This was one of the first cities to convert its sprawling but obsolete Union Station into a wonderland of boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs. That was a major part of the Indianapolis I remembered from a visit in the '80s.
Zippy Union Stations still thrive in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., but Indianapolis evidently figures it has outgrown the trend. I had booked a room at the Crowne Plaza, because its promotional material still bragged about its Union Station locale and pointed out that 26 of its 275 units were in converted Pullman cars.
When I pulled into the Crowne Plaza driveway, I noticed railroad luggage carts, complete with old steamer trunks and leather suitcases, flanking the entrance. White, fiberglass figures -- train ghosts! -- held positions around the lobby: a guy getting a shoeshine, a porter bending to pick up a couple of suitcases, a pair of nuns waiting to board an invisible coach, a sailor lighting a cigarette. . . . The bell staff wore the vests and caps of old-timey railroad personnel.
Themed-out and settled in, I was ready for a little Nap Town excitement, so I walked over to Union Station's front doors. They were bolted shut. An obscure entrance around back led to an indoor go-kart track -- and nothing else, except a Grand Hall and meeting rooms. All the rest of Union Station had been reduced to plasterboard and emptiness.
The loss of a grand, dazzling magnet like Union Station might spell the end for most urban centers -- the final gasp in a battle the suburbs won.
But in less than a block, I could walk into a new downtown Indianapolis that defied recollection. The only familiar sight was St. Elmo Steakhouse ("famous since 1902"). It held its place in a handsomely restored building, a part of town the street signs now identify as the Wholesale District. Everything else looked fresh off the shelf: the parking garage and micro-brewery across from St. Elmo; the big plaza commemorating the Pan American Games of 1987; the Circle Centre vertical shopping mall with its Nordstrom and Parisian Department stores; a dazzling glass atrium spanning Illinois Street with a sign that said it was the Arts Garden (a performance center and box office).
High-end restaurant chains like Palomino, Morton's of Chicago and P.F. Chang's stood ready to serve before or after movies at the multiplex or plays at the Indiana Repertory Theatre or shows at the American Cabaret Theatre.
Dazzled and disoriented, I walked into the visitor center at Pan American Plaza. Mary Roberts, the guest information officer, offered help.
"What happened to Union Station?" I asked. Roberts frowned as if dredging up a memory as distant as my own. "Oh, yes, it had many shops -- all upscale boutiques," she recalled. "I guess people did not want to spend that kind of money, and eventually the shops all closed -- the last one about six years ago. However, there is a racing car facility up there on the second floor."
That much I knew.
Outside the visitor center, the RCA Dome -- home of the Indianapolis Colts of the National Football League -- loomed like a giant pillow waiting in vain for a city that can't seem to sleep. A few blocks east, another dome, Market Square Arena, stands alone and forlorn. The Indiana Pacers of basketball fame moved to the brand-new Conseco Fieldhouse, three blocks south, one more imposing hump on the skyline. Big blue signs bearing a horseshoe imprint and a single word, "Believe," have been posted across town. The meaning? I suppose the Colts, formerly of Baltimore, have become a faith-based team.
TOPPING THE STATEHOUSE
I believe this is one of the few state capitals with two major sports franchises and domes and fieldhouses that overpower the dome that tops the statehouse. Besides the Pacers and the Colts, urban Hoosiers can stroll across downtown to attraction-filled White River State Park and Victory Field, one of those newly minted retro ballparks with real grass and quaint brickwork. Their Indianapolis Indians aren't big-league, but they do serve as the top farm team for the Milwaukee Brewers. Tony Perez and George Foster are among the Indians' distinguished alumni.
The most major of the city's major sports isn't downtown. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, since its founding in 1909, has been out in what's now the land of muffler shops and fast food. The Speedway needs plenty of room. Half a million spectators jam the sprawling grandstands on the weekend of Memorial Day for the running of the Indianapolis 500. Formula One racing is also on the racetrack schedule.
The Indy 500 track is 2 1/2 miles around. On a bus tour of the facility, a canned voice with a Canadian accent pointed out that the infield holds four holes of an 18-hole golf course called Brickyard Crossing. Our Canadian friend also urged us to notice some bricked pathways made out of the material that covered the original track, which now, of course, is a ribbon of asphalt.
There also was enough room in the infield for the famous Gasoline Alley maintenance area and a parking lot with row upon row of identical sport utility vehicles, all of them white. "Those are the official pace cars," the driver told me. "Oldsmobiles. They'll be painted up with the official pace car colors." I thought there was only one pace car each year, never stopping to think that they appear in an awful lot of dealerships after the race. In the Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, a display case holds models of pace cars past. All are American marques, and some, like the Indianapolis-made Studebaker, no longer exist. Oldsmobile, manufactured in Lansing, Mich., another state capital (and another story in this section), will be making its final pace car appearance before fading into automobile oblivion.
Nap Town (a term apparently as defunct as Union Station boutiques and future Oldsmobiles) was once an automobile center that rivaled Motown. Examples of bygone products like Stutz and Duesenberg glisten on the Motor Speedway Museum floor, as well as 30 of the race cars that won the Indy 500. When I dropped in, I could sense an air of anticipation. Workers in maroon blazers shared the lore of races past and buffed up the Oldsmobile pace car on display. A flashing electric sign at the main entrance -- where cars turn off 16th Street and drive right under a section of the track -- displays the exact number of days, hours, minutes and seconds until the next Indianapolis 500.
Five-hundred also might be the number of attractions that Indianapolis, the city, has to offer. Big-city people who care to drive the 185 miles from Chicago or the 246 from St. Louis might figure they have seen everything a big city can put on the table. But a good metropolis should have a few unique features.
Indianapolis is a good metropolis, at least in that regard.
For example, the collection at the stunning Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art is like an instant trip to the best of Santa Fe with fine examples of Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and Georgia O'Keeffe.
The Children's Museum, said to be the largest in the world, whacks visitors with high-tech, hands-on exhibits and four floors of learning experiences presented in wild colors and stunning graphics. Set your watch with the colorful water clock (also the world's largest) in the noisy atrium.
The Indiana State Museum is full of intriguing surprises, including a full-size, typical small-town Main Street and an entire floor devoted to the history of Hoosier broadcasting.
No other city in the world can display the original El Grecos, Renoirs, Van Goghs, Cezannes, Monets, Sargents, Turners and Hoppers that hang in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The museum has been tucked away on Michigan Road, across from the gigantic Crown Hill Cemetery (where native luminaries James Whitcomb Riley, John Dillinger and President Benjamin Harrison rest). Robert Indiana's big metal LOVE sculpture (you know the one) stands on a knoll near the museum's front door.
Inside, amidst the masters, I came upon a huge canvas by German painter Theodore Groll. It depicts a bustling, Victorian-era city scene entitled "Washington Street Indianapolis at Dusk." We get to see the state Capitol and surroundings as they looked in the 1890s (Groll was in town visiting relatives). A horse-drawn streetcar picks up passengers; grocery carts, buggies and pedestrians mingle in fine urban disorder; stores selling medicine, newspapers and furniture advertise their wares.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
The Capitol -- topped by a dome, its Corinthian details made of Indiana limestone -- was completed in 1888. Indianapolis (Indiana = "Land of the Indians" + polis, the Greek word for the center of things, i.e. a city) was created specifically to serve as the state capital, a place in the geographic center of Indiana, which joined the Union in 1816.
Now it's a city of 813,670 residents, some of whom work in skyscrapers that dwarf the otherwise imposing downtown war memorials and the statehouse itself. I wanted to get the same perspective on the Capitol that painter Groll captured, so I took an elevator to the 7th floor of the building that houses the Public Employees Retirement Fund.
"The view? Oh, we never have time to look out the window," receptionist Patrice Stevenson told me. She helped me find a conference room with windows overlooking Capitol Avenue, but they failed to duplicate anything like Groll's artistic vision. Cars jammed the thoroughfares. Plazas and high-rise buildings had replaced the little shops and vendors' stalls. The medicine on sale is Prozac, made right here by Eli Lilly. Indianapolis can be startling if you don't keep an eye on it. If change is good, the city exudes goodness.
"I used to live in Chicago, born and raised there," Patrice Stevenson said as she took in the unfamiliar view. "Then, 15 years ago, we left and came to Indianapolis. One day, my Dad just said, 'There isn't any sky left in Chicago. Let's go!'"
Stevenson should gaze out the window more frequently. She would realize that Indianapolis is fast running out of sky as well.
IF YOU GO
The 185-mile drive from Chicago to Indianapolis takes about 3 1/2 hours, via Interstate Highways 90 or 80/94 south and east to Interstate Highway 65 south. Exit at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street (Exit 114).
You'll need that vehicle, because most attractions are not within walking distance of one another. The downtown is walkable and has a lot to offer, but those who fail to venture beyond will miss a lot. Bus service isn't swift and the routing requires deep study. Use the car. Even during rush hours, I found the traffic kept moving fairly briskly, and parking is cheap and readily available by big-city standards.
I chose the Crowne Plaza ($121 per night, including taxes) in the mistaken belief that its home base, Union Station, was still a hot property (see main story). Even so, it's a fine location. Neighbors include the elegant Canterbury and most of the top chains, including a brand-new Marriott near the Capitol. Room rates across town range from $30 for the cheapest unit in a decent motel to about $175 in a luxury hotel downtown. The Crowne Plaza is at 123 W. Louisiana St. (317-631-2221).
In my initial bewilderment, it appeared that all the downtown restaurants were owned by out-of-town chain operations. That explains the $19 lunch at P.F. Chang's (in the City Centre, 49 W. Maryland St., 317-974-5747) and the $57 dinner at Palomino Euro Bistro (also in the City Centre, 317-974-0400). Both of them fine places, by the way.
Then I found the Majestic Restaurant (47 S. Pennsylvania St., 317-636-5418) in a corner of an 1896 building and enjoyed the thickest chowder this side of New England. An immense spinach salad helped assuage the guilt. Nineteen dollars for the lunch, including coffee.
Shapiro's Delicatessen Cafeteria (808 S. Meridian St., 317-631-4041) piles the pastrami (lean) fist-high. To get to the sandwich maker, you pass cafeteria cases laden with side dishes and meringue-topped pies even thicker than the sandwiches. Sandwich, bean salad and key lime pie: $13.
St. Elmo (127 S. Illinois St., 317-635-0636) is about steak, prime rib and such steakhouse classics as shrimp cocktail and creamed spinach. I passed on the shrimp cocktail, only to learn afterward that it's the signature dish with a sauce that packs plenty of heat. Next time. A small filet mignon, creamed spinach and drinks cost $75, including tip. Note: the meal price in our "Bottom Line" also includes breakfasts and other light repasts.
A weekender will run out of time before running out of things to do in Indianapolis, but the budget shouldn't break. The Indianapolis Museum of Art (1200 W. 38th St. at Michigan Road, 317-923-1331) is free, except for special exhibitions, and so is the Indiana State Museum (202 N. Alabama St., 317-232-1637). The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art (500 W. Washington St., 317-636-9378) charges $6, but that includes parking in the brand-new parking garage at White River State Park.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum (4790 W. 16th St., 317-484-6747) costs $3 for a visit to the museum and another $3 for the bus tour that roams around the infield and sometimes takes to the track when things aren't busy.
Adults pay $8 at the Children's Museum (3000 N. Meridian St., 317-334-3322), but there are all sorts of age and volume discounts.
The Indianapolis Indians (at Victory Field, 501 W. Maryland St., 317-269-3545) wind up their season Sept. 1 against the Toledo Mud Hens. Box seats go for $11, reserved grandstand $9 and unreserved grandstand/bleachers/lawn $7. Kids under 14 pay a buck less in each category.
I toured the James Whitcomb Riley house (528 Lockerbie St., 317-631-5885; admission $3; children 50 cents), not so much because I'm a fan of the Hoosier poet ("Little Orphant Annie"), but because the carefully preserved home represents a fine example of how life used to be in the Lockerbie section of town. It's a fine district to stroll and admire old houses, meticulously restored. Massachusetts Avenue art galleries are just a few blocks away.
In a corner of White River State Park, the adjoining White River Gardens and Indianapolis Zoo (1200 W. Washington St., 317-630-2001 for both) display flora and fauna with as much flair as space permits. A combination ticket costs $12.75 for anyone older than 12 and younger than 62. Seniors pay $9.50 and children 3-12 $8. Babies get in free. Parking: $3.