New Monument Circle Penney’s packed ’em in

A J.C. Penney Co. building replaced the English Hotel/Opera House in 1951. Nathaniel Owings, formerly of Indianapolis, designed it.
Bass Photo Co. Collection, Indiana Historical Society


Contributing editor

It really did happen one certain day. Seventy thousand people came to Downtown Indianapolis to be part of an event that wasn’t sports-related. No movie stars were in attendance and it wasn’t a rally for anything. It was the grand opening of the J. C. Penney store on Monument Circle and it happened on Feb. 23, 1951.

If Gov. Henry Schricker, who cut the ribbon, or J. C. Penney himself, who stood at the door shaking hands, had feared that some outspoken criticism about the look of the building would dampen opening-day attendance, their fears were quickly allayed as the crowd grew bigger and bigger. Mayor Philip Bayt didn’t make it to the ribbon-cutting dais because he got caught in the hubbub. Still, in an interview with The Indianapolis Star he stressed the merchandising establishment was “a milestone in the progress of Indianapolis.”

Philomena Gould covered the opening for her column in The Indianapolis News. She wrote, “I needn’t have stayed hours the way I did. But one thing leads to another. Before I knew it, I was buying as well as observing and ended up without enough money to get my car out of the lot.” She reported that “several tons of candy were sold. No joke.” The elevator in the building moved 8,000 passengers every hour that day. People were enthralled.

There had not been that many people Downtown since Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke from the balcony of the old English Hotel, Gould said. That speech could have occurred nearly on top of the spot where Penney was greeting his customers, because the new “ultra-modern” J. C. Penney store was constructed on the site of the old English Hotel and Theatre building.

Although Gov. Schricker was happy to get in on the glory of the new store opening, the state attorney general brought suit to keep the owners of the old hotel and theater building from selling it a few years earlier. In a somewhat convoluted story, the essential facts are these: William H. English built the largest section of the English Hotel building in 1880. In 1897 William E. English added the southern section and eventually the building spanned the entire northwest quad of The Circle. According to coverage in The News on June 29, 1948, upon his death William E. English willed the building to the English Foundation to use for charitable purposes. The Foundation maintained the building as a hotel and theater, although seemingly an increasingly decrepit one.

That all worked fine until 1944, when a court decision mandated that charitable organizations were liable for taxes on properties that were operated commercially, according to The News. From the time of that decision the English Foundation had been forking over $40,000 a year in property taxes for the building to the state (an amount equivalent to over $600,000 in 2021).

Not surprisingly, the foundation found that situation unsustainable and so sought to sell the building, figuring that putting the money from the sale toward charitable works met the terms of English’s will. A lower court agreed with that figuring and the Indiana Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The English building’s fate was signed and sealed. 

But people had feelings about that old building. Many old-timers remembered honeymooning there, for one thing. For another, it was, by 1948, the only live theater left Downtown. A final performance of Blossom Time exited stage left in the English Theatre in May 1948, according to the Indiana Historical Society Bass Photo Collection guide.

Eager customers crowded into the new department store after the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1951.
Indiana Historical Society

Soon enough the architects entered stage right. In October, according to The Indianapolis Star, New York-based Equitable Life Assurance Society bought the building for $2.1 million with immediate plans to raze it and put up a three-story commercial building.

The life assurance society hired one of the most famous architecture firms of the day, Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) to design a new palace of commerce. It was 1948, World War II was finally over and Americans were looking happily toward a modern future. SOM was a firm that designed modern architecture, and for J. C. Penney’s Store in Indianapolis – the hometown of partner Nathanial Owings – the firm came up with a simple and stunning modern home.

The building was a sleek “C,” hugging The Circle, faced in light Indiana limestone, with a ribbon of clerestory windows spanning its width at the roofline. It could not have been more different from the old giant-windowed ornate commercial buildings that still lined the city’s streets. It was revolutionary from a retail standpoint – customers had to go inside to see if they wanted to buy something. No more window shopping.

The Rev. Dr. John Pares Craine, minister of Christ Church Cathedral on the Northeast Quad of The Circle, hated it. Not only was it “a stone curtain blatant and devoid of good manners, [it] . . . makes us all unhappy and depressed,” Dr. Craine said. According to a long article in The Indianapolis Star on Nov. 12, 1950, in which only the Rev. Dr. Craine was interviewed, he said that “public sentiment is rapidly rising in protest” and he compared the building to “the false doctrines of Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin. . . It is without grace or dignity and as brutal in its impact upon our senses as the wars and killings which have characterized the past half century . . . it is the stark materialism of the building which best expresses the strong currents of false doctrine which we in the church are combatting.”

Poor J. C. Penney, who already had a store on Washington Street in Indianapolis, must have wondered how in the world he got into this mess.  The Star reported that, “When asked why the exterior couldn’t be broken up by murals or designs, Penney said that his store had nothing to do with the design, that it had been up to the Equitable Life Insurance Society. ‘When the people of Indianapolis see the new store in its completion, I am confident they will forget about all the harsh things that have been said. In all my years, nothing has hurt me quite as much.’”

One unnamed “irate Indianapolis woman” declared in a letter to the The Star a few days after Craine’s diatribe, “I do not appreciate that the Rev. D. James Pares Craine speak for me and say that the new J. C. Penney building makes us all unhappy or depressed. It isn’t making me either unhappy or depressed. It makes me feel a little extra pride in my home that someone is building a new and, to me, beautiful building to replace the rat- and roach-infested buildings which previously occupied an unfortunately large portion of that segment of the Circle.”

It turned out that the irate woman and hurt J. C. Penney were closer to understanding the Indianapolis buying public than the esteemed reverend. The new “Queen” store, even bigger and better, according to Penney, than the Seattle, Cincinnati and San Francisco stores, was a hit, though maybe mostly for what could be found inside.

Then in 1957, the famously irascible father of American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright himself, blessed the design of the building. On a visit to the city, the grumpy old architect told the press, “The only good building I saw here is one used by Penney’s Downtown, which is a little radical. It was probably designed by some out-of-town man.” Wright was right, of course, about the design, but sort of wrong about the architect.

Sadly, modernism-inspired citizens of this great city only had a couple of decades to enjoy their ultra-modern building.  In 1978, they must have wondered why Indianapolis could never have anything nice when Blue Cross and Blue Shield terminated Penney’s lease and quickly reskinned the entire SOM masterpiece into a bland glass-walled corporate headquarters. No ministers protested. n