the canal bridge at Indiana Avenue. Relatives and friends of the deceased, picnickers, and courting couples all took advantage of the service.  With the construction of the park, canoeing on the canal became a popular pastime for young courting couples.

The change in public attitudes toward the canal, combined with the attractions of Fairview Park, and the new freedom afforded by the trolley all combined to stimulate the residential development of what later became known as Butler-Tarkington.  As the wealthy moved north away from the expanding central business district and started their love affair with the automobile, Meridian Street became an avenue lined with gracious and imposing mansions extending north from 38th Street.  Each building was designed to stand as a separate work of architecture independent of the street or its neighbors.

Homes on Meridian Street represented the tangible symbol of having “arrived” in the community.  As the city grew along its trolley lines, the areas both west and east of Meridian Street filled in with homes.  Two important aspects of homes in Butler-Tarkington were their quality and size.  As development moved west from Meridian the size of the homes became less grand.  The homes were well constructed, with an abundance of amenities, more than are found in today’s homes.  The homes built in Butler-Tarkington in the teens and 1920’s followed European architectural styles as opposed to the “Chicago School” of architecture.  The homes’ construction was largely a barometer of affluence.  Wood and masonry construction typified the area.  The more affluent the owner, the more brick and stone used on the homes.  The freedom of movement allowed by the trolley lines and automobiles also gave the working class population a chance to build homes out of the central city, locating farther away from their place of employment.  Homes of this type were usually small, frame construction, but very well built and maintained.  An area known as Columbia Park is a good example of this type of development.

38th Street In 1928 Fairview Park was replaced by Butler University.  The University, until that time located in the eastside suburb of Irvington, had outgrown its physical plant by the 1920’s and was actively searching for a new site.  The Fairview Park property fit the bill and also offered the scenic attraction of a riverside location.  With the relocation of the school, Butler-Tarkington gained a new landmark and a further stimulus for residential development.  The most important early landmark was Hinkle (formerly Butler) Fieldhouse.  From its construction in 1928, the structure has served as a “mecca” for basketball tournaments. The fieldhouse, seating 15,000 people, also served as an unofficial convention center.  Such famous personalities as Sonja Heine and Hoagy Carmichael performed there, while political rallies brought the likes of Thomas Dewey, Herbert Hoover, Wendel Wilkie and Dwight D. Eisenhower to town.  The University and its events brought with it a sense of permanence and added stability to the area.

The Butler-Tarkington area developed from the “outside in”.  New construction pushed west from Meridian Street, north from 38th Street, and east from Fairview Park to Butler University.  The area was for the most part fully developed by World War II.  The neighborhood remained very stable from the 1920’s to the early 1950’s.  The quality of homes, access to services and transportation, and a sense of community caused the area to be a highly desirable place to live.  The area had, and continues to have, a feeling of stability; a solid foundation founded in continuity and long-term value.

This stability was disrupted in the 1950’s, the result of a rapid turnover of population.  Court decisions arising out of the Civil Right Movement of the 1950’s opened previously closed all-white neighborhoods to black settlement.  Population pressures existing south of 38th Street, which had previously been held in check by exclusionary housing practices, stimulated the northward migration of the resident black population.  Black encroachment, hastened by “block busting” realtors, resulted in a corresponding movement of the white population north and west out of Butler-Tarkington.

The rapid turnover in population alarmed area residents who in response organized the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association (BTNA) in an effort to stabilize, integrate and adapt the area to change.  The neighborhood association with its membership cut across racial, social and economic boundaries. The success of the association has fostered a sense of stability in the area.  Newsletters, community workshops, land-use planning and code enforcement have all become tools utilized by BTNA in their efforts at furthering these ends.  In many ways, despite changing social/racial and economic climates, the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood remains “a tangible symbol of having arrived” at a place in the community.

For more information on Butler-Tarkington’s history and a timeline of events visit The Polis Center.