Dec 27, 2019
(December 14, 2019) As showplace mansions built primarily during the 1920s with a mix of architectural styles, the stately homes along North Meridian Street in Indianapolis captivate motorists on one of the Hoosier capital's busiest streets. Not only is Meridian the city's east-west divider, the street is the route for U.S. 31 on the Northside.
The mansions in the North Meridian Historic District - 177 structures on both sides of the thoroughfare between 40th Street and Westfield Boulevard - are troves of city and social history, their stories intertwined with visits by famous Americans ranging from notable politicians like John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush to movie stars and business tycoons.
With, in many cases, marble entryways, third-floor ballrooms, leaded glass windows, French doors, terraces, turrets, crystal chandeliers and carriage houses, the mansions are the focus of our show as we explore more than 100 years of their history, including the 1960s and '70s, when the homes fell out of favor and often could be purchased for a pittance. The Meridian Street Foundation was formed in 1960 to protect the heritage of the homes; during the 1980s, the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Nelson's studio guests include Kassie Ritman, the author of two new, deeply researched books about the history of the mansions: Meridian Street, part of Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, and Meridian Whispers (Knocking River Press).
Other guests include civic leader Peggy Sabens, who lives in a Meridian Street mansion built between 1926 and 1929 that's considered to be among the district's best-preserved historic homes. Peggy, a former president of the Meridian Street Foundation, and her late husband, a physician, bought the mansion from an owner who had a direct connection to a celebrity unlikely to be associated with the elegant mansions: the pro wrestler known as Dick the Bruiser.
Her home was built in the Tudor style, as was the Meridian mansion that became the residence of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Booth Tarkington (1869-1946). Other mansions - which typically have landscaped gardens - were built in architectural styles ranging from French Renaissance and Southern Colonial to Colonial Revival, Italian Renaissance and Renaissance Revival.
Much as there is to explore about the mansions and their previous, illustrious owners - who included early auto-making families such as the owners of the Cole Motor Car Company and nationally known political figures like Bill Ruckleshaus, who died last month - we broaden our scope to examine changing demographics over the years. Current owners of the historic houses include many families with young children.
We also explore buildings in the North Meridian Historic District that are not single-family homes. They include Tarkington Towers, a high-rise that opened in 1966 as apartments and now is luxury condominiums, and a restaurant in the 5600 block of North Meridian that today is called The Meridian. Many listeners may remember the restaurant as Dodd's Townhouse, its long-time name under previous ownership. Part of the restaurant's structure was built as a log-walled farmhouse in 1900, according to Kassie's books.
The North Meridian Historic District includes both the current residence of Indiana's governor - a mansion at 4750 N. Meridian built in 1928 - and a former governor's mansion. The latter is a grand house in the 4300 block built in 1920 with buff-colored brick and a green-tiled roof that served as the governor's residence from 1945 through the early 1970s.
A few blocks north of that mansion is the historic home of our third guest, Sheila Little, a retired molecular biologist from Eli Lilly & Co. Since 1993, Sheila and her husband have lived in the Colonial-style mansion, which was built in the late 1920s. Sheila is the past president of the Meridian Street Foundation and a civic leader, currently serving as president of the Fortnightly Literary Club.
Our guests note that the district's extensive landscaping often is as much a source of pride as the mansions themselves. Many trees on the properties, including silver maples, are as old as the houses and, under guidelines for homeowners adopted by the Meridian Street Foundation, must be properly maintained.
Summing up the historic mansions in Meridian Whispers, our guest Kassie writes that the homes are "a treasure to Indianapolis, and each one has an amazing story, or two, or six, behind its lovely doors."