Massachusetts Avenue & Indy Fringe Festival

Massachusetts Avenue, one of the four original diagonal streets designed in 1821, runs northeast from Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis. The area prospered from 1870 to 1930 as a commercial service-oriented district, aided by streetcar lines and improved inter-urban transportation. The influx of German immigrants to the area prompted Bernard Vonnegut (grandfather of the author Kurt Vonnegut) and Arthur Bohn, to design the Das Deutsche Haus (The German House) as a place for music, social, cultural, and recreational groups to gather. Many of these groups or societies such as the Turnverein, a society based on physical fitness, and the Musikverein, a music society with a 60-piece orchestra, an all-male chorus, and a mixed chorus had their beginnings in these early groups. The Athenaeum Orchestra (originating with the Musikverein) still practices and performs here today. In 1907, the Turnverein agreed to let the Normal College of the American Gymnastics Union use their gymnasium in the east wing of the building. Subsequently, in 1941, the Normal School became part of Indiana University (now IU-Purdue), making this the oldest physical education school in the nation.

The strong anti-German feelings that accompanied WWI necessitated a change in the name of the building to The Athenaeum. German societies and many of their cultural activities fell by the wayside, and by the time of the Depression, downtown Indianapolis had suffered a sharp economic decline (as did most cities in the U.S.) and commercial growth came almost to a halt. Since the early 1990’s, however, the redevelopment of Massachusetts Avenue has been ongoing, with individual ownership of shops and restaurants encouraged and historic buildings restored. Today, the district has become a fashionable center for dining, shopping, and the arts, with five theaters, eight art galleries, and numerous entertainment venues.

Massachusetts Avenue, however, is not just commercial buildings and retail establishments, as many residents live above the many shops and restaurants. There are residential and park like areas throughout the district, which also connects to the Monon Trail, where residents and visitors enjoy walking, running, and roller blading.
The Avenue crosses the historic areas of Chatham Arch and Lockerbie Square, the oldest neighborhood of Victorian houses in the city. The Phoenix Theater, established in 1982 by a local group of theater artists, is located in a renovated old church in the Chatham Arch neighborhood. The Phoenix is known for its diversity of style and content in theatrical performances, in addition to sponsoring workshops for aspiring theater artists. The Theater in the Square, located in Chatham Arch, as well, is a community theater, with musical, drama, and comedy productions.

One of the main attractions on Massachusetts Avenue is the historic Athenaeum at 401 E. Michigan Street, built in 1894. It is a massive brick structure of German Renaissance design, with ballrooms, a gymnasium, and meeting rooms. The oldest remaining building in the city from the 19th century, it has kept the atmosphere of the old world with stained glass windows and animal heads. It is also home to the American Cabaret Theater and the Rathskeller Restaurant, also built in 1894 and the oldest restaurant in the city. The Rathskeller, in the basement of the Athenaeum, and the popular outdoor Biergarten feature the best in German cuisine. The Biergarten, open spring, summer, and fall, has live entertainment with local polka, rock, and blues bands. The Rathskeller is open for lunch and dinner, and late night menus until 11:30 p.m. at the Kellerbar. Reservations for dinner recommended – Ph: 317-636-0396. Other nightlife options in the district range from friendly taverns and restaurants such as MacNiven’s, Front Page, and Old Point to nightly live jazz and Sunday poetry readings at the Chatterbox Jazz Club, located across the street from the Murat and the Athenaeum. Comedy Sportz offers a night of hilarious improv, while the Murat Theater has some of the best in musical performances. One of the most popular entertainment venues in the district is the American Cabaret Theater. The Cabaret features a variety of productions such as Disco Nights, an interactive musical in a 70’s disco setting, with a live DJ and audience participation, and High School Musical, an updated stage performance based on the award winning Disney TV movie.

Outdoor art can be found everywhere and anywhere along the Avenue in temporary and permanent exhibits, in painted wall signs and graphics on store fronts and street corners. Visitors to the area will find impressive permanent sculpture such as Eric Nordgulen’s, Viewfinders, at the entrance to the area, James Tyler’s Brick Head 3, and The Phoenix by Dale Enochs. There are several fine art galleries in the district including the 4Star Gallery, Ruschman’s, and Kuaba.

The Indy Fringe Festival, held each summer in the city, is a major attraction on Massachusetts Avenue. Here, for 10 fun-filled days, visitors and residents can enjoy the huge variety of entertainment provided by local, national, and international theater companies and performing artists. Shows run approximately 60 minutes at each of the several theaters, and other acts and performances are ongoing along the Avenue during the 10-day Festival. Attendance has grown dramatically since it began three years ago, with over 9,000 last year and even more expected in 2007. This year’s Indy Fringe Festival opens at the City Market on August 23rd, with a street party at 5:30 p.m. Cost – $10.00/per person, $7.00 for students, children under 12 free; an additional one-time festival fee of $3.00 for all 10 days.

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