The following post is composed of excerpts from a draft narrative section that supports the nomination of the Riverside Drive Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places under the National Park Service’s Criteria A of historic significance. It argues and supports the fact that the Riverside Drive H.D. is historically significant as a superb example of a “streetcar suburb” – a specific form of early American community development and city planning. It serves as an example of supporting the historical significance of a property as discussed previously here.
By the late 1800s, streetcar lines were spreading out, like spokes on a wheel, from the hearts of major American cities, and Indianapolis was no exception. With their cheap fares, numerous stops and quick service, streetcars allowed citizens, especially those in the middle to upper classes, easy access to the suburban periphery where the cost of land and a new home were cheaper.[i]
By the early 1900s, Indianapolis had established regular streetcar service between the city center out to the suburban areas. In 1902, the same year that the first section of the historical district was being platted, the city granted the Indianapolis Traction and Terminal Company a contract to provide streetcar service to several areas, including Riverside Park. As part of that plan, the company was to lay street car lines along 27th Street to Riverside Park in addition to the existing 18th Street line to the park, often referred to as the “dinky” line.[ii] By 1904, the traction company had established the Blake Street/Riverside Park Line (identified with the letter “W” in the Indianapolis City Directory) which travelled from downtown Indianapolis to Riverside Park and back…
In order to capitalize on these new streetcar routes and the popular desire for a modern suburban home, real estate developers would buy up land within a five to ten minute walk from a streetcar stop and divide it up into several compact lots designed for single-family homes. They would then plat the area as a new addition to the city.[iii] Often, in the hope of improving their land values, landowners would add additional amenities that emphasized the joys of living in a modern, relaxing suburb, such as paved streets, public utilities, sidewalks, and parks and boulevard style features.[iv] Typically, as is the case in the Riverside Drive Historic District, these new streets and neighborhoods were rectilinear, acting as new extensions of the city’s original gridiron plan.[v]
As these streetcar suburbs became more established, commercial businesses, like bakeries, groceries, or drug stores, would spring up at intersections of major thoroughfares and streetcar lines. Similarly, multiple tenant and apartment houses would be built to provide lodging for local workers or those seeking rooms with easy access to the streetcar lines.[vi]
When you examine the district’s physical characteristics, its history, and its pattern of growth and development, it is clear that the Riverside Drive Historic District is an excellent example of an Indianapolis streetcar suburb.
First, as previously noted, the district began development immediately following the award of a contract to install streetcar rail service to the area. That streetcar service cleared the way for middle and upper class buyers to purchase lots and build homes in the district. The two streetcar tracks that regularly traversed the district assured no home would have been more than a 5 to 10 minute walk from a stop.
Second, the district is mostly composed of smaller, single home lots that were laid out in a rectilinear plat serving as a continuation of the city’s own grid. This was certainly the most efficient and profitable use of the space and it easily integrated the development into the surrounding city. However, the lots were still large enough to provide each home with enough setback to create a street side park-like aesthetic that suits its “parks and boulevard” theme.
Third, as the district grew and prospered, it attracted businesses and commercial enterprises. By 1920, Harding Street (formerly Schurmann Avenue), which operated as both a primary thoroughfare for the area and the return line for the Riverside streetcar route, had attracted significant commercial development. These businesses included a drug store (Dickson’s, 2628), a grocery store (Crouch Grocery, 2634), a barber shop (Ralph King, 2632), a butcher (Noll Meats, 2656), a dry goods store (Cooke’s, 2654), a bakery (Henry Sehi, 2528), and a tailor shop (Adolph Sanderson, 2658)…[vii]
Additionally, Harding Street’s development was aided by its close proximity to numerous factories and manufacturing plants, all within easy walking distance. Some examples of these include the Udell Furniture Factory (located on the east side of the canal between 27th Street and Udell St.), the American Hominy Co. Plant (formerly Cerealine)(located near 19th and Gent Street), and a Standard Oil plant located just west of the canal between S. 29th Street and Udell Street.[viii]
Lastly, at the height of the area’s growth in the 1920’s, apartments and other multifamily rental properties began to take root in the area. The Swartz Apartment building, located just to the east of the district along Harding Street near its 27th Street intersection, is an excellent example of a multifamily dwelling that grew up near the streetcar lines in these suburbs.[ix] Similarly, many of the homes built along Harding Street in the 1920s are actually doubles, intended to be rented to two separate families. Examples of these include the three structures on Harding Street just south of 28th Street (2718-20, 2722-24, 2726-28), which are nearly identical in design and all built c. 1927.
Therefore, the Riverside Drive Historic District owes its early growth and its unique character to a unique combination of elements – suburban land in close proximity to a wonderful park, cheap and easy access to the city via streetcar lines, the cheaper cost for suburban land and homes, and the presence of local businesses and factories. This combination made the area a popular destination for home buyers who felt that by moving there they could escape the overcrowding, noise, and pollution of the inner city and live a more healthful life. Further, it clearly shows that the Riverside Drive Historical District has historical significance as a superb example of an early streetcar suburb – a specific and important early pattern of American community development and city planning.
[i] National Park Service, National Register Bulletin, “Historic Residential Suburbs,” Sept. 2002; Pg. 18.
[ii] TWO BOARDS DISAGREE: Service for Riverside; The Indianapolis Morning Star (1903-1907); Oct 29, 1905; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Indianapolis Star, pg. 20.
[iii] “Historic Residential Suburbs,” Pg. 20.
[iv] “Historic Residential Suburbs,” Pg. 56.
[v] “Historic Residential Suburbs,” Pg. 20.
[vii] “Street Guide” – Indianapolis City Directory 1920; R.L. Polk and Co.: Indianapolis; Pg. 1829.
[ix] Swartz Apartments at 2653 – 2655 Schurmann Avenue; Indianapolis City Directory 1920; R.L. Polk and Co.: Indianapolis. Pg. 1829.