On August 4, a local news story casually dropped the bombshell that the commercial areas in Fountain Square, Fletcher Place, and North Square would now be known, collectively, as the “Fountain Fletcher District.”
For some Well Done staffers—specifically, me (the one who doesn’t follow civic news all that closely, and who has never been wholly comfortable with such border-blurring terms as “Michiana” or “Kentuckiana”)—this disorienting news evoked a decided “Wait, what?” response. What would Calvin Fletcher say? Have the sculptures in the fountain signed off on this? How long has North Square been a thing?
An afternoon’s googling gave me a few answers—and made me realize that the fortunes of the Virginia Avenue corridor have been intertwined with commerce for a long, long time.
Before There was a Fountain, There was a Fletcher
Back in 1835, Calvin Fletcher purchased a 265-acre farm around the 500 block of Virginia Avenue. Twenty years later, he had sold half of his property to businessmen, and moved out. By the 1870s, the area had become one of the city’s earliest subdivisions, known as Fletcher Place (and occasionally “Fletcher-place,” reflecting the late 19th century’s passion for hyphenation).
Meanwhile, further south, the intersection of Virginia Avenue, Shelby Street, and Prospect Street had become a turnaround point for the Citizens’ Street Railway Company, and the area was attracting a gaggle of (mostly German) entrepreneurs. Beginning in 1884, a “fountain committee” spearheaded by area saloon owner William H. Mohs raised $1,200 to erect a decorative drinking fountain on the site of the former streetcar turntable. Once that fountain was unveiled on the evening of July 31, 1885, the area became known as “Fountain Square.”
It was a deft touch of branding that gave the neighborhood a snazzy name while boosting commerce. The fountain created a visual and practical attraction, and encouraged visitors to water their horses, linger awhile, and patronize area businesses.
The construction of the Virginia Avenue Viaduct (completed in 1892) elevated Virginia Avenue traffic over the hazardous railroad tracks near Alabama Street—making it easier than ever for downtown residents to access the businesses of Fletcher Place and Fountain Square.
If There’s Anything Merchants Love, It’s Associating
Thumbing through back issues of the Indianapolis Star reveals that, as early as 1910, there was a Fountain Square Merchants Association installing street lamps around the district. The first illumination of those lamps, on Thursday, June 16, was declared to be “the advent of a new business era for Fountain Square,” and was celebrated by fireworks, a band concert, and 30 minutes of vaudeville.
A few years later, on November 5, 1915, Merle Sidener—one of the city’s first and most influential marketing specialists—visited 1112 Prospect Street (where the Hero House is now) to address the Merchants’ Association about the value of advertising to business.
By April 1916, the “Virginia Avenue and Fountain Square Merchants’ Association”—evidently taking Sidener’s advice to heart—was promoting an upcoming May festival “to continue their campaign for needed improvements in their part of the city.” One of those improvements was a need to replace Fountain Square’s original fountain, which had been accidentally damaged by a passing truck on November 1, 1915.
An accompanying Star feature foreshadowed today’s “Fountain Fletcher District” alliance, by showcasing ads for businesses up and down the Virginia Avenue corridor—uniting Fletcher Place and Fountain Square in commerce and proving, we suppose, that everything old is new again.
The Division and Reunion of Virginia Avenue
In the 1960s and 1970s, the fortunes of Fletcher Place and Fountain Square declined precipitously, as the construction of Interstates 65 and 70 caused the demolition of many homes, and the displacement of many residents. Compounding businesses’ problems was the fact that the newly built interstates now made it simpler for remaining residents to shop at distant suburban malls, instead of their local neighborhood stores.
Fortunately, the 1980s signaled a bit of a turnaround. Both neighborhoods were listed on the National Register of the Historic Places—Fletcher Place in 1982, and Fountain Square in 1983—and revitalization programs followed. The 1990s saw continued improvement and culminated in Fountain Square being highlighted as one of six cultural districts in the city. The completion of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail in 2013 improved awareness of Virginia Avenue’s offerings—and in 2018, the Indianapolis City-County Council approved “Fountain Fletcher” as an economic improvement district.
These days, there’s a nonprofit Fountain Fletcher District Association, funded by the Greater Virginia Avenue Economic Improvement District. Its goals are to “spur economic development activity through marketing and communication”—and being as we’re longtime fans of both marketing and communication, we can get behind that. Is this part of some master plan? Sure it is, and you can look at it here.
Now That We Know Which Board We’re On, We’re On Board
My surprise at the initial “Fountain Fletcher District” announcement was based on an assumption—a faulty one, thank goodness—that the separate, long-held identities of two of the city’s oldest neighborhoods were about to be erased, or at least blurred.
I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have flown. Fountain Square, in particular, has a strong sense of place that’s been solidifying for over 150 years, and I doubt that any of the Square’s longtime residents would be eager to identify themselves as “Fountain Fletcherites.”
There are a number of good reasons for place branding (or place rebranding)—such as the attraction of investment, or the boosting of tourism, or the strengthening of civic pride.
But to be successful, any such effort must feel authentic, and be rooted in the genuine history of the location.
Rather than blotting out community identity, the Fountain Fletcher District initiative seems to be an effort to join multiple commercial districts together in the name of economic development—and that, we can get squarely behind.
While writing this post, I made a few accidental discoveries that correct decades of inaccuracies about Fountain Square history. In case any bona fide historians read this, and demand to know my sources, I figured I’d better provide them.
“Given to the City: The Virginia-Avenue Fountain Unveiled in the Presence of 4,000 Southsiders,” Indianapolis Journal, August 1, 1885.
Fountain Square’s first namesake fountain was unveiled on the evening of July 31, 1885. (This corrects previous reports that date the statue’s installation to 1888 or 1889.) Besides describing the ceremonies around the fountain’s unveiling, the Journal article also credits merchant William Mohs as the main driver behind the fountain’s completion, and notes that it was constructed by “the iron works of J. L. Mott, of New York city.”
“Automobile Truck Wrecks Figure on Top of Fountain,” Indianapolis News, November 1, 1915.
Fountain Square’s first fountain was damaged irreparably on November 1, 1915. Previously, the date of the first statue’s fall had not been established—and an oft-repeated story has blamed an advertising banner and a gust of wind for the figure’s demise. Turns out the culprit was a tall truck running into a power cord that supplied electricity to lights wrapped around the statue.
“Ralph Hill Memorial Fountain is Unveiled: Work of Myra Reynolds Richards Graces Fountain Square,” Indianapolis News, November 10, 1924.
Fountain Square’s second fountain was dedicated on November 9, 1924. Some previous reports have quoted an unveiling date in September (which is close—but as long as we’re correcting inaccuracies, we might as well correct one more).