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A live weekly radio adventure through Indiana history with host Nelson Price. Airs live on Saturdays from noon to 1 pm ET at WICR 88.7 fm in Indianapolis.

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March 04, 2023

Statehouse stories, including basement secrets

With the Indiana Legislature in full swing, it's ideal timing to spotlight the Indiana State Capitol, including history stories from its top (the dome) to its bottom (the cavernous basement, which once held everything from cannon balls to bathtubs for legislators and secret staircases). We also will time travel to an era before the current Statehouse, built of limestone, opened in 1888.

Before that, state lawmakers met in an earlier Statehouse built in 1835 that unwisely involved the extensive use of stucco on the exterior. Suffice it to say that the "stucco Statehouse" did not hold up well during Indiana winters. After the ceiling came crashing down in 1867 in the room where the House of Representatives met (fortunately, the legislature was not in session during the collapse), state leaders realized the stucco structure desperately needed to be demolished and initiated plans to construct the current State Capitol building. But there were controversies from the start with the so-called "People's House", including squabbles among prospective architects and cost-cutting moves that impacted the design of the dome, as our guest has written about.

Our guide for Statehouse stories will be a retired lawyer and lobbyist, Libby Cierzniak, who now writes a blog about Indianapolis city history, indypolitan.com. Her most recent blog post, titled "What lies beneath: Secrets of the Statehouse basement", describes an astounding range of creepy, colorful or just plain unexpected items and uses for the subterranean level.

Perhaps it's not shocking that a stuffed moose and mastodon bones once could be found in the basement, considering it housed the Indiana State Museum from the 1890s up through early 1960s. But cannonballs filled with gunpowder? Bathtubs for legislators and a bedroom? As Libby has documented, the Indiana State Capitol once housed the armory for the state's militia. And during the late 1800s or early 1900s, "perks" included bathtubs (for some state legislators) and, for one justice on the Indiana Supreme Court, a bedroom, or, as Libby put it, a "basement boudoir". A secret, spiral staircase in the northwest corner of the basement ended in the third floor "robing room" of the Supreme Court justices. Although the bedroom was shut down in 1920, the bricked-over entrance and remnants of the former staircase can still be seen in the basement.

To stay within the $2 million budget for the Statehouse in the 1880s, several cost-saving measures were enacted, including some that altered the original design proposed by Indianapolis-based architect Edwin May, Libby reports. Although May had won a fierce competition to design the building, Libby notes that rival architects created controversies and filed lawsuits that persisted during the long construction; May died even before the cornerstone was dedicated. According to Libby's research, items deposited in the cornerstone included 47 varieties of cereal and seed grown in Indiana.

Our guest Libby Cierzniak, who owns a range of Statehouse memorabilia, recently bought what she believes to be a set of original door knobs (adorned with the state seal) to the landmark building. She says such collectibles continue to be hot sellers at auctions. In addition to an extensive career as a lawyer and a lobbyist, Libby was a legislative staffer and a judicial clerk early in her career. The Indiana State Capitol is where, as Libby puts it, she "spent some of the most frustrating, exhilarating, exhausting and gratifying days of my professional life".

In 1988, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Statehouse, an extensive renovation was completed that brought much of its interior back to its original look of 1888. One difference, Libby notes, is the absence of spittoons.

She also has written about how, prior to the 1980s, only a "handful" of lobbyists were women, a topic that we will explore during our show (Indianapolis Collected: If These Halls Could Talk…). Libby has been a guest on several Hoosier History Live shows, most recently a program during last Halloween season that explored slaughterhouses and the world's largest saw factory that were located in Indianapolis.

The stucco-clad Statehouse built in 1835 stood at the south end of the grounds of the current Indiana State Capitol. Noting that it had been "crumbling since the Civil War", Libby points out that it was "demolished in the late 1870s and hauled away for $250".

Parts of the current building's basement also were criticized as deplorable periodically after it opened in 1888. "Over time, the sheer accumulation of discarded items began to pose a risk to health and safety of the workers who toiled in the netherworld of the basement", Libby wrote. "The early 1930s were especially dangerous. In 1932, rats gnawing on matches in a trash heap were blamed for starting a fire in the north wing of the basement."

In recent years, former storage areas were cleared and converted to offices for state employees.

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Roadtrip: Bates Hendricks in Indy site of Delaware Indian Camp

Guest Roadtripper David Steele, Indianapolis business and civic leader, tells us about an unusual marble tablet in the Bates-Hendricks neighborhood south of downtown in Indianapolis that has stood undisturbed for 120 years. It's at the entrance of former Indianapolis Public School #18, also called Lincoln School. It simply reads "Until 1820 Here Was a Camp of the Delaware Indians".

The tablet was the idea of the school's first principal, Helen R. Lang, who was a progressive educator and pioneering woman civic leader. In 1901, Miss Lang began her research of a Delaware Indian sugar camp when a skeleton believed to be Indian was unearthed in the area when repairing a street. She then hunted up some of historian J.H.B. Nowland's work on the early history of Indianapolis, and he described a sugar camp at this very location.

Helen Lang believed that the children in her school, and the public, should have more knowledge and understanding of the presence of Indians in Indiana. She pursued creating and placing this tablet with the Board of Education. The tablet was approved, and was paid for with Miss Lang's own money.

You can still see this marble tablet at the former I.P.S. School # 18, also called Lincoln School, at 1001 E. Palmer Street, Indianapolis, 46203.


 From the Hoosier History Live archives

The Hoosier History Live show was entitled "Eugene V. Debs: Hoosier Socialist, five-time presidential candidate", and if you click here you can listen to the podcast. Allison is director of the Eugene V. Debs Museum Home in Terre Haute, and Kim Hood Jacobs produced the television documentary "The Revolutionist: Eugene V. Debs".


 Prizes Sought

Would your business or organization like to offer prizes for the History Mystery on air question? Your business or organization gets an on-air mention by Nelson! Prizes must fit in a standard business envelope, as they are "snail mailed" to winners.  Email our producer at molly@hoosierhistorylive.org for more info.

We probably can't say this often enough, but we are an independent production group! Please don't necessarily contact the radio station for help. Our contact information is on our website at www.hoosier history live.org, where you can also sign up for our free weekly enewsletter. 

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We'd like to thank the following recent individual contributors who make this show possible. For a full list of contributors over the years, visit  Support the Show on our website.

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  • Florence and John Stanton
  • Aleta Hodge
  • Lorraine Phillips Vavul
  • Margaret Smith
  • Jane Hodge
  • Jeff Price

Molly Head, executive producer (317) 506-7164 
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Facebook logo links to the Hoosier History Live! page.Twitter logo for Hoosier History Live.Acknowledgments to WICR-FM, Fraizer Designs, The Indiana Album, Monomedia, Indiana Historical Bureau, Indiana Landmarks, Henri Pensis, Kielynn Tally, Genesis Brown, Leticia Vasselli, Heather McIntyre, and many other individuals and organizations. We are independently produced and are self-supporting through organizational sponsorship and through individual contribution at the yellow button on our newsletter or website. For organizational sponsorship, which includes logos, links, and voiced credits in the show, contact Molly Head at (317) 506-7164 or email her at molly@hoosierhistorylive.org

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