For several hundred thousand people expected to pack the city next weekend, the biggest draw in Indianapolis is the smoke and thunder of its signature auto race. For me, it was an old Smith Corona electric typewriter in a serene gray room. Next Sunday, the world will turn its eyes to the Indianapolis 500 as the race marks its 100th anniversary. But Indianapolis is a city worth visiting 365 days a year. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a.k.a. the Brickyard, is the city's signature attraction, and the city is known for other sports venues as well, like the Colts' spiffy Lucas Oil Stadium and the Pacers' handsome Conseco Fieldhouse. But Indianapolis also boasts one of the most attractive, visitor-friendly and walkable downtowns in the country. It has plentiful shopping, lots of music and theater, a wide range of restaurants and thousands of hotel rooms. Downtown Indy also has something few city centers can claim — a state park right in its heart, one that includes several impressive museums, outdoor performance space, a baseball stadium, a zoo and botanical gardens. There is also a delightful, sculpture-lined 3-mile canal walk where you can stroll, jog or bike on the broad sidewalks or rent a pedal boat to navigate the canal.
As of January, the city also has the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.
Vonnegut, the influential author of such landmark satirical novels as Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, was an Indianapolis native. After his death in 2007, a nonprofit foundation was created to develop the library, which opened this year.
Located in the historic Emelie Building, the library includes a gallery of art by and about Vonnegut, with personal items such as his typewriter and his Purple Heart on display. Family photos show him as a serious youngster, a shy preteen and a sweetly handsome newlywed with haunted eyes — he married not long after his World War II experience as a prisoner of the Germans in Dresden when it was firebombed by the Allies, the event that inspired Slaughterhouse-Five.
As a longtime Vonnegut fan, I loved the library's re-creation of his home office. In a smallish room lined with tall bookcases, an electric typewriter rests on a low coffee table that has a quotation from Henry Thoreau painted on it: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." In front of the table is a low-slung Danish Modern chair with a worn cushion — perhaps as ergonomically incorrect a workstation as can be imagined, especially for the tall, lanky Vonnegut. But it worked for him.
The shelves are stocked with titles that, according to his children, he had in his home library. I love peeking at which books other people own, and Vonnegut's shelves reveal a wide-ranging mind, with Colette and Joseph Conrad rubbing shoulders with Michael Connelly and Cormac McCarthy; John Steinbeck snuggled next to Danielle Steele.
Holding pride of place on one wall was a rejection letter to Vonnegut from Atlantic Monthly. He had an extensive collection of rejections, and the museum rotates the display every few months.
The topographic and sentimental center of downtown Indianapolis is Monument Circle, anchored by the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, a 285-foot-tall neoclassical limestone obelisk topped with a bronze statue of Victory.
During our recent visit, the usually bustling area around the monument was surrounded by chain-link fences, and Victory had been removed from her perch. The monument, which was dedicated in 1902, is being cleaned and restored, but it is expected to be back in shape by November in time for its transformation into a giant Christmas tree with strings of lights.
Monument Circle is ringed with retail stores and historic buildings such as the Columbia Club, Christ Church Cathedral and Hilbert Circle Theatre, home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Just to the south is Circle Centre, a four-story indoor shopping mall that covers two blocks and has more than 100 stores, anchored by Nordstrom and Carson Pirie Scott. Connected by skywalks to several downtown hotels, it has a nine-screen movie theater, scads of restaurants and the Artsgarden, a glass-domed performance space above the intersection of Washington and Illinois streets.
Pleasures of the past
For a taste of what shopping was like half a century ago, try a luncheon at the L.S. Ayres Tearoom at the Indiana State Museum. The restaurant is a reproduction of the one at L.S. Ayres, a long-gone local department store (its former space is part of Circle Centre), complete with creamy woodwork and wallpaper, bronze chandeliers and menu items like chicken velvet soup. My husband, who lived in Indy as a kid and sometimes lunched at the tearoom (wearing a kid-sized tie, of course) with his family, pronounced it authentic, right down to the Treasure Chest full of wrapped prizes for well-behaved young diners.
The Indiana State Museum is full of such vivid evocations of the past, all housed in a big, dazzling modern building, opened in 2002, whose outer sheath of limestone is studded with sculptural panels representing the state's counties.
Among the museum's attractions are an entire schoolhouse from an early 20th century immigrant neighborhood, eye-popping sculptures by Robert Indiana and an IMAX theater.
On our visit, the most popular exhibition seemed to be "Odd Indiana," an irresistible array of the kind of stuff you might find in your most eccentric elderly relative's attic — everything from a dugout canoe to locks of hair made into jewelry to a 1964 electronic desk calculator that was as big as a laundry basket and cost more than $2,000. Most popular, hands down, with visiting schoolchildren was a replica of a one-man-band contraption used by the Hoosier Hot Shots. We could hear the kids honking the horns and whacking the washboard and cymbals from two floors down.
Next door to the Indiana State Museum is the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, which opened in 1989. Housed in a striking building that is a contemporary take on Southwestern architecture, the museum is named for art collector Harrison Eiteljorg. It boasts a fine collection of paintings, sculpture and other art depicting the American West, with well-known artists such as Frederic Remington and Georgia O'Keeffe sharing gallery space with contemporary Western painters such as Howard Terpning.
Even more impressive is its collection of historical American Indian arts and crafts (don't miss the full-sized totem pole in the stairwell) and excellent contemporary work by Indian artists Fritz Scholder, Lorenzo Clayton and many more. A special exhibition during our visit, "Red/Black," was a fascinating look at the intertwined histories of Indians and African-Americans.
Go walk about
The Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum are both part of White River State Park, the 250-acre green gem of downtown Indy. The park also includes the Indianapolis Indians' Victory Field, the NCAA Hall of Champions and World Headquarters, and the Lawn at White River State Park, an outdoor performance space.
Winding past all of them is the Canal Walk. Its foundation was the Central Canal of the White River, built for commercial and industrial use in the 19th century but largely disused by the 1970s.
Work on the park began in 1979; today, the Canal Walk offers beautifully landscaped green space, pedestrian-safe walkways, a charming waterway and striking public art. Visitors strolling between the park's attractions pass residents out for a jog or bike ride, downtown workers lunching at picnic tables and families wending along the canal in pedal boats.
The first attraction to open at the park, back in 1988, was the Indianapolis Zoo, which is now triple-accredited as a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden. We visited on a drizzly day with two of our nieces and their families, who live near the city. The youngest members of our group, Gabe, 9, and his sister Ella, 5, served as our tour guides, pointing us to the giraffes and the dolphin show with assurance. Ella kindly helped us read our map: "We're here, and the elephants are right over there." (Elephant conservation is one of the zoo's ongoing projects.)
The zoo is designed to be interactive, as at the new bat exhibit, where Gabe stretched his arms to compare them with a silhouette showing the wingspan of the zoo's flying foxes, one of the largest species of bat. (The bat's reach was longer, at least for now.)
The zoo also includes the White River Gardens, a 3.3-acre botanical garden. Its huge Hilbert Conservatory, which sometimes serves as a dazzling butterfly house in warm months, this year is devoted to a lovely show of orchids. In the outdoor gardens, the most spectacular display was a sweep of beds bursting with tulips, blooming in every shade from palest pink to a purple so dark it looked black.
Taste of Indy
If walking to all those downtown attractions makes you hungry, you can find almost any kind of restaurant you like in Indy.
We went both old school and new, dining at one venerable Indy tradition and sampling one of the newest and buzziest places.
St. Elmo Steak House opened its doors in 1902, and walking in the door is a little like stepping back in time. High wood-paneled walls, stained glass light fixtures and sepia-tone photos set the stage.
Old-fashioned does not mean out of style, though. On a rainy Monday evening, St. Elmo was packed, with a line of men standing on the wet sidewalk because there wasn't enough room to wait at the bar.
And I do mean men; this is a male ecology. Not that the women scattered here and there in the dining rooms got the cold shoulder; St. Elmo is just a guy kind of place.
The menu is simple: meat and lots of it, plus a few other things.
There's just one appetizer, a signature shrimp cocktail that bathes the fat crustaceans in a tongue-searing sauce laced with freshly grated chunks of horseradish. (Our courtly waiter warned me when I ordered it that it was "very hot now, Miss.")
The smallest steak on the menu is a 10-ounce filet, the largest a 32-ounce bone-in prime rib. You can get chicken or fish, but in a place like this, why?
St. Elmo may only do a few things, but it does them very well. Our ribeye and lamb chops were perfectly cooked and succulent, the side dishes delicious, and the wine list impressive (heavy on the reds, of course).
Our other fave this trip was Mesh, which is on restaurant-rich Massachusetts Avenue. It was recently named best new restaurant by readers of the city's MetroMix weekly, and we could taste why.
The sleek dining rooms and welcoming lounge combine earth tones and midcentury modern design. There's also a spacious terrace with a big double-sided fireplace.
Mesh's menu takes the bounty of Midwestern farms — lots of local sourcing — and gives the fare plenty of modern touches. At brunch, while my husband chose an eggs Benedict variation that used delectable Clifty Farms country ham, I couldn't resist trying the restaurant's version of a Midwestern classic, fried pork tenderloin.
The pork was pounded thin, breaded and fried to a perfect golden crisp. But instead of being tucked into a sandwich bun, it was stacked over savory, herbed sweet potato hash and topped with a fried egg and a fabulous, velvety red-eye gravy.
Drawing from a proud past and adding a touch of sophistication, it was a dish that tasted like Indianapolis.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.