Friday, March 28, 2003

The Return of the Blog.

Back late last night from Indy, just ahead of the cold rain that has fallen most of today. This trip was a strange alloy of business and family — not something that went entirely well, but it did have its charms. Let’s start with the best of those, namely North Meridian Street.

Indianapolis is a grid city, and the zero axis running north-south is a major thoroughfare called Meridian. Our hotel, a downtown Hampton Inn that used to be an old railroad hotel, was just east of Meridian; our first business meeting on Wednesday morning was on the north side of the city, at an office building at about 10900 North Meridian. Gail, the associate publisher of Real Estate Chicago magazine, had printed out MapQuest driving instructions from our hotel to this building.

These directions involved various turns downtown and then a route that followed the Interstate system to more or less where we wanted to go. I don’t have a facile dislike of the Interstate, but it was fairly clear to me that Meridian went straight where we wanted to go, and probably offered a more interesting drive. I suggested that we go that way, and we did.

A few blocks north of our hotel, Meridian runs into what may be Indianapolis’ only traffic circle (roundabout, for you Commonwealth types). It goes around the iconic Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which is the bullseye of the street grid. Meridian then continues due north, past other downtown structures and monuments. Indianapolis has a medium-sized downtown, and after that petered out, the cityscape turned distinctly seedy: dilapidated buildings, vacant lots, payday loan, pawn and liquor shops. On this section of Meridian I saw my favorite business name of the trip, 21st Amendment Liquors.

Then we passed a sign that said “North Meridian Historic District,” and as if the sign had transformative powers, the neighborhood became wealthy, with block after block of large houses and mansions, many clearly dating from the late 1800s or early 1900s, and most nestled on large lots, guarded by enormous trees. A handful had elaborate ornamental gates and carriage houses. More than one was for sale. The trees were still bare, but — amazingly — the grass was almost green (not a function of the area's money, but it was more noticeable there).

Along this section of Meridian, we also passed several houses of worship, most as aesthetic as the neighborhood. One was a nicely designed synagogue with a marquee promising that Ben Vereen was coming to speak there. (?) Another was a pretty Episcopal church, St. Paul’s. And then there was the Second Presbyterian Church.

I was astonished. It was as if a Gothic cathedral, of the sort you might find in northern France, only slightly smaller, had been deposited in Indiana. Or so it seemed, just driving by. On a return trip, when the press of business was over, I pulled into this church’s parking lot briefly and took a closer look. (Gail, who doesn’t seem to have the same tourist instinct as I do, had seen enough just driving by).

Subsequent investigation told me that this church was in fact modeled after Sainte Chapelle in Paris, though I doubt that Second Pres has the Crown of Thorns or any pieces of the True Cross tucked away anywhere. It didn’t look nearly as old as its Parisian inspiration, of course, and it turns out that it was completed — of Indiana limestone — in the 1950s, long after most churches had given up re-creating Gothic architecture on our shores. Most impressive to me was the octagonal fleche tower, which shoots up almost 100 feet.

One more detail: among other bits of sculpture on the outside was the “Door of the Reformer.” Not something you’d find in northern France, I reckon. Unfortunately, the church was locked, so I will have to see the inside if I’m ever in that part of the world on a Sunday morning. It's supposed to be ornate.

Continuing north, Meridian becomes a more ordinary residential street, and then, as an intersection with I-265 approaches, retail and office buildings make their appearance. On the whole, the street was a very satisfying drive, ranking up there with Lake Shore Drive on a good day, or the leafy Belmont Boulevard in Nashville, or the twisty Alamo Heights Boulevard in San Antonio. More than anyplace else, it reminded me of the drive from downtown St. Louis past an assortment of neighborhoods, the new Cathedral of St. Louis, and one edge of Fair Park.

Tomorrow: Indianapolis is not a doughnut town.


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