TC Steele portrait of May Wright Sewall

The Propylaeum Part II: A History of Service Through Programming

During the Dedication Ceremony for The Indianapolis Propylaeum on January 27th, 1891, founder May Wright Sewall included the following in her address:

TC Steele portrait of May Wright Sewall
May Wright Sewall by TC Steele

The question that now makes us pause is not, ‘Will the Propylaeum be in demand?’ but rather ‘How have we lived so long comfortably without it?’

Viewed from its domestic aspect, the perfect result of organization will be attained only when through it the powers and capacities of women have been so trained and developed that every household shall be a House of Peers.

What possible connection, do you ask, is there between this flight of aspiration and the Propylaeum? The Propylaeum is a portal. Within this portal opportunities will multiply for men and women to meet at their highest intellectual level; occasions will multiply also for men and women to meet here in the practice of the highest social courtesies. Here will be dispensed the hospitalities of thought as well as those of the table; here men and women will meet alternately in the role of host and guest. Here the law of reciprocity will be maintained, and thus the building will gradually come to be the center of all those influences which make for culture.

According to May Wright Sewall: Avowed Feminist, an unpublished work by Hester Anne Hale (available at The Indiana Historical Society), the author states that Sewall had the idea for the Propylaeum as early as 1882. The first cornerstone for the original Propylaeum building was laid in 1888 and construction was completed in 1891, when the Dedication Ceremony was held. Attending the Dedication was then Governor Hon. Alvin P. Hovey, and the Hon. Thomas L. Sullivan, then Mayor of Indianapolis.

The first item of business within the walls of The Propylaeum was Suffrage, which included working for civil rights for women of color (this is well-documented from meeting minutes dating back to 1904). This is perhaps the best example of keeping a seat at the table. The Suffragists played the long game with Athenian efforts. One notable achievement was gathering over 10k signatures on a petition supporting Women’s Suffrage after Indiana’s Speaker of the House supposedly lost the original document.

For Sewall and the founders of The Propylaeum, culture consisted of the arts and education. In a paper written by former Propylaeum Board President Rose Wernicke and presented to The Indianapolis Woman’s Club, Rose examined the historical documents of The Propylaeum and discovered that club membership for The Propylaeum was officially formed in December 1923. Stockholders voted unanimously to adopt amendments to the Articles of Incorporation, keeping the original Propylaeum objectives, “to inspire a love for literature, music, science and the fine arts; to emphasize a sense of civic responsibility, to foster real culture and to furnish in Indianapolis a women’s social and cultural center.” While the Propylaeum is no longer a membership club, the semantics remain. Still to this day, The Propylaeum refers to “its membership”, with “donors” and “members” being interchangeable. All are welcome to engage with programming and events, and with a small donation, you are considered a supporting member.

“Serving our community through inclusivity and belonging is important to our mission,” states Propylaeum Executive Director Ali Brown, who also serves on City-County Council. “The Propylaeum has such historic significance and our mission is to be the place that celebrates and connects all women. We do this through bringing together our members and the community to focus on growing women’s leadership in our community, celebrating our amazing local artists, and protecting our past through historic preservation.”

The Propylaeum continues to serve as a meeting house for a variety of clubs, a few of which are some of the oldest in our state’s history — and were also founded by May Wright Sewall. The Indianapolis Council of Women meets monthly at The Propylaeum, and The Indianapolis Woman’s Club meets bi-weekly from September through May. The Propylaeum has a book club, which meets monthly, and Pages at the Prop celebrates local authors. On August 29th, Pages at the Prop hosts author Trish Whitcomb for a discussion of her book, Road Trip: Our Two Wild and World-Changing Weeks Behind the Iron Curtain.

Once The Propylaeum relocated to the mansion at 1410 N. Delaware, it began to rent out the entire home and its six bedrooms, which sleeps fourteen people. Weddings, bridal parties, baby showers, receptions, business retreats, and conferences are possible on the grounds.   

Educational programming remains a keystone of The Propylaeum. The Marilyn K. Glick Women’s Enrichment Series quickly became an essential program since its inception in 2016 with Eva Kor as the inaugural speaker. A new season begins on September 21st with Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette. This year’s theme is The Only Woman in the Room. There will be a panel of Women in Construction in November and cyclist, activist, and author Kathryn Bertine will be the keynote in April 2024.

Eventbrite Cover Image general

The Anonymous Series, started by The Propylaeum’s Executive Director Ali Brown, celebrates our Hoosier heroines, sharing the stories of lesser-known amazing women in our community’s history. August 9th, The Anonymous Series focuses on Women of the Labor movement, and John Alvarado will perform on August 11th to wrap up this summer’s Porch Concert Series.

The annual PROPerly Chic Style Show will be held in October. This fun mimosa-infused shopping event features the Secret Ingredient Fashion Show moderated by the indelible Barbara Boyd. There are Sip & Paint classes, and fitness classes held inside the Carriage House or on the lawn when the weather allows.

Salon Society is The Propylaeum’s annual gala held in November to support its historic preservation. After all, being on the National Register of Historic Places translates to “upkeep required”! This year’s theme is Vino and Visions, celebrating the artistic endeavors of Indiana women.

President Panel Womens Enrichment Series

Diane Tolliver, a long-time member of The Propylaeum, knew it was the place for her when she learned that founder May Wright Sewall was a proponent of women getting the right to vote and of women getting the opportunity to have an education comparable to what men receive.

“I hope our programs remain diversified to attract a wide age range of women (and men) and that our community engagement becomes more robust,” shares Tolliver, retired Forensic Document Examiner and Supervisor of the Indiana State Police Laboratory Forensic Document Unit. “I love the Propylaeum for the opportunities it provides to meet women from different backgrounds, different occupations, and different life experiences. This is one of the strongest points of why I remain a member of the Indianapolis Propylaeum.”

Sewall ended her Dedication Ceremony address with:

To us, this building is not an end, it is simply an instrument, a vantage ground, a place to do our work. It gives us a local habitation and a name. A local habitation so beautiful and spacious and a name of such lofty significance impose corresponding obligations. As the years go by, and our work as an Association unfolds itself, may the enlarged thought, the quickened sympathy, the heightened courtesy and the lifted horizon of our community attest our fidelity to the obligations we have incurred.

Since 1888, The Indianapolis Propylaeum has been the place that connects and celebrates women, building on its legacy to serve the women of the 21st century. They are certainly posturing to continue the mission for the next millennia.

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