The Indianapolis Propylaeum serves as an anchor to the Old Northside neighborhood. The Propylaeum’s creed is the place that connects and celebrates women and since its founding in 1888, has lived up to its mission. The Indianapolis Propylaeum is celebrating 100 years at 1410 N. Delaware this year. The original location for The Indianapolis Propylaeum was annexed as part of the War Memorial Plaza. To fully understand the Propylaeum’s history, we need to rewind a bit for context, specifically to the identify of its founders.
Rarely do well-behaved women make history. This is undoubtedly the case for the small gathering of women who entered the home of Martha Nicholson McKay in the fall of 1872. McKay and fellow schoolteacher Mary Colgan invited men and women to join them for the first meeting of the College Corner Club, a literary society aptly named due to its proximity to what would later become Butler University. One year later, in 1873, McKay was part of the effort to form the Indianapolis Woman Suffrage Society. It failed. According to McKay, “The air was thick with prejudice against woman escaping from her sphere.” (source: Indianapolis Woman’s Club)
It’s challenging for most of us to comprehend what societal norms dictated at the time. Astoundingly, it was considered scandalous for women to leave the home. It was dangerous to support something so bold as suffrage for women. However, grassroots efforts were slowly gaining momentum, and these women were doing what they could to perpetuate more meaningful pursuits in their lives and for others.
Disappointed but determined, McKay hosted the first Indianapolis Woman’s Club meeting on February 18, 1875. Among those in attendance was the indomitable May Wright Sewall.
Sewall was an outspoken natural disruptor. She was a free-thinker, educated, and a Unitarian. In 1888, She presented a radical idea to the Indianapolis Woman’s Club; to create a woman-funded stock company to own and build a building suitable for their meetings. It would become The Indianapolis Propylaeum.
The Propylaeum is named after the Greek word propylaion, meaning “gateway to higher culture.” Propylaeum means “a structure forming an entrance to a temple.”
On June 6, 1888, the stock company was formed, and The Indianapolis Propylaeum became more than a fantastical concept — it became a reality.
The cornerstone was laid on May 8, 1890, at 17 E. North Street, which was located between Meridian and Penn on the south side. At the dedication ceremony, which was attended by then-Governor Alvin P. Honey and Indianapolis Mayor Thomas Sullivan, Sewall, the first President of The Indianapolis Propylaeum, stated that The Propylaeum would be “the center of all those influences which make for culture.”
No truer statement has been said about the founding of this institution. Sewall is credited with founding three key organizations:
The founders of The Indianapolis Propylaeum made a living out of societal disruption and cultural formation. One of the original charter members of The Propylaeum is Eliza Blaker, who founded a teacher’s college that became Butler University’s School of Education.
In June 1923, three years after Sewall’s death, the Propylaeum’s original building was acquired to expand the War Memorial Plaza, and the organization purchased a large home at 14th and Delaware. The original cornerstone of The Propylaeum was moved to their new location, 1410 N. Delaware St., built in 1892 by John W. Schmidt, president of the Indianapolis Brewing Co.
A ripple effect of Sewall’s legacy and a noteworthy credit to The Propylaeum: the carriage house was provided to member Mary Stewart Carey to start The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in 1925 (where it remained until it moved to Garfield Park in early 1926). The Indianapolis Propylaeum was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
The Indianapolis Propylaeum continues to serve the community as a meeting place for literary, artistic, and social organizations in the city. Their programming includes the Marilyn K. Glick Women’s Enrichment Series, The Anonymous series, and many more. Their Porch Concert Series is open and free to the community, and many more celebrations are in the works to mark the 100th anniversary at 1410 N. Delaware. A popular and perhaps lesser-known fact about the Propylaeum is that it is available for private events and is frequently rented out as an Airbnb.
After more than 135 years, The Indianapolis Propylaeum continues to serve the community as a place for women by providing programs, a place to connect, and the gathering place for the female history makers of Indianapolis.
To learn more about the Indianapolis Propylaeum, visit www.thepropylaeum.org.