Douglas Meagher

Ralston and Hudnut: Recognition Overdue

Filed By Douglas Meagher | January 19, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

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Statues, monuments, sculpture and public art are ornaments that give cities identity, beauty (usually) and a sense of place. Indianapolis has a good supply of such works, more than most of the forty-three state capitals I've visited. We're a bit fond of Mars, but it seems that most civic tributes commemorate war and warriors.

I suggest adding two more to our inventory: one to a man long dead, the other to a man still living, both long overdue.

1. Alexander Ralston

You may be familiar with him but not because anybody or any body has done anything to make him well known. Ralston and Elias Pym Fordham designed the city of Indianapolis, though Ralston is usually given primary credit.

According to the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (Indiana University Press 1994) Ralston was born in Scotland in 1771 and worked as a surveyor and engineer for Lord Roslin in Great Britain before immigrating to the United States. He famously assisted Pierre L'Enfant in laying out Washington D.C. He thereafter moved to Louisville, Kentucky, then to Harrison County, Indiana and eventually to Salem, Indiana. While living there he and Fordham were commissioned to survey and plat the new capital city. They began work in April 1821 and town lots were sold beginning that October.

Indianapolis-first-map.jpgThe original mile square design is geometrically simple but elegant; visionary in its plan for wide streets and spaces set aside for markets, hospitals, schools and government buildings. The Circle, of course, and the four diagonal streets are the best features. In my opinion, the AUL Tower, One Indiana Square (forever the INB Tower in my mind), the National City Center and the Virginia Avenue parking garage are travesties because they were all built in or near the blocks where the diagonal streets terminated thereby blocking the best views of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument. Virginia Avenue remains as it was but the garage alters the beauty of the original plan. It wasn't so long ago that one could travel from Fountain Square into downtown on Virginia Avenue for a great view of Miss Indiana.

Ralston settled in Indianapolis and built a home west of Capitol (then Tennessee) Avenue on Maryland Street. This is at or very near the Capitol Commons Park between the Convention Center and the Statehouse, which would be the ideal space for honoring our adopted son. (I'll reserve comment on the Simon HQ building for now.)

There might be another reason for the GLBT community to want to honor Alexander. The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis also contains these notations: he was a lifelong bachelor, lived at the Maryland Street house with his housekeeper, Chaney, and upon his death was eulogized in the Indiana Journal as an honest gentleman of "extreme sensibilities." "Extreme sensibilities" used to be newspaper code for "you-know-what." Alexander never married, met Fordham in Salem where they lived together briefly before traveling north to design our city and spent the remainder of his life with his faithful manservant. Now, we shouldn't stereotype or make assumptions based upon scant information, but I'm willing to count Alexander as one of ours until someone offers evidence to the contrary. His sense of aesthetics alone qualifies for honorary membership in our community!

More importantly and returning to my original point, Ralston deserves greater credit for his work than the city or state has given him thus far. A private developer has shown the grace and good sense to name a project for him, but that is not the same as a civic tribute. Recognition is overdue.

2. William Hudnut

Mayor Hudnut is another adopted son whose influence on the city was as great as Ralston's. The downtown we see today is mostly his vision manifested. Yes, John Barton, Richard Lugar, f1983_hudnut.jpgBart Peterson and even little Stevie Goldsmith share credit for all that has happened, but no one had the impact that Hudnut did.

It wasn't only revitalization of downtown. Although not at all perfect, Hudnut's administration was more inclusive, progressive, innovative and visionary than any other that had come before. We changed from a provincial, rust-belt relic to something a bit more cosmopolitan. Glamour and celebrity are not abundant here, but we're a much more interesting place than we were in 1975 when he first took office. He called himself a Republican but governed like a great Democrat. He made you feel like anything was possible for the city and that you could be proud to live here.

Hudnut left Indianapolis at the end of his fourth term in 1991. His successor was a little mean-spirited bean counter that wanted him out of town. There were some unattractive rumors circulating about his personal life. Our treatment of him since then has been shameful. We are all imperfect and we can only hope that the world will remember our good deeds rather than our flaws.

I understand that statues are usually not erected until the subject has passed away. Perhaps that is proper. I think it is better to show appreciation to someone while they are alive to see it. At the very least, a street, square or place can be renamed to honor someone. Thus far, only the city's incinerator plant recognizes Hudnut.

My choice of place for honoring Mayor Hudnut is the small triangle of land formed at the confluence of Central Avenue, 10th Street, East Street and Fort Wayne Avenue. This intersection is something of a gateway into downtown. It is surrounded by redeveloped, historic neighborhoods (a Hudnut-era phenomenon). Central Avenue is almost like a ceremonial processional route into the city. Looking south and southwest from this site, one sees much of our skyline. Fort Wayne Avenue leads directly to impressive green space in the core city. This is an ideal spot for some monument and its symbolic situation makes it a perfect place for a long overdue tribute to William Hudnut.


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Wilson46201 | January 19, 2009 3:27 PM

Twenty years ago I worked in the Center Township Assessors Office -- one major project I quite enjoyed working on was rewriting the thumbnail legal descriptions of all downtown properties. Over the years since the early 1800s they'd become rather corrupted. To do this job properly I had to acquire a large copy of Ralston's original design of the city and then relate all contemporary legal descriptions back to this original document. Ralston's design was really well done and thought out.

I grew to respect the man and have always sought to learn more about him. His housekeeper, "China Lively", was the first Black woman living in Indianapolis. I'd also noted his "confirmed bachelor" status: thank you for bringing out some more details.

Back to the design of Indianapolis: as a friend of mine used to say: "It takes a fairy to make it pretty". Alexander did!

I am totally on board with the Alexander Ralston memorial, Doug. You should do some more research into his life and find out whether or not he was gay.