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Lockerbie Square History


Lockerbie Square, a quiet residential area about half a mile from the very center of Indianapolis, is rich in history and charm, with tree-lined streets, small homes, a few mansions, and a population of just over 400. It owes its beginnings to the shrewd investments of two enterprising families in the 1860s. During the rest of the 19th century numerous skilled, thrifty, and immigrant artisans used their savings to build small homes on narrow lots close to the commercial center of Indianapolis. Several prosperous families built larger homes in the neighborhood, while three religious groups added substantial charitable institutions.

With the increase of commerce in the vicinity and economic changes following World War I, those who could afford to moved farther north, and, with one notable and lasting exception, the area fell into decline. Many of the homes were sold or abandoned, or became home to renters or boarders, few of whom had much interest in maintaining the neighborhood. In 1958 some residents and several city/county planning bodies and civic organizations began planning and work to restore or remodel many of the houses and streets, and to encourage the construction of new buildings that would both suit and enhance the neighborhood. As a result of their determined and persistent efforts, the present of this decidedly pleasant residential spot in the city is bright, while its future seems secure. An hour long presentation about the neighborhood is available by clicking here.

Early Development

The neighborhood takes its name from George Murray Lockerbie, a Glaswegian who arrived here by way of Lexington, KY, in 1831 to join his daughter, Janet, and her husband, Thomas McOuat. The McOuats had purchased several lots from the city in 1821, and began to build a home in 1830. The name "Lockerbie," which means "Loki's Village" in Old Norse, comes from a large town south of Glasgow (site of the bombing of Pan American Flight 103 in December of 1988). An old bank building bearing the McOaut name still stands on East Washington St.. While both Lockerbie and McOuat prospered in the city's early days, it was Lockerbie's grand-daughter, Elizabeth Ann Butler and her husband who purchased "Out Lot 53" [presumably a lot outside the original mile square of the city] in 1846, and then sold it to her mother, now a widow.

Janet Lockerbie McOaut, apparently the canniest of the clan, platted out "McOuat's Subdivision" in 1850. She divided the northern third into small house lots and reserved the undivided southern third, along New York Street, for the large house she shared with her children and, presumably, her father, who died in 1856. Several McOaut children built homes nearby, but the lots sold slowly at first, and the only houses to be built were on the south side of Lockerbie Street.

With the end of the civil war, economic and social conditions improved, and the Lockerbie neighborhood, with its central location and small lots, began to attract a good many artisans, clerks, and skilled laborers. Their thrift, good sense, and good taste established the character and the charm that now draw so many professionals, retirees, and other civic-minded folk to the vicinity. The frame cottage that George Holler, a plasterer, for example, built at 324 North Park Ave. in 1863, restored in 1974-76 is one such example.

Between 1847 and 1860, Calvin Fletcher and his nephew, Timothy—both bankers and astute businessmen—purchased, subdivided, and developed the remaining three Out Lots in the original Lockerbie Square division. Many of these units were sold to German craftsmen and clerks, who either moved up from, or could not find housing in, the thriving "Germantown" neighborhood to the south, between Ohio and Market Streets. Some of the lots went to more prosperous buyers, such as the furniture manufacturers and retailers, August Spiegle and Friedrich Thoms, who built the substantial houses at 401 and 353 North Park Avenue. In 1860 Timothy Fletcher sold the southern third of the remaining Out Lot, the one in the northwest corner of the neighborhood, to Mrs. Louisa Holt and her two sons, both clerks in Fletcher's bank. The Holts built three substantial houses on their property south of Vermont St. (all razed in the 1960s) and subdivided the rest of it into eleven more of the small lots that characterize the neighborhood.

Early Growth

The original Lockerbie Square neighborhood covered the four blocks between East St., Michigan Ave., Noble St. (now College Ave.), and New York St. The 1987 Plan indicates that, of the 67 houses in this original area that were entered into the National Historic Register in 1978, 40 were built during the decade from 1860 to 1870. "With reason [the Plan continues] could T. R. Fletcher look back with satisfaction on the return of his real estate investments in Out Lots 51 and 54." In 1884, the McOuat property was sold to a merchant tailor, Jacob Becker, who subdivided it to build rentals, while the McOuat house itself was razed in the 1890s to make room for more small rental units, to meet this same demand.

The nature and number of German immigrants among those who first moved into this area is spelled out in the History section of the 1987 Plan as follows:

Indianapolis was growing rapidly and the skilled professionals, artisans, craftsmen, and workers were in demand. The 1850 Census reveals that the majority of the Germans in Indianapolis that year belonged to the artisan and laboring classes. After they became more established, many of these same laborers became leading merchants in the city in following decades. Of the 329 German immigrants listed as employed, 130 owned property with an average value of $1274.15. The building trades were well represented in the German community of 1850 with 32 carpenters, four brickmasons, two stone masons, one contractor, three plasterers, and four painters.

The abundance of German names associated with the old houses, cottages and shops reflects the importance of the German immigrants in building and shaping historic Lockerbie Square and the area around it. As the "Germantown" area rapidly filled with houses and shops, it is obvious that the immigrants bought lots from the Fletchers, the McOuats, the Holts, and later from their compatriot Jacob Becker to be near the original enclave directly to the south.

German Churches

While there are few traces left of the "Germantown" south of New York St., the German presence in the Lockerbie Square neighborhood remains most prominently in what was originally called Das Deutsche Haus-Athenaeum, on the corner of New Jersey and Michigan Streets, and two surviving churches. (A German Methodist Episcopal Church on the southwest corner of New York and New Jersey Streets and a German Trinity Lutheran Church on the northeast corner of Ohio and East Streets have both been demolished). St. Mary's Church was founded to serve the German population in 1857, and built on East Maryland St. It moved to its present building on New Jersey St. in 1912.

The other surviving church, the Emmanuel Church, First Congregation of the Indianapolis Evangelical Association, was founded in 1855. In 1871 it changed its name to the First German Church of the Evangelical Association of North America in Indianapolis, and in 1883, the congregation having grown dramatically, it moved to a building at the corner of New York and East Streets. This building was designed, suitably enough, by a German immigrant architect, Diedrich A. Bohlen, who designed many other buildings in the neighborhood, and lived in the neighborhood himself. Sunday School lessons were taught in German until 1907, and services held in that language until 1909. By 1923, the pastor wanted the parsonage, built just south of the church, moved to the suburbs, because "the neighborhood was not too desirable as a place to rear a family." Nevertheless, both the congregation and the parsonage remained, and the church still stands, as Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church.

Charitable Institutions

While neither of them still stands, two sizeable and important charitable institutions, the Home for the Aged Poor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and St. Vincent's Hospital, attest to the generosity and kindness of the original inhabitants. The first was established by five members of the Little Sisters of the Poor in 1875, on the north side of the 500 block of Vermont St. Under the loving hands of The Little Sisters, of whom there seem to have been never more than fifteen at a time, the Home expanded several times, doing much good work for over 93 years "supported entirely on what they managed to solicit as alms from the public."

In 1881 Bishop Chatard helped the other institution, St. Vincent's Infirmary, run by the Sisters of Charity, move into other buildings on Vermont St. built originally for Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in 1873. Like the Home of the Aged Poor and Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church, these buildings were designed by Diedrich Bohlen. St. Joseph's had outgrown them and moved to a new building at North St. and College Avenue. The parish was dissolved in 1877, but the church, rectory and hall still stand as part of the Chatham Arch IHPC Historic Area. St. Vincent's Infirmary flourished, and by 1889 was treating over 600 patients a year. That year it moved to a new building at South and Delaware Streets. It moved again in 1913, as St. Vincent Hospital, to Fall Creek, and, in 1974, to 2001 West 86th St. By 1892 the diocese had disposed of the last of "Chatard's Subdivision"; many of the lots became the property of the Indianapolis Glove Company.

James Whitcomb Riley

By the 1870s the demand for and construction of small cottages for artisans and workers began to fall off, but the market for mansions grew stronger, including one that would turn out to be, and remain, the single most important building in the neighborhood. John H. Nickum, a prosperous cracker baker, and his wife and their daughter Magdalena and her husband, Major Charles Holstein, moved into their stylish Italianate home at 528 Lockerbie St. in 1873. Other prominent families, the Cobbs and the Igoes, occupied similar houses on the same block, all surrounded by leafy trees and gas lamps. The Holsteins had a frequent visitor, James Whitcomb Riley, the much revered "Hoosier Poet" and celebrated raconteur, who was then living a decidedly Bohemian life in a boarding house on Pennsylvania St. He enjoyed the neighborhood, the house, and its occupants so much that he eventually (in 1893) moved in as a boarder. He stayed for twenty three years. Here is his tribute to the place.

Lockerbie Street

Such a dear little street it is, nestled away

From the noise of the city and the heat of the day

In cool shady coverts of whispering trees.

With their leaves lifted up to shake hands with the breeze

Which in all its wide wanderings never may meet

With a resting-place fairer than Lockerbie Street!

There is such a relief from the clangor and din

Of the heart of the town, to go loitering in

Through the dim, narrow walks, with the sheltering shade

Of the trees waving over the long promenade.

And littering lightly the ways of our feet

With the fold of the sunshine down Lockerbie Street

And the nights that come down the dark pathways of dusk.

With the stars in their tresses, and odors of musk

In their moon-woven raiments, bespangled with dews.

And looped up with the lilies for lovers to use

In the songs that they sing to the tinkle and beat

Of their sweet serenadings through Lockerbie Street.

O my Lockerbie Street! You are fair to be seen

Be it noon of the day, or the rare and serene

Afternoon of the night--you are one to my heart.

And I love you above all the phrases of art.

For no language could frame and no lips could repeat

My rhyme-haunted raptures of Lockerbie Street.

-James Whitcomb Riley

Riley's long and happy residence in the Nickum/Holstein home brought many distinguished guests and numerous admirers to the neighborhood conferring on it some of the luster of his celebrity. Shortly after his death in that house (July 22, 1916), and the death of Magdalena Holstein the same year, a group of Riley's distinguished and prosperous friends, Booth purchased the land and, in 1921, founded the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Association to establish a museum honoring the poet. The purchase of all the "household goods" from the home's housekeeper, to whom Magdalena Holstein had bequeathed them, enabled the mansion to remain as splendidly Victorian as the poet had known it. The "James Whitcomb Riley National Shrine" opened in 1923, serving as a landmark and a foundation for the neighborhood through the grim years that were about to fall upon it.

Postwar Decline

The years following the First Word War brought noise, traffic, commerce, industry, and pollution to downtown Indianapolis, driving many of the residents of the Lockerbie Square neighborhood north beyond 38th Street. The big houses were turned into rental flats or boarding houses with absentee landlords, while the small cottages fell into disrepair, and the streets and sidewalks crumbled. By 1964, even the Little Sisters of the Poor had decamped to West 86th St., and Dietrich Bohlen's buildings disappeared into a parking lot for the Indianapolis Glove Company.

Government Plans for Revival

In 1958 what little of its original charm remained combined with the shrine at its center to attract the efforts of the Metropolitan Planning Department of Marion County, the first of a number of civic boards to seek to restore and preserve this unique, and now very needy, neighborhood. Had the money been found, "Lockerbie Fair," as this first restoration was to be called, would have become a Victorian replica "Midwestern Main Street," inspired by Disneyland!

The neighborhood was more fortunate, perhaps most fortunate, in its next protector, the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (HLFI), founded in 1960 under the auspices of Eli Lilly, Edward Pierre, Edward James, and Wilbur Peat—a philanthropist, two architects, and an art historian. In 1966 it established a Lockerbie Square committee, which took the privately funded German Village project in Columbus, Ohio as its model. That committee, its parent HLFI, and the Marion County Historical Society shepherded a bill through the Indiana General Assembly creating a seven-member Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC), charging that commission with special responsibilities for the Lockerbie Square neighborhood—but providing no public funds. The first Preservation Plan for the area was published in 1968.

The HLFI championed private residential restoration and neighborhood friendly business investment. Over the years it purchased and restored several historically important residences, including the Staub House at 342 North College Ave. and the Holler Cottage at 324 North Park Ave., as well as the George Schribner Cottage, which it moved across the city to 325 N. Park Ave. in 1977. Its efforts to persuade businesses to open Victorian replicas were not as successful, though the Indiana National Bank and L.S. Ayres both considered doing so, briefly. But by 1970 the HLFI had encountered so many complications with the Tax Reform Act of 1969 and difficulties with estates, absentee landlords, tenants, and transients that it turned some of its attentions elsewhere.

Residents Work Towards Revival

In 1973 yet another group, the Lockerbie Square People's Club, took an active and practical interest in revitalizing the neighborhood. Working with the HLFI and the IHPC, as well as the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC), and the Lugar administration, the Club got the General Assembly to help fund a staff for the Commission. Inspired by the 1976 Bicentennial, and joined by the Junior League, the Indianapolis Garden Club, and the Department of Transportation, these groups worked together to bring noticeable improvements to the neighborhood—including the Victorian street lamps, cobblestones, sidewalks, tree replacements, etc.

In 1976 a group of residents formed Lockerbie Square, Inc. to bring more endangered period buildings into the neighborhood to stand among the many recently and beautifully renovated buildings and such attractive new structures as the five striking buildings on E. Vermont St. These new ideas and many improvements were consolidated and reflected in the Lockerbie Square Historic District Preservation Area Plan I, produced by the IHPC in 1978 in conjunction with Perry Associates, Architects and Planners and the City planner. Following this plan, the Lockerbie Glove Factory Condominiums, were rehabilitated, in several senses of the word, in 1982-83. The Plan was updated in 1987 as the "Historic Area Preservation Plan--Lockerbie Square"—the work on which this entry is based. Since then, many new townhouses have been built in several parts of the neighborhood, which now combines its convenience, rich heritage, and restored historical charm with new urban comforts and vitality.

The Expanded Area

The 1987 Plan continued the expansion of the original four block area begun in the 1976 Plan, so that The Lockerbie Square Preservation Area now includes some nine surrounding subdivisions.

James Whitcomb Riley Home

The James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home is a preservation which features fine Victorian furnishings and architecture. Home to Riley for the last 23 years of his life, it is open Tuesday through Sunday, offering tours daily.

During his lifetime, from 1849 to 1916, James Whitcomb Riley wrote 1,044 poems, mostly about Indiana and children. After his death, a group of Indiana's distinguished citizens formed the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Association James Whitcomb Riley Museum Homeand purchased the Italianate house to be maintained as a lasting tribute to the great Hoosier Poet.

In 1963, the Riley Museum Home was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The home contains authentic Victorian furnishings and an extensive collection of Mr. Riley's belongings, including his upright piano, top hat, and painting of his beloved dog, Lockerbie.


The success of Lockerbie Square is the fruition of seeds planted by the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (HLFI) in the early 1960s. HLFI inspired other organizations and interested citizens, who worked and invested in the belief that James Whitcomb Riley's adopted neighborhood would be reborn as a downtown neighborhood. The challenges today in Lockerbie Square are no longer the halting of demolition and decay, but shaping and managing the new changes and growth, as the area builds upon its character as a historical urban neighborhood

Most of the information and some of the language above was drawn from the History and Architecture sections of the "Historic Area Preservation Plan--Lockerbie Square" compiled by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC) in 1987. These sections were written by James A. Glass, Director of the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Lockerbie Square

PO Box 44410
Indianapolis, IN 46244-0410

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