How the Vonneguts built Indianapolis 

Looking up at the architecture that shaped Indy and Kurt Vonnegut's writing

click to enlarge Das Deutsche Haus Athenaeum
  • Das Deutsche Haus Athenaeum

On the corner of Washington and Meridian, fiction and architecture fuse under the name Vonnegut. In the shadows of the building designed by his grandfather, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. began his best-selling novel Breakfast of Champions by remembering a syphilitic man trying to cross the street in downtown Indianapolis.

This is where Vonnegut's inspiration began – walking around the city built by his family. Along the street and in every direction there are buildings designed by his father and grandfather.

In an interview with NUVO before his death, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. described his relationship to the city of Indianapolis and mentioned the exact location described in Breakfast of Champions:

"My special situation was that I was the son and grandson of architects. And so I saw building. We were building the city, and that was exciting. The thing my father was proudest of was the Ayres clock at the intersection of Washington Street and Meridian," said Vonnegut.

click to enlarge img_6838.jpg

All three generations were builders and creators whose influence can be found around Indianapolis today. Vonnegut's grandfather, Bernard Vonnegut, has a list of accomplishments that includes the First Chamber of Commerce in Indianapolis, the Athenaeum, the William H. Block Company building, Shortridge High School, the John Herron Art Institute and many others. His father, Kurt Vonnegut Sr., designed the All Souls Unitarian Church, Indiana Bell Telephone Building and several signature art deco buildings throughout Indianapolis.

I spoke with CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, Julia Whitehead, about the influence of all this architecture on Vonnegut's writing and world view:

"Vonnegut did speak about being a writer child of an architect," says Whitehead. "He said that relationship with architecture allowed him to design "radically novel structures which turned out to be habitable.

"I continue to learn things about Kurt Vonnegut that bring a smile. I was talking with his New Yorker friend Sidney Offit about what it was like to walk down the streets of New York with Kurt. Sidney made the comment that Kurt once pointed out to him a business that was way up in the window of a high rise. Kurt asked if Sidney ever noticed it, to which Sidney replied, 'No.' Kurt said that no one notices it because no one is ever looking up."

Not only did Vonnegut look up, he looked within himself and his hometown. Chris Lafave found a connection to Vonnegut while reading Breakfast of Champions as he graduated from college and went on to work as the memorial library's curator.

"I think quite a bit of his pride in Indianapolis (the city is mentioned in most of his works, both fiction and non-fiction) comes from being able to walk around a city in his youth and relate to many of its buildings and landmarks," says Lafave.  Nothing will bond you to a city more than knowing your ancestors built it."

And those landmarks and buildings are being used and repurposed every year. Just down the street from the Breakfast of Champions intersection is the latest project to renovate a Vonnegut building that was built in 1922. The 12-story building at 130 East Washington Street was sold for $9.5 million to Onward Investors LLC. Because the building is in the locally designated Monument Historic District and the Washington Street-Monument Circle National Register Historic District, the IHPC will be approving plans as they are made for the building.

"The work approved entails removing the existing first and second floor granite façade, replacing it with a glass and metal canopy," says Emily Jarzen, Sr. Architectural Reviewer for the Department of Metropolitan Development. "New windows will be installed in the south, west and north elevations."

Efforts like these to preserve the Vonneguts' historic buildings are also at work in the Athenaeum global. Formerly known as Das Deutsche Haus, the Athenaeum is one of the most iconic buildings designed by Bernard Vonnegut. It is home of the Rathskeller, Indianapolis's annual German Fest and lavish German Renaissance Revival architecture. President of the Athenaeum Foundation, Cassie Stockamp, tells me it was also Kurt Vonnegut's favorite family building in Indianapolis. She is one of many who constantly work to protect and share the history of the Athenaeum.

"The historical roots literally ground us to our heritage. The German philosophy behind the Freethinkers is important to our heritage," says Stockamp. "They were abolitionists, believed in women's rights and the freedom of thought. We have everything from church to Burlesque. It doesn't matter whether I agree with it or not, and that comes from our roots.

"I think of Vonnegut as a man who questioned. He didn't approve of the status quo. I think there's still an influence of that."

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