"Isn't it mesmerizing to look out there and imagine Tomlinson Hall being out that window?" says Tiffany Benedict Berkson - Victorian enthusiast, history detective, locavore with a taste for Indy lore and proprietor of HistoricIndianapolis.com - looking out from the City Market's Tomlinson Tap Room at what was once Indy's prime gathering space.
All that remains after a 1958 fire that led to the hall's demolition is a brick and limestone arch, which stands in City Market's courtyard so unobtrusively that you might just miss it. It's a launching point for Berkson, who's been deep in research on City Market and Tomlinson Hall - both built in the same year and designed by the same architect - while preparing to host a pajama party/historical treasure hunt to be held at midnight (just 36 hours from now) in the market.
"It was the first place in Indianapolis where everyone was welcome: women, blacks," she says, noting that Booker T. Washington once spoke there. "I think it's profoundly cool that we had a place like that."
"Profoundly cool": that's a phrase that sums up Berkson, in a way. She's fascinated by history, by its stories, its alternate realities that she can escape to; she enjoys the research process of going to a library and huffing dust; she's involved with the Victorian Society in America's Indiana branch (which will celebrate the three-year anniversary of HistoricIndianapolis.com at a July 19 gala).
And she's committed to bringing her discoveries before an audience of un-stuffy fellow "dorks," as she puts it, those who are savvy with social media, who want to be able to have a drink while talking about, say, trellises or Impressionism, who care more about stories and grand themes than dates and minutia, who aren't as interested in degrees as what can be done with those degrees.
The profundity is there, if not always presented in a footnoted style that would please a history major; and so is the "cool" factor, which has drawn a contingent of thousands of Facebook followers and has earned Berkson a spot on a list of local up-and-comers put together by The Indianapolis Star (not to mention a nomination for a Junior Achievement award).
Born in California, Berkson has worked as an actress - including a stint as a stereotypical extra - and a pharmaceutical rep. Her mom is from here, and in 2009, a few years after she moved to Indy to be closer to family - and around the same time she left the pharmaceutical world - she started HistoricIndianapolis.com, which has expanded from a simple blog to include a video component (featuring Berkson touring local sites), as well to putting together live events, like the City Market pajama party.
The following interview, conducted over a beer at the Tomlinson Tap Room, is edited for space, clarity and to protect the innocent.
NUVO: Tell me more about the Historic Indianapolis Pajama Party.
Berkson: This idea came out of a survey I did earlier this year. Everything people had to say was positive, but they wanted more - more in-depth articles, more pictures, more learning opportunities. There are so many fantastic historic places that we have left, but they all have their struggles. So the City Market event is a great marriage: It gets people out and about, and it helps them see and appreciate City Market in a new way, to get people excited about history and historic spaces, to engage with them in a new way. My goal is that everyone who comes leaves with a different perspective on the space than they had before.
NUVO: What got you interested in the Victorian era?
Berkson: We all have our passion for certain eras. For me I really used to love all of the frou-frou of the Victorian era. But now I'm fascinated by the history of the period - that it was during the Industrial Revolution, that Indianapolis made huge leaps forward, because it was during the Civil War that we had the first big population boom, with the prison camp and other military training facilities located here. A lot of the names on buildings and streets are from that era, that pre-1901 crowd. They set the stage for what Indianapolis would become. I love how industrious people were; it's when we got the reputation of being a land of opportunity. You have stories of people like our mayor, Thomas Taggart, who came here from Ireland with less than a dollar in his pocket and ended up being owner of French Lick Springs Hotel and being mayor of a thriving Midwest city. That's an awesome story, and that's what excites me about the Industrial Revolution: That these people, with nothing but guts, brawn and determination, made things happen.
There are things I wish we could return to from that period. People ask if we can make public transportation more effective. Well, hello! We already had it. Rather than looking at the past for the past, it's looking at the past to see what it can become again. I think Indianapolis was a really thriving metropolis in its day - and I think we're heading there again. A few of the right moves and we can become a player on a national level - and I'm not talking about sports.
NUVO: Indianapolis went through another big building and population boom in the '60s and '70s.
Berkson: I wince when I think of that period, because it was when a lot of buildings that I could shed tears over were destroyed. This city has been very good at tearing stuff down. I think our license plate should be changed: "You build it; we'll knock it down."
NUVO: But would we have grown and attracted businesses while maintaining the city's supposedly outmoded infrastructure?
Berkson: I don't think that's a fair question, really. Where there's a will there's a way; we could have maintained historic buildings without compromising economic growth. We keep trying to apply broad answers to questions that should be handled on an individual basis. For example, when the Mayor talked about demolishing 2,000 houses. He's trying to wipe the slate clean, but that just creates a whole new set of problems, because what's happening to the empty lot? I interviewed a lady who lived next to a house that had a couple issues and had gone into foreclosure. She said that she didn't want them to demolish it because she wanted a neighbor here. And if it were demolished, who would cut the grass, who would pick up the trash.
NUVO: One could look at Detroit, which has an urban jungle feel now, because there are so many empty, overgrown lots.
Berkson: In general, we're such a wasteful country. I scrub my toilet with an old T-shirt, and there are other countries that would love to have that T-shirt. Well, pre-toilet cleaning.
NUVO: You launched HistoricIndianapolis.com in 2009. How did that come about?
Berkson: I go to the library all the time. I'm a dork and a half, and I love looking through microfilm and dusty archives. I'm the kind of person where, when I watch a movie, I don't just watch the movie, I become part of the movie, I'm so emotionally invested in it. It's the same thing when I look through archives. I want to tell people to come look at this; I get so excited and I want to share. So that's how it started: I though, this is cool, and I'm sure there are some other dorks out there who will think so too.
NUVO: And at this point you're trying to find a way to keep the site going - and to make an income off of it.
Berkson: I would love to partner with a historical or preservation organization, for instance. The reason I think HI is taking off is because I'm taking an old thing and putting a new twist on it. I think the established, older crowd is proceeding in an established fashion - and when someone like me comes along and says, hey, let's do this; no, I don't have a history degree but I have passion out the wazoo - they're like, you're a mess. I think people want what I have, but they don't know they want what I have until they see it. It's heartening when I get those emails like: I didn't even think I liked history, but here I am three hours later - thank you very much. That just really makes my day, and it makes me feel like I'm making a contribution.
Learning my own story, geneology-wise, has really brightened the world for me. It's kind of like I've found Jesus and I'm trying to testify - but let's just say I've found my own uniqueness, and I want to help everyone else find their uniqueness too. I guarantee you, you could find some unique relationship to this building, just as I could; we all have ways that we're connected that we don't even see. The more you know a place, the more you can love it; so come with me, get to know a place, and the world will be Technicolor.
What I try to do is dial it down to its most salient points. Tell me three things about a building I wouldn't have known when I walked in here. These columns here were built by Hetherington & Berner, and the interesting thing about them is that I was at the Historical Society a few years ago, doing some research, and someone came along named Heatherington. So I said, "Hetherington! Are you related to Fred Hetherington?" And he said, "Yeah; how'd you know? He was my great-grandfather." "Oh, my God; he lived on the 1900 block of Alabama in 1900." And he was like, "What the hell?"
NUVO: You're the kind of person people expect to run into at a historical society.
Berkson: I guess; most people are way tamer than me. So it turns out that Hetherington & Berner had a really cool old factory on Kentucky Ave., which was torn down a couple years ago. So it's like I play this giant game of six degrees of separation with myself everywhere I go in Indianapolis. And I think that other people, if they did that too, would have so much fun. I hope I'm not coming off as too goofy.
NUVO: Nah, just enthusiastic.
Berkson: If I were a superhero, I would be the history superhero, and I would have a big H on my back, and I'd fly around and find archives.
NUVO: It's all on tape. So...you've been doing research on the illustrator Virginia Keep Clark.
Berkson: She was a portraitist and illustrator who lived in the house next door to me; she illustrated some early books that were published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company here in Indianapolis. Her cousin, Lillie Bliss, was one of the three founders of the MoMA in New York. I'm now friends with her nieces and great-nieces; it's been a spectacular journey, and it's brightened my world. I've been researching her for seven years, and it's on my bucket list to write a book about her, if not a screenplay about my connection to her. I will be really excited to tell the story about researching Virginia because, in researching her, it was almost like I was researching myself. The stories that need to be told about people finding their strength and inner wisdom within, rather than finding it in another person, relationship-wise.
NUVO: Do you like her work?
Berkson: I do; it's not all amazing, but there's one piece I want so badly that's belongs to the family. It looks absolutely like a Cassatt; it's absolutely beautiful. It's of Nancy, who was four and is now 92, at Oyster Bay.
NUVO: Was she collected in museums?
Berkson: No, not really, but she's in the miniature collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.
NUVO: And how does her story demonstrate strength and wisdom?
Berkson: Well, because of the fact that she was born in 1878, and that she went, by herself, to the Art Institute of New York, following her dreams and married relatively later in life, at age 28, and never had children. She painted her whole life, so while she was married, she made money - and I heard from the family that there were times when her husband made poor business decisions, but they remained in the upper crust of society, because of the money she made through her portrait work. It changed the way I tour a museum, even: When I go to the Met, I'm looking at the tags to see who donated the piece - oh, she's Virginia's friend; oh, she studied with her.
NUVO: Do you think you could fall in love with other cities, or is there something special about Indianapolis?
Berkson: Oh, there's definitely room in my heart for other cities. I've been very fortunate to have the chance to travel. I lived in Spain as a foreign exchange student; I studied theater in London for a year; I've been one of the most fortunate people I know.HistoricIndianapolis.com
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