NEWS

Historic Churches Tell Story of a Changing City

A December tour highlights architecture, history, and changes at historic churches in and around Indianapolis’s Old Northside neighborhood.

Allen Chapel AME Indianapolis by Evan Hale
On December 4, Indiana Landmarks’ Holiday Church Tour provides a look at 10 historic churches in and around Indianapolis’s Old Northside neighborhood, including Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church (above). Photo by Evan Hale

Saving Grace

Scattered across just a few blocks in and around Indianapolis’s Old Northside neighborhood, a collection of 10 historic churches built between 1891 and 1929 served residents who settled beyond the city’s core at the turn of the twentieth century. After World War II, the neighborhood changed rapidly, and churches adjusted to support a community with increasingly diverse religious and social needs.

On December 4, our Holiday Church Tour offers a chance to explore the landmarks and see how they have adapted to change.

Today, Indianapolis faces the same question as other communities across the country: what to do with historic houses of worship when Americans aren’t going to church like they used to. Each of the churches highlighted on our tour illustrates the forward-thinking commitment of neighborhood residents to preserve what their predecessors built, whether through creative reuse, innovative community outreach, or adapting to meet the spiritual needs of new downtown residents.

For Lee Little, who attends the neighborhood’s Episcopal Church of All Saints, the discovery of a 1952 copy of Polk’s Indianapolis City Directory sparked a research journey into the city’s historic churches. Whittling down the number to about 300 churches still standing, Little launched the “Old Churches Indy” Instagram account in 2018 to highlight the buildings’ history and architecture. His passion also inspired him to share his knowledge on walking tours and in a recently published book Circle City Steeples.

“It was about reconnecting people to buildings that were here long before us and will be here, hopefully, long after we’re gone, really speaking to the importance of them in our city not only as religious structures but as neighborhood landmarks,” notes Little. “As I continued my research, I realized these churches are telling a story of how we’ve built as a city and who has been able to settle where and why.”

Our Holiday Church Tour includes buildings still serving as houses of worship, including one of the city’s oldest Black congregations at Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Though its current home at the corner of Broadway and 11th streets was built in 1926, Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church’s history dates to the end of the Civil War, when newly freed people moved north to Indianapolis. Beginning in a small frame structure, Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church served both the spiritual and educational needs of the African American community that settled around it, offering a day school for area residents in addition to regular worship services.

Other tour sites illustrate how historic church buildings can be creatively repurposed. Indiana Landmarks Center, our own state headquarters, is located in the former Central Avenue Methodist Church, now serving as an office and performance and event venue. The former First Friends Church on Alabama Street found new use as condominiums.

Guests on the December 4 Holiday Church Tour will see inside the Episcopal Church of All Saints, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Joy of all Who Sorrow Orthodox Church, Indiana Landmarks Center, Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, Psychic Science Spiritualist Church, and the former All Souls Unitarian Church. The tour includes exterior views of the former Central Universalist Church, former First Friends Church, and Trader’s Point Christian Church.

Presented in partnership with Old Churches Indy and area congregations, the tour runs 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on December 4 and costs $20/general public, $15/Indiana Landmarks member, $10/child (age 6-11), and is free to children age 5 and under. Day-of-tour tickets cost an additional $5 per ticket (save children age 5 and under) and will only be sold at Indiana Landmarks Center, 1201 Central Avenue. Ticket holders may check-in at any of the sites open for interior visitation and exchange their Eventbrite receipt for a program. Buy tickets in advance at indyholidaychurchtour21.eventbrite.com.

Get a preview of some of the churches featured on the tour along with other Indianapolis-area sacred places at a talk by Lee Little on November 30 at 6 p.m., offered in-person at Indiana Landmarks Center and online via Zoom. Tickets are $7/general public, free for Indiana Landmarks members, and may be purchased at oldchurchesindytalk21.eventbrite.com. Little’s book Circle City Steeples will be available for purchase, with a portion of the proceeds supporting our Sacred Places Indiana program.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Indiana Landmarks’ member magazine Indiana Preservation.

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