Road Trips

The Michigan Road and the National Road in Downtown Indianapolis

In 2008, I surveyed the Michigan Road from end to end, documenting the road and its built environment. Here is an installment of that trip report.

The Downtown Indianapolis portion of the Michigan Road follows Washington St., which is the old National Road and former US 40, west. Originally, it turned north on Meridian Street, went around the Circle, and proceeded to Ohio Street. It turned west onto Ohio and then northwest on Indiana Avenue. Unfortunately, that portion of Indiana Avenue no longer exists. But when it did, the Michigan Road followed Indiana Avenue to what is now West Street. To stay on the Michigan Road, you veer slightly left onto Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Street, which used to be known as Northwestern Avenue.

Let’s start at the eastern end of this route. A couple blocks before entering the Mile Square, which is the heart of Indianapolis’s Downtown, the road passes under this hulking railroad overpass.

Railroad overpass at College Ave.

I’ve been fascinated by this structure as long as I’ve lived in Indianapolis because it is so imposing. Travel lanes are narrow, as this shot of College Ave. shows.

Railroad overpass at College Ave.

From about East St., Downtown looms. Since 2008, has been reconfigured to add a bicycle trail and Bus Rapid Transit lanes.

Downtown Indianapolis

The City-County Building went up in 1962 and is now the seat of the merged city-county government. Since 2008, the courtyard in front of the City-County Building has been converted into a park.

City-County Building

Indiana’s tallest building, the Chase Tower, is visible behind the City-County Building.

Indiana's tallest building

The Broadbent Building may look brand new, but its skeleton dates back to 1960. Once known as “the zipper building” because of its trapezoidal windows, the facade was removed in 2007 and this facade was put in its place. But what was here before that was a grand and imposing structure made of cut stone called the Vance Block, which was built in 1875 and razed in 1959. This page has photos of the Vance Block, photos of Washington St. in the late 1800s, and even one photo of the zipper building.

The Broadbent Building

Dunkin’ Donuts was preparing to open in this building on the day I took this photograph. The building once housed a Roselyn Bakery, a popular local chain that went out of business some years ago. The V-shaped sign is adapted from the original Roselyn sign. If you drive around Indianapolis, you’ll see plenty of these veed signs next to buildings that house any number of businesses today. Here’s a 1998 photo of this corner from when this building was still Roselyn Bakery. Since 2008, Dunkin’ Donuts closed. This space is now a Five Guys burger joint. Five Guys adapted and kept the big V sign.

Dunkin' Donuts

All is not bright and shiny in Downtown Indianapolis, unfortunately. Like most cities, Indianapolis lived through years of malaise, and much evidence of it remains. Since 2008, much restoration has happened and this block looks a lot better.

Facades

Indianapolis did not get modern skyscrapers until the City-County building was built in 1962, making this one of the city’s tallest buildings for many years.

Tall

This mural, “The Runners,” is by James McQuiston. It is on the south side of Washington St. just east of Meridian St. This mural was painted over in 2020, after deteriorating badly.

The Runners

The Victoria Centre building, which I understand is being converted into condos.

Victoria Centre

The decaying McOuat building on the left was supposed to become condos a few years ago, but those plans apparently never materialized. Since 2008, the McOuat building was restored; see it here.

Blighted, not blighted

I couldn’t fit the entire 17-story Merchants National Bank building, built in 1909 and now called the Barnes and Thornburg building, into a frame. This building’s first floor houses a Borders bookstore. Since 2008, Borders moved out and a bank moved in.

Borders in the Merchants Bank building

Until the City-County building was built, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, completed in 1901 at 284 feet, was the tallest structure in Indianapolis. The Statue of Liberty is only 15 feet taller! Imagine how, before Indianapolis’s skyscrapers began to be built in earnest in the 1980s, the Monument had to dominate the Indianapolis skyline. Today, the tall buildings block the view, unless you look down Market St. or Meridian St. at it. This photo looks north up Meridian St. to the monument.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument

This building was the flagship of H. P. Wasson and Co., an Indianapolis-based department store chain that closed in 1980. It stands on the northwest corner of Washington and Meridian.

Northwest corner, Washington and Meridian

On the southwest corner stands the shell of the L. S. Ayres and Co. building. L.S. Ayres was Indiana’s premier department store for many decades, but consolidation in that industry and decreasing Downtown shopping ended this store’s Downtown days in 1991. Its suburban and out-of-town locations continued for several more years, but today the Ayres name is gone. All the former locations are now Macy’s. Today, this building is part of Circle Centre Mall. Typical of the mall project, the facades of many buildings were kept and incorporated into the mall. Carson Pirie Scott now uses the first three stories of the building.

Circle Centre Mall

Because the original route of the Michigan Road can’t be fully followed from here, I decided to stay on Washington Street all the way to West Street, and then turn north onto West Street. This is ultimately how we routed the Michigan Road Historic Byway.

Looking west down Washington St., all of these facades front Circle Centre Mall. The Indianapolis Artsgarden spans the intersection of Washington and Illinois Streets.

W. Washington St.

Here’s a closer look at the Artsgarden. The new Conrad hotel is next to it. The Conrad was an empty lot most of the years I’ve lived in Indianapolis. In the background is the Capital Center.

Artsgarden

Continuing westbound on Washington St., the Indiana Repertory Theatre building was built in 1927 as the Indiana Theater, a movie house in the Paramount Publix chain. It was refitted for IRT’s use in 1980.

Indiana Repertory Theatre

The Indiana Statehouse was completed in 1888 and continues to house Indiana’s executive offices, the State Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court.

Statehouse

Standing quietly in front of the Statehouse is this monument to the National Road. It was placed here in 1916 as part of Indiana’s centennial celebration to commemorate the Road’s role in Indiana’s settlement. No doubt, many who came from points east followed the Michigan Road from here to settle in northern Indiana.

National Road monument

On the opposite corner stands the Old Trails Building, completed in 1928 to house the Old Trails Automobile Insurance Association. Washington St. was not only part of the National Road and the Michigan Road, but also the National Old Trails Road, which was established in 1912 and connected Baltimore to Los Angeles. Presumably, the insurance company was named for the road. Check out this photo taken just after the building was built.

Old Trails Building

Shortly I came upon West Street, where I turned north. This map shows how West becomes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Street at Indiana Avenue. The National Road continues west on Washington Street, so we leave it behind here.

Military Park stands on the southwest corner of West and New York Streets. It’s Indianapolis’s oldest park, originally used to train the militia and, later, as an encampment for Civil War soldiers. It also hosted the first Indiana State Fairs. This shelter house is the current centerpiece of the park.

Military Park

Next: The Michigan Road in northwest Indianapolis.

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

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4 thoughts on “The Michigan Road and the National Road in Downtown Indianapolis

  1. And now the City County Building is on the verge of losing much of government to a new “Justice Center” several miles to the southeast. I once worked with a lawyer who spent summers during his college years in a construction job as the City County Building was being built.

    • Strange to be sure. I hope they find a good use for the City County Building.

      For the record, I’ve always thought the interior was cold and confusing.

  2. Wild, the Soldiers and Sailors monument is the exact height of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison! Unlike the monument, the Capitol will continue to dominate the skyline, as city law forbids any buildings to be constructed higher than the pillars beneath the Capitol’s dome (187′).

    • I think Indianapolis had a similar law or at least rule for a long time. It went away so they could build the City-County Building, the city’s first true skyscraper.

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