HISTORY OF THE PROPYLAEUM
On June 6, 1888, a corporation was formed "...to buy, hold, acquire ... a building to be used for literary, artistic, scientific, industrial, musical, mechanical, and educational purposes ...provide a center of cultivation for the public, and particularly the women of Indianapolis." The Board of Directors was chosen and May Wright Sewall, who had introduced this idea, was named president. The name Propylaeum, a Greek work meaning "gateway." was chosen for its name. The seal was designed after the likeness of the Propylaea in Ancient Athens. In December of 1888, a lot was purchased at 17 East North Street (the present site of the World War Memorial Plaza). In 1891 a dedication ceremony was held i the first building to house the Propylaeum.
In 1922 the Propylaeum was notified that the city would buy the building as a site for the World War Memorial Plaza and possession was to be given in 1923. The Propylaeum moved into the 1410 N. Delaware Street building in 1923 and remains their today.
"Sewall established a national and international reputation through several endeavors. She sought to enlarge the role of women in Society, to mobilize women and get them to play a larger role in this country and the world. She actively campaigned for a woman's right to an education equal to that offered men. She sought the ballot for women, firmly believing that once educated and armed with political rights women could stop war, clean up Society, and create a better world for humankind. By 1920, Sewall's fame as a women's rights activist, peace advocate, and spiritualist had spread so widely that she was one of the best known Hoosiers in the world."
Stephens, Jane. May Wright Sewall: An Indiana Reformer. IU Magazine of History, 1982.
May Wright Sewall
'Universal suffrage is the only guarantee against despotism.''
May Wright Sewall (1844-1920), U.S. suffragist. Speaking before the eighteenth annual convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association, held February 17-19, 1886, in Washington, D.C.
The importance of May Wright Sewall to women's suffrage cannot be overstated. Sewall was first among equals in organizing, promoting, and forming coalitions of women's organizations focused primarily on women's rights.
Sewall served as chairman of the National Woman Suffrage Association's executive committee. She also served as president of the National Council of Women of the United States from 1897 to 1899, and president of the International Council of Women from 1899 to 1904. Sewall was also an organizer of the World's Congress of Representative Women, which was held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. U.S. President William McKinley appointed her as a U.S. representative of women to the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Sewall became chairman of the National Council of Women's standing committee on peace and chaired and organized the International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace. Sewall was also among sixty delegates who joined Henry Ford's Peace Ship, a peace expedition in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the war in Europe in 1915.
Sewall settled in Indianapolis in 1874 with her first husband Edwin Thompson. Both Sewall and Thompson taught at Indianapolis High School which became Shortridge High School.
Sewall's second husband Theodore Lovett Sewall ran the Classical School for Boys and both opened the Classical School for Girls in 1882. The Classical School provided midwestern girls the opportunity to get an Ivy League level education. The girls school also offered physical education, which was unusual because it wasn't considered "proper" for girls to exert themselves and perspire.
In Indianapolis Sewall was known for her active involvement in numerous civic and cultural organizations. Sewall's most significant civic work included founding the Indianapolis Woman's Club, the Indianapolis Propylaeum, the Art Association of Indianapolis, later known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and its affiliated art school, the John Herron Art Institute, which later became the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI. Sewall also started the Contemporary Club and the Fortnightly Club. All Clubs are still in existence today.
The mansion at 1410 N. Delaware Street was built by beer baron John Schmidt in 1888. Schmidt’s father came to Indianapolis from Germany and settled on the Near Southside where he built a brewery. The brewery stood on the east side of South Alabama Street, and the Schmidt’s lived in a beautiful home across the street. John’s wife aspired to live on the Near Northside, which was referred to as the “Gold Coast” area.
Mr. Schmidt bought the Delaware property in 1890 and the house was completed at a cost of approximately $125,000. He incorporated many types of architecture in the home: walls are neo-Jacobean, limestone columns on the veranda are Romanesque, and the double doors at the front entrance are Georgian. Many agree that the general appearance of the structure is Queen Anne. The iron grill on the double doors was hand wrought by a well-known New York firm. The grounds cover nearly a fourth of a city block, and the design of the iron fence bordering the lawn was copied from an altar rail. An irregular hip roof and chimney pots provide an interesting silhouette and peaked dormer windows are ornamented with terra cotta scrolls. Researchers have found the Propylaeum is probably the only example of this type of architecture remaining in Indianapolis.
Two sets of heavy double doors lead to the spacious hall, with a formal reception room and music room on either side. The reception room has delicate Louis XVI plaster detail. All but one of the four fireplaces on the first floor are decorated with Rookwood Pottery tiles in fanciful designs. The stairway is curved with an unusual carved newel-post, and three brass chandeliers custom made with Victorian-style gas cocks and glass globes imported from France lend their own special charm. The second floor has six large bedrooms and baths plus a suite, all furnished with antiques. A large ballroom and servant’s quarters, typical of the grand manner in which well-endowed families lived, occupy the third floor.
George McCulloch, founder of the Indianapolis Star and president and general manager of the Indiana Transit Co., followed the Schmidts in ownership of the home. Then, in 1905 Joseph Schaf bought the property. Schaf, like the Schmidts, was a brewer with many other business interests including ice cream and real estate. Skilled Italian artisans enhanced the beauty of the home. Schaf’s daughter was married in the house and had her wedding reception in the parlor. The house remained in the name of various Schaf family members until 1921 when it was purchased by the College of Music and Fine Arts, a forerunner to the Jordan College of Fine Arts at Butler University. After holding classes here for two years, the college decided to free itself from the financial burden and the house was purchased with Liberty Bonds by the Propylaeum for $65,000.
In 1973, the Propylaeum was recognized by The National Registry of Historic Places. On May 14, 1985, the Propylaeum was presented with a Preservation Award for continued use and maintenance of an historic house by The Preservation Awards Committee, consisting of The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission, and the Central Indiana Chapter of the Society of American Institute of Architects.
The Propylaeum is open daily to the public who can take self-guided tours through the mansion, carriage house, around the grounds, and enjoy lunch in our Tea Room open Monday through Friday 11am to 2pm. We also offer a virtual history and tour of specific rooms in our video series If the Walls Could Talk.