Landmark Cases: What's Next for Old City Hall

With the National Preservation Conference in town this month, it’s time to dream up new uses for this historic building.

This month, while the city hosts experts for the prestigious National Preservation Conference, Indiana Landmarks will address the crying-shame issue of Old City Hall, a historic, majestic (and currently vacant) building at the corner of Alabama and Ohio streets. The group will hold a “charrette” (architecture-speak for a panel discussion) to brainstorm new uses for the ornate behemoth. As the name suggests, Old City Hall housed government offices from 1910 to 1962. Then it served as the Indiana State Museum and, for a couple of years, the Central Library. Now it languishes, empty, as historical societies and city planners (and pretty much everyone else) debate what to do with it.
Here’s a look at some of the recent ideas that have become history themselves.
Municipal offices
It’s been suggested that the mayor’s offices (or the local courts, or the headquarters of various economic-development agencies, or some combination thereof) be relocated to the decidedly more accessible and user-friendly Old City Hall. But so far that’s all these notions are—suggestions.
The Indianapolis Star
About a year ago, newspaper execs looked at the space, but they decided to take a pass. Instead, they opted for an even stranger, more incongruous location: the old Nordstrom digs at Circle Centre.
Immigration Museum
This vision was floated by the Turkish-born head of the Keystone Group real-estate development company a few years back. The building also would have housed an international business center and a “nonprofit hub.”
Indianapolis Museum of Art satellite location
Doesn’t perusing Old Masters on your lunch break sound nice? Apparently one of the IMA’s previous bosses was quite taken with this idea, to the point where he, in the words of one city official, “was practically measuring the building for drapes.” But when he left town for another job, the gallery lost traction and died.
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra headquarters
Unlike potential corporate and government users, the ISO actually might have a use for the massive three-story rotunda that eats up roughly 20,000 square feet of City Hall’s interior: performance space. But the ISO’s financial difficulties kept it from orchestrating the project.
Art gallery
The building was last occupied during the Super Bowl, when it was recast as a pop-up showcase for artists. The gallery, organized by the Indianapolis Downtown Artists & Dealers Association and named TURF (get the football reference?), drew some 10,000 visitors and was considered a success. However, the concept was never seen as a permanent fix—just a creative way to put something interesting in the abandoned building during the big game.
Boutique hotel
Rumor has it that reps from the 21c Museum Hotels group traveled up from Louisville to consider this option within the past year. But the hotel dream seems to have vaporized faster than you can say “Ian Schrager.”
Target store
Actually, no one’s suggested this. We’re just putting it out there. Because darn it, downtown won’t be truly livable until we get one.
Illustration by Mario Zucca; photo courtesy The Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society
This article appeared in the October 2013 issue.