Written by: Murphy Hendy, Realtor
The magic of the past sings poetically through the rooftops and tree canopies of downtown's Old Northside, painting the grounded historic streets with an ominous yet strangely familiar haunt from yesteryear. There are few homes in the ONS (quite possibly, the entire city) that are as recognizable as the commanding Second Empire beauty that graces the southmost corner of Park Ave & 12th St with its iconic mansard roof, handsome 4-story tower, and an abundance of tall arched windows tucked neatly into the contrasting bright red brick facade. If you've ever caught yourself gazing-up at its splendor, whispering, "...wow, what a sight...", you are not alone. It is hard not to feel moved by this piece of our city's vibrant history, as it remains a shining example of the Second Empire aesthetic so beloved today. Welcome to 1204 N Park Ave: The Morris-Butler House!
The famed Second Empire style is also referred to (though less-so) as the 'Napoleon III' style, an eclectic blend of concepts and visual ideals taken from its 17th-century Baroque and Renaissance foundations in an effort to showcase the most alluring and desired elements of the leading design styles of the time as one collective manifestation. One of the most known examples of this style is found in the opulent Opéra Garnier in Paris, France (which was the result of a design competition won by a then-37-year-old Charles Garnier in 1861). This quintessential aesthetic flourished during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III in France (1852–1871) and had a wildly important influence on architecture and decoration throughout the rest of Europe and North America. 1204 N Park's birth year aligns perfectly with this dynamic but brief movement, as it was built in 1864 for John D Morris, an Indianapolis businessman working in the coal and lime industry, among other trades. The Morris family occupied the stately house until 1878, when it was sold to Noble Butler, a bankruptcy lawyer, after Mr. Morris became financially burdened by various business ventures and needed to free himself of the responsibility of maintaining his new lifestyle. Noble created many decades of memories in the home with his wife and 7 children until he died in 1933. His surviving daughter, Florence, would remain in the home until her death in 1957. Like many ONS masterpieces in the late 50s/early 60s, the Morris-Butler house was used in various ways over the years that followed (mainly gallery spaces, creative studios, and apartments) until it sold again in 1963 to Indiana Landmarks (previously known as the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana) with funds made available for the purchase by the one-and-only Eli Lilly (nearly 14 years before his death) in an effort to save the home from total demolition upon the early construction of Hwy 65/70, which now enjoys a dramatic curve as it approaches downtown from the east; visible proof of the power of Indiana Landmarks' efforts to save these timeless treasures from being lost forever.
By 1969, 1204 N Park was opened to the public as a historic home and decorative arts museum, furnished with Victorian items paid for by Mr. Lilly. Indiana Landmarks staffed the home with tour guides, coordinated further restoration, and hosted various educational and cultural events during this time. And by 1972, this cherished Second Empire was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Many decades later, it was decided that the property would be used for more specific, private events; rather than regular public tours, which are no longer being offered.
Today, interested parties can lease various event spaces on the first floor to celebrate keystone moments in their evolving lives (spaces such as the formal parlor, dining room, library, and the lawn). Visit www.indianalandmarks.org to learn more!
Next time you find yourself staring-up in awe at the incredible red brick stunner at 1204 N Park Ave, give a thankful nod to all the folks who worked hard to keep this magic alive so that we might be able to bask in its historical relevance and architectural splendor for years and years to come. Better yet, walk just a few steps west to 1201 Central Ave and visit Indiana Landmarks in-person; their beautifully restored venue is adjacent to the Morris-Butler home!
Great properties deserve great advocacy.
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