Irvington Celebrates its Spooky Past with Halloween Festival
Irvington Halloween Festival
Secrets lurk behind the walls of many homes in Indianapolis’ historic Irvington neighborhood, which sits just 5 miles east of downtown. The community’s on the upswing with popular shops and restaurants now lining its main strip on Washington Street, but underneath the new development lies a neighborhood rich with history that’s both inspirational and — let’s face it! — downright scary.
When you consider Irvington’s colorful past and namesake (writer Washington Irving), it seems fitting that every October the neighborhood transforms into a Halloween-lover’s paradise, where ghosts of the past mingle with current residents. Irvingtonians embrace the Historic Irvington Halloween Festival and see it as an opportunity to celebrate an important tradition that brings in thousands from around the city.
Nothing embodies that tradition quite like one of the month’s most popular activities, the Irvington Ghost Tour. Although the idea of ghosts might seem unappealing to some, residents love the tour and it brings in money to local businesses and gives visitors a chance to fall in love with the community’s mystique. “I know of at least three people that bought a house in Irvington after seeing it during the ghost tour,” says tour leader Al Hunter.
Ghosts from Irvington's past
On the tour, Hunter tells Irvington’s story from its days as a suburban town in the 1800s, its stint as the home of Butler University from 1875 to 1928, its annexation by Indianapolis in 1902 and its progressive, strong-minded residents like George Washington Julian, a U.S. Senator and author of the 15th Amendment that gave African-American males the right to vote. Julian hosted several well known Civil Rights activists in his home, including Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.
Hunter walks groups down the picturesque, windy Irvington streets that display all the characteristics of the Romantic landscape design era. Many of the streets are lined with brick, as Irvington has more linear blocks of brick-lined streets than any other area in the city. The tour stops in front of places with notable history, such as the once home of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes. In the 1890s, historians say, he killed and disposed of over 200 bodies and at least one of his victims – a 10-year-old boy – was murdered and his ashes scattered on the property.
Although the thought of a serial killer scares some, Hunter tells the group that the victims are Irvington’s real heroes. Madge Oberholtzer surely fits the hero description. In 1925, D.C. Stephenson, the notorious Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and a major political influencer, kidnapped Oberholtzer, and brutalized her on a train and in the carriage house of his Irvington home. To escape the torture, Oberholtzer swallowed mercury pills, making herself so sick Stephenson took her to her home, also in Irvington. She died a few weeks later from a staph infection caused by the injuries. But before her death, Oberholtzer told police her story, leading to Stephenson’s murder conviction and, according to Steve Barnett, executive director of the Irvington Historical Society, the eventual demise of the KKK in Indiana.
Her braveness and fierce determination are what residents like to focus on, and Barnett says those qualities represent themes present in much of Irvington’s history: equality, justice and forward-thinking individuals. Abolitionists, including Julian’s brother Jacob, founded Irvington in 1870, building the town along the historic National Road, the first modern highway in the U.S.
Irvington housing styles
Today, Irvington is the largest historically protected neighborhood in Indianapolis. Restrictions placed on homeowners by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission ensure that homes in the original plat stay true to their roots. Unlike other neighborhoods in which one type of architecture is prevalent, the area contains examples of every major American architectural style from 1870 to 1950. Distinct styles include Queen Anne, Italiante, Victorian Gothic, French Second Empire, Arts & Crafts, Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival.
The community was also the birthplace of the Irvington Group of artists who lived and exhibited there in the 1920s and 1930s — and several of their homes and studios remain, adding to the vibrant mix of styles. Kin Hubbard, the early 20th century writer and humorist famous for his nationally syndicated Abe Martin cartoon strip, also resided in Irvington in an Arts & Crafts bungalow overlooking Pleasant Run Creek.
Businesses flourish in Irvington
Along Irvington’s main strip, residents crowd into local staples, such as Jockamo and The Legend, but business wasn’t always as good as it is today. Just over a decade ago, member Anthony Lineberry told friends he planned to open a high-end salon in the area — and they laughed. “People didn’t think anyone in the area would pay for a high-end hair cut or massage,” says the owner of highly rated Snips Salon in Irvington. “People were wrong.”
Lineberry isn’t the only one who worried about opening a business in Irvington. Amy Lee, owner of highly rated ReTULLEd Consignment Bridal and Evening Wear on Washington Street, says friends thought her bridal store would tank. “People think the Eastside is riddled with crime and that no one will shop here, but Irvington’s not like that,” she says. Lee and Lineberry live in the neighborhood, along with dozens of other business owners.
But Lee says she wasn’t surprised when her shop generated enough income to turn a profit just three months after opening in 2012. She credits her success to street improvements, increased visibility and the popularity of other Irvington businesses. “Everytime something else opens here, we get more foot traffic,” she adds.
Socially active neighbors
Perhaps influenced by its socially and politically active founders, residents have created more than 20 neighborhood organizations aimed at improving the quality of life, such as the Irvington Green Initiative and the Irvington Development Organization. Many of them also focus on improving and repairing their historic homes, so it isn’t surprising that any homes on the market typically sell quickly. According to property records, 34 homes sold in the neighborhood so far in 2014, with an average price of $131,882. “If a home goes up for sale, it’s gone really fast,” says Margaret Banning, executive director of the IDO.
Several options for good schooling also add to Irvington’s appeal. Aside from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School and IPS’ George W. Julian School 57, educators helped launch Irvington Community Schools, a K-12 charter school system.
Developing Irvington's future
Banning says the neighborhood is thriving, and she’s excited that IDO is partnering with Irvington Brewing Real Estate, LLC, to bring life and vitality back to the community’s former downtown, located near Bonna and Ritter avenues. It’s currently occupied by a few merchants and abandoned warehouses, but plans include a 50,000-square-foot retail development called the Coal Factory. Black Acre Brewing Co. plans to anchor the site with its brewing operations while still operating its taproom on Washington Street.
Banning says she hoped the Coal Factory would open this year but delays with permissions and permits have slowed progress. Development is also in progress on the Pennsy Trail, a walking and jogging trail built on the tracks of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. The trail will extend through Irvington, passing the Coal Factory and bringing in foot traffic to the planned restaurants and shops.
Hunter hopes the Coal Factory will flourish, as it’s an area close to his heart: Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train passed through on the railroad in 1865. Hunter, who ends his tour at this spot, says he developed his passion for history and ghost tales when his great-grandfather, a railroad man, told him about the event and the rumors that every year since, people see the train or hear its eery whistle.
Whether or not people believe in the Lincoln ghost train, Banning says she hopes this once thriving section of Irvington will soon be returned to its former glory.