Return to 2004 Field School Home Page

Ward Banner

We completed our excavations at the Ward Site the week of June 7 and will finish our summer at Arsenal Tech High School.  Click on the Arsenal Tech page for more information on that project

Arsenal Tech 1917 litho

Landscape Archaeology at the Ward Site
By the eve of World War I California Street was lined with many of the homes that sit there today, and the block had become home to many well-educated, genteel African Americans who were professionals and entrepreneurs.  These residents' homes were not radically different from those of their neighbors in much of Indianapolis, but their yards were carefully cultivated public spaces that were unlike those of most homes in the city's near-Westside.  At 847 North California Street, peonies still persistently bloom, perennials remain sprinkled throughout the yard, and laid brick sidewalks and decorative edging remain on the site (or just beneath the surface) today.  Along the street, several back yards have the remains of fish ponds, and flowers and shrubs hold tightly where they were planted long ago.  While many of these yards only hint at their former glory, they nevertheless indicate how many California Street residents devoted considerable energy to their homes' outdoor spaces.

Contemporary home owners assume that residents will cut their grass, plant flower beds, and install a variety of yard decorations, but archaeology in the near-Westside has shown that until very recently many near-Westsiders probably saw their lawns as more functional spaces:  for instance, many residents washed clothes in the yard, kept animals such as chickens, managed small gardens, sometimes cooked in open fires, and often maintained hard-packed swept dirt surfaces, rather than lushly manicured grass lawns.  In contrast, archaeology at the Ward Site this summer showed how one series of households manicured their lawn, and it suggestively poses some distinctions between California Street homeowners and many other Indianapolis residents. Craig sits
Above: Craig is particularly happy to be sitting alongside a circa 1940 laid brick surface in the California Street  back yard.
Wade the Teacher The Archaeology Field School excavated a series of units throughout the front, side, and back yard spaces of the home at 847 North California Street.  These units contained an extremely small quantity of artifacts, indicating that the yard was generally kept very clean.  Most of the artifacts we recovered were discarded after World War II or along the rear alley line outside the house lot.  In contrast, the near-Westside yards we've excavated in past field seasons were mostly hard-packed dirt spaces that were unevenly grassed; this is what the backyards along Agnes Street looked like after World War II.  The homes along California Street had small front yards, unlike the Agnes Street homes that were built right up to the streetline.  Homes fronting the street were typical of much of urban America before the late-nineteenth century, which tended to make urban communities physically and socially close and contained.  

Left: Wade teaches some new archaeologists excavation technique.

However, when the Belzs' placed their home off the street in 1890 and gave it a front yard, they were part of a movement that viewed urban homes as private retreats separated from the cityscape by a lawn.  This was an idea that was most powerfully realized in the suburbs, including neighborhoods like Indianapolis' Woodruff Place.  Woodruff Place was an exclusive elite community built in 1873 for residents hoping to escape the industrialized city.  Unlike most of urban Indianapolis, the palatial Woodruff homes had massive front lawns, formal public esplanades, and nine Victorian fountains and many more vases and urns throughout the neighborhood.  

The apparently idyllic Woodruff neighborhood was a class-exclusive enclave for genteel Victorians, with entrance walls and fences signaling the neighborhood’s exclusivity.  Booth Tarkington was among the aristocratic residents who called Woodruff Place home.  In contrast, California Street's modest front lawn expanses would not have matched the pretentious displays of wealth in upper-class enclaves like Woodruff Place and North Meridian Street, but their careful manicuring indicates they inspired pride in residents. 

The California Street backyards appear to have been equally well-managed and were in many ways rather "public":  homes were separated by short fences between lots, so the Wards could peer across fence lines to the south across the full breadth of the block's backyards. This would have remained the case until garages consumed significant portions of back yard space, which began in the 1920's and accounted for much of the yards' spaces by the eve of World War II.  This communally shared nature of backyard spaces was typical throughout the near-Westside, and in fact many Indianapolis communities likely fostered close relationships along back yard lot lines.  Yet the Wards' yard and remaining yard features in the surrounding neighborhood suggests that the California Street residents shared some commitment to lawn aesthetics well before many of their near-Westside neighbors.

Click on thumbnail images to the right for larger pictures of the May 25 site visit from the Family of Christ Lutheran Church School.

gliddentour.jpg (55938 bytes)

bethflings.jpg (33987 bytes)
laurendigs.jpg (45011 bytes)

porch wall

Right:  Jessica walks by a concrete porch foundation and a single row of laid bricks (shown in a larger picture left).  The line of bricks along the front of a now-dismantled wooden porch was typical of the modest decorative features found throughout Ransom Place yards in the early twentieth century.

walking by wall

Richmond, Indiana's own Elwood McGuire designed the first mass-produced push mower in 1870, but widespread mowing of uninterrupted ornamental lawn space did not really take off until the turn of the century.  The City Beautiful movement was one of the most articulate Progressive voices arguing that beautiful cities would produce social and material reform among urbanites.  Most of their energy focused on civic design of parks, road systems, and public architecture, rather than domestic landscapes.  Their best-known Indianapolis champion was George Kessler, who planned Indianapolis' boulevard and park system.  Even then, though, some urbanites were slow to cultivate manicured lawns.  Consequently, the paucity of artifacts in the Wards' yard and the careful attention they and their neighbors showed to their yards suggests that at least some urbanites aspired to construct closely knit urban communities without the material decay many Victorians associated with city life.

Sarah advises Aidan

inches or centimeters?

so happy

For more details on the Field School's other summer project, visit our Arsenal Tech web page or  the IUPUI News Center's Arsenal project press release.  Please contact Paul Mullins if you have any questions about the project. 

Return to 2004 Field School Home Page

Page last updated June 20, 2004