By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor
Indianapolis seems to be at the apex of new practices with the opening of several business incubators in the last few years. The city has at least a handful of locations that meet the needs of small businesses looking to open their own bricks-and-mortar spaces while sharing some of the expenses. It might be considered cutting edge thought and practice.
But in fact, in Indianapolis, it is old news. A local entrepreneur first opened what we would now call a manufacturing incubator more than 100 years ago.
In1906 T. B. Laycock organized the Laycock Power House Co. with an investment of about a half-million dollars. The company erected an “Industrial Building” on the west side of the Central Canal. It covered an entire city block from 10th to 11th Street and Fayette Street to the Canal. In Greater Indianapolis, published in 1910 and written by Jacob Piatt Dunn, the author claimed that the Industrial Building, at five-stories tall and covering 400,000 square feet was “A great manufacturing center, as it was devised and used by various manufacturing concerns, which rent space as demanded and are supplied with power from the fine central plant of the building.”
Located in what was then the Black neighborhood centered around Indiana Avenue, the manufacturers in the Industrial Building found a workforce readily at hand.
In a multi-page story in 1910, Factory Magazine discussed the Industrial Building and its beneficial aspects to the many smaller businesses operating within it. In an age when “incubator” was a novel idea for keeping premature babies or, more typically, chicks alive, the language used to describe the building was different than it would be today, but the intent is the same:
“For the progressive up-to-date business man who needs from 1,000 to 25,000 square feet of floor space for his manufacturing operations – who wants to secure for himself the advantages that a big factory always gives … investigate the economy and convenience that the Industrial Building can afford you.”
Many of the city’s businesses were sold on the plan to rent space and share the benefits offered by the Industrial Building. By 1917, The Indianapolis Star reported that there were 33 tenants operating from within the building. The Star also touted the advantages of the building, which allowed manufacturers to “utilize all of their capital without an investment in building and ground … utilizing as little or as much space” as each needed, plus heat was supplied and power and electric charges were discounted. Similar to today’s incubators, there was also a single shipping department that served all the businesses, and a “dairy lunch and café” in the building.
The Industrial Building offered a jump-start to automakers and many other types of manufacturers. Businesses which took advantage of all the advantages at the Industrial Building included Central Paper and Tablet Co.; Indianapolis Wire Bound Box Co.; J. W. Jackson & Sons, makers of overalls and garments; Compac Tent Co.; Metal Auto Parts Co.; American Valve & Tank Co., a Diamond Chain Works branch; the Laycock-Brosnan Co.; National Insulating and Manufacturing; and the Will-Do-It Chemical Co.
It was a great idea. Until it wasn’t. On the unlucky 13th of January 1918, the building caught fire. The Indianapolis News reported the next day that “nearby houses, a church and saloon” were also burned. It was a three-alarm fire, with six engines used to spray water on the flames. Damages were estimated at $1 million in 1918 dollars. That’s over $20 million in 2023.
While the source of the fire was not known, The Indianapolis News suggested a sinister conspiracy theory. Because many of the firms in the building were manufacturing items for the war effort during this period when the U. S. had just entered World War I, the newspaper ran with the incendiary headline: “Huge Fire Loss May Be Due to German Agents.”
German agents were ruled out quickly, but an investigation showed that – while the building was equipped with an automatic sprinkler system – the water had been shut off to and drained from those sprinklers. The fire that started in the storage room of the Empire Automobile Co. spread rapidly with no chance of extinguishing it. Employees Edward Wright, a resident of 1102 Fayette St., and Albert Huff, who lived on 16th Street, discovered the fire. Wright ran outside and pulled the alarm at a box on 10th Street.
It was the biggest fire in Indianapolis history up to that time. Firemen had to spray water on the ruins of the Industrial Building almost continuously for a week, in icy January weather, before the fire was finally extinguished.
The Chamber of Commerce worked fast to find alternate locations for many of the manufacturers and solicited space in the newspaper for others.
Newspapers did not report about the owners of the houses that were initially reported destroyed, but a look at the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of the city for 1898 and 1948 shows that the housing surrounding the location of the Industrial Building didn’t appear to change between the two maps. The initial reports may have been greatly exaggerated.
Advertisements to sell the land where the Industrial Building had stood appeared soon after the fire. By the time the 1948 Sanborn map was published the entire property was once again filled with industrial buildings, but not another “Industrial Building.” Instead, the map reveals the shape of many new buildings taped on top of the former one, a common method used to update Sanborn maps. At that time the largest building on the land was the Tarpening-La Follette Co. Metal Shop; it stretched along the old tow path of the Central Canal from 10th Street north to 11th Street. Just south of 11th and on the east side of Tarpening-La Follette was the Gates Mfg. Co., and south of Gates was a sheet metal company.
It would be many decades before Indianapolis would again try out the idea of a manufacturing incubator. So many years, in fact, that residents now think they are experiencing a new, innovative idea, when, in Indianapolis anyway, an industrial incubator is an old idea. One that worked for a dozen years. A lesson from the Industrial Building for today’s incubators: Keep the sprinkler pipes full of water.
Connie Zeigler holds a master’s degree in history. She enjoys digging up a surprising, forgotten story and sharing her pirate’s booty with Urban Times readers.