Kurt Vonnegut’s Indianapolis

Mention Indianapolis these days and many of us think of Peyton Manning and the Colts. In fact, the city has become a major sports town, with established pro football and basketball teams, the Indy 500, and the headquarters of the NCAA. But Indianapolis also has a literary side–as the hometown of author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. As he said in 1986 to a high school audience in his town, “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”

Vonnegut claimed that many of his beliefs derived from his education in the public schools of the city: “I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it.” And he began his writing career editing the Tuesday edition of The Shortridge High School Echo.

In addition to getting his education in the city, Vonnegut was affected by the distinct mark his family made on Indianapolis’ landscape. The Vonnegut family grew wealthy selling hardware in the city, but the novelist’s grandfather refused to join the family business. He became an architect instead and designed Das Deutsche Haus (above), which is known as the Athenaeum today and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The building is thought of as “the best preserved and most elaborate building associated with the German American community of Indianapolis.” Germans immigrated to Indiana in large numbers during the second half of the 19th century, and Bernard Vonnegut played a role in transforming the Indianapolis community to represent this new German flavor. The building originally housed a German gymnastics club after its completion in 1898. It was renamed “Athenaeum” during the world wars because of anti-German sentiment.

The writer’s father continued the family tradition, designing many important Indianapolis buildings. Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., oversaw the moving of the Indiana Bell Telephone Company building (now the SBC building) to a new location in 1930. He and his team were able to move this eight-story building 52 feet south, rotate it 90 degrees, and then move it 100 feet west so it would face Meridian Street downtown. They were able to keep the entire building, including the over 500 long-distance telephone circuits, in full service during the move, which took just under a month. The building has been added to since, but it retains its original bones and still sits at 240 N. Meridian Street (north of Monument Circle, not far from both Lucas Oil Stadium and Conseco Fieldhouse).

Vonnegut grew up on Illinois Street and attended Public School No. 43 (the James Whitcomb Riley School). The Vonnegut Room in the Athenaeum is dedicated to the family.