Throughout the month of May, faculty, staff, and students hear the hum of race cars from their offices and classrooms as race teams prepare for this weekend’s Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). Today is no exception.
But, Marian University’s connection to the track goes beyond mere proximity. When, the Sisters of St. Francis made the courageous move from Oldenburg, Indiana to Indianapolis in 1937, they purchased the former home of one of the track’s founders, James A. Allison and made the 64-acre estate their new campus. The mansion was transformed into a Catholic college, housing the library, administrative offices, classrooms, and sleeping quarters for the Sisters.
Twenty-seven years earlier, in 1909, four Indianapolis entrepreneurs—Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby, and Frank H. Wheeler—pooled their resources to build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as an automobile testing ground to support Indiana’s growing automotive industry. The track quickly became more than a testing facility, and the first Indianapolis 500 took place on May 30, 1911. During those same years, Allison, Fisher, and Wheeler all built beautiful estates along Cold Spring Road. By 1968, the three estates would become a part of the ever-growing Marian University campus.
James A. Allison’s Riverdale Estate
Allison began construction on the Riverdale estate in 1910. Dubbed the “House of Wonders,” the Allison Mansion contained many state-of-the-art conveniences including an elevator, a central vacuum system, a telephone intercom system, pumped-in ice water, an indoor swimming pool, and the sophisticated indirect lighting systems favored by Frank Lloyd Wright.
After Allison’s death in 1928, the home remained unoccupied until the Sisters’ purchase of the estate in 1936. More than 2,000 curious Hoosiers got the chance to tour the mansion on August 22, 1937, after a newspaper article appeared in The Indianapolis Star inviting the public to visit. This was the first time the elaborate mansion was open to the public and large crowds continued to visit for the next three weekends.
Now, Allison Mansion is where you’ll find the office of Marian University President Daniel J. Elsener. The mansion is also available for conferences and events. In fact, many alumni celebrate their wedding receptions here.
Carl Fisher’s Blossom Heath
Carl Fisher purchased a home on Cold Spring Road in 1909 and immediately enlarged it, naming it Blossom Heath (known as Fisher Hall at Marian University). Fisher transformed the estate into a sportsman’s paradise, and it included a glass-enclosed indoor tennis court, a clay tennis court, a lawn court, a stable to house polo ponies, and a glassed-in swimming pool.
The Park School for boys relocated to Fisher’s estate in 1923 and Marian University purchased the school and grounds in 1968. Throughout its 47 years as a part of the Marian University campus, Fisher Hall served as everything from classrooms, to a theatre, to an art gallery. Sadly, Fisher Hall was razed in 2014 after a fire in February of that same year.
Frank Wheeler’s Hawkeye Estate
Frank Wheeler built his estate, Hawkeye, near his friends and business partners on Cold Spring Road in 1912. The estate included the mansion (known as Wheeler-Stokely Mansion), a 324-foot colonnade (the “dog walk”), an artificial lake, a four-story water tower, and an imported authentic Japanese tea house.
The Wheeler-Stokely Mansion was added to the Marian University campus in 1963, when William B. Stokely (third owner of the estate) decided that the house and grounds were too much to maintain and sold it to the university. The servant’s house, garage, and the water tower were in such a state of disrepair that the university removed them to make room for a much-needed student residence, Doyle Hall. Today, the mansion houses the Office of Admission.
Marian University and the IMS remain linked by more than proximity. In 2014, the university honored Mark Miles, chief executive officer of Hulman & Company, at the Clayton Family Circle of Honor and Wall of Fame Induction Dinner. The event was celebrated at the IMS in 2015 when the university inducted Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts quarterback, and Steve Downing, director of athletics at Marian University
Much of the historical information included in this story comes from History Makers: The People and Places of Marian College, a book published by Marian University in 2007.