Hoosier Hall of Fame: The Vonneguts’ Ripple Effects

With hammers and nails, an immigrant family builds a dynasty.

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This story is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s 2016 Indiana Bicentennial coverage, which includes our list of the 200 Hoosier Hall of Fame picks, designated throughout in bold or highlighted. For more on this celebration of the state’s first two centuries, click here.

 

1851

Vonnegut Hardware opens in Indianapolis

Although college-educated patriarch Clemens Vonnegut looks more familiar with Schubert than screwdrivers, he seeks his fortune selling the latter after emigrating from Germany in 1848. From that first shop at 120 East Washington Street, the chain grew to 14 locations and lasted more than 100 years.

1908

Invention of the lifesaving “panic bar”

Horrified by Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire—in which 602 people lost their lives, pinned against a door as they tried to escape—Vonnegut Hardware manager Carl Prinzler dreamed up the “panic bar”, now a mandatory addition to exits in public buildings.

2009Monon Trail

Monon Trail inducted into National Rail-Trail Hall of Fame

He didn’t do it alone, but Richard Vonnegut, a cousin of Kurt Jr. and vice chair of the Hoosier Rails to Trails Council, deserves a lot of credit for Indiana’s most popular greenway: In the early 1990s, Richard lobbied to convert the abandoned Monon Railroad line, now a nationally recognized model for such projects.

1898

Das Deutsche Haus completed on Mass Ave

While three of Clemens Vonnegut’s sons go on to run the family business, the fourth, Bernard, enrolls in M.I.T. to study architecture. His firm, Vonnegut & Bohn, designs a series of Indy landmarks: Das Deutsche Haus (renamed the Athenaeum), the Block building, the John Herron Art Institute (now Herron High School), and the L.S. Ayres building. Benard’s son, Kurt Vonnegut Sr., joins the firm and contributes the Indiana Bell Telephone building (now the AT&T building), the Kahn building, and the bronze clock on the side of Circle Centre.

1928

Shortridge High School moved to present location

Bernard Vonnegut’s firm designed the building. His grandson, a storyteller, would later become the storied institution’s most famous alumnus.

1969Vonnegut

Publication of Slaughterhouse-Five

Born in 1922, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. eschews hardware and architecture for letters. The ’60s antiwar novel, along with Breakfast of Champions and other titles, earns him a reputation as one of the latter–20th century’s most important writers.

1970

Going All the Way reviewed in Life

Is it a stretch to say Kurt Jr. created two iconic Hoosier literary careers? Dan Wakefield doesn’t think so. Wakefield moved from Indy to New York not long after Vonnegut did, and Vonnegut’s glowing magazine review of Wakefield’s first novel helps move it off the shelves (it eventually sells over a million copies).

1997

Ben Affleck scores one of his earliest feature roles

Before he was A-list, the actor traveled to Indy and such locations as the Red Key Tavern for filming of the screen adaptation of Going All the Way.

2012

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri visits Butler University

While Nonie Vonnegut-Gabovitch (Kurt Jr.’s second cousin) didn’t start the Butler Visiting Writers Series, she did shepherd the lecture program for six years as coordinator. During her tenure, literary greats including Lahiri, Richard Russo, Chuck Klosterman, Joyce Carol Oates, and more make stops here.

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