Experience Old Fort Wayne Anew
Fort Wayne, Indiana
Saturday, September 22, 2018
By Nelson Price | Photographs by Randy Lehman
The internationally renowned Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library, a majestic county courthouse, and a lavishly restored historic theater were among the sites that the Pioneers toured during the Fall Pilgrimage to Fort Wayne. The visit to Indiana’s second-largest city – located at the confluence of three rivers – was on September 22. Just like the Spring Pilgrimage earlier in the year, it was a sunny day.
Including the Pioneers and guests traveling on a motor coach from Indianapolis – and others from northeastern Indiana who joined the group upon arrival in Fort Wayne – nearly 40 participated in the Fall Pilgrimage. The first destination was one of only 37 buildings in the state designated a U.S. National Landmark: the Allen County Courthouse. Generally considered the most lavish county courthouse in Indiana, it was built beginning in 1897 and dedicated in 1902. A major renovation began in 1994. According to folklore, Allen County residents hoped to match or exceed the Indiana Statehouse in grandeur.
Docents at the courthouse described its stunning features, including sculptures, gold leaf throughout the building, stained glass, and paintings by renowned artists. The Pioneers were divided into subgroups, with each touring three courtrooms.
The next destination was another elegant historic structure: the Bass Mansion, known as “Brookside”, which was initially built in the 1890s, then rebuilt during the early 1900s after a fire. The country estate of Fort Wayne entrepreneur John Henry Bass became, during the 1940s, the campus of the University of St. Francis.
Brookside, which recently underwent a $1 million renovation, is the main administrative building of the university; 2,300 students in Fort Wayne attend St. Francis. Led by staff and docents, the Pioneers toured Brookside and marveled at its ornate features, which include 13 fireplaces, window blinds made in Austria, and high ceilings decorated with artwork.
The group’s luncheon was also at a repurposed historic site: a former natural gas plant now a popular waterfront restaurant on the St. Mary’s River called Don Hall’s Old Gas House. It’s the centerpiece of a range of restaurants owned by a well-known Fort Wayne family. In a stroke of luck, the grandson of founder Don Hall – Ben Hall, who serves as the general manager of the Old Gas House – was at the restaurant during the Pioneers’ luncheon and stopped by to describe the evolution of the former industrial building. It was constructed during the early 1900s; according to Ben Hall, his grandfather purchased it in 1957. The Old Gas House is located near major revitalization projects underway in the historic riverfront area in Fort Wayne.
After lunch, the Pioneers visited the Allen County Public Library, where renowned genealogist Curt Witcher, the manager of the Genealogy Center, spoke to the group about the importance of family history research and answered questions. Along with several of his colleagues, Mr. Witcher also took subgroups of the Pioneers on tours of the library’s Discovery Center and its special collections. They include historic Bibles (one belonged to the wife of Fort Wayne’s namesake, Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne) and artifacts that once had been exhibited at the former Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne.
The final destination of the Fall Pilgrimage was the lavish Embassy Theatre, built in 1928 as a movie palace and vaudeville house. The Pioneers enjoyed extensive backstage tours of the Embassy, which was spared from the wrecking ball during the 1970s and has had extensive renovations.
Its crown jewel is a pipe organ with four keyboards and 1,200 pipes. After the backstage tours, the Embassy Theatre’s organist answered questions and played various selections – including a rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana” – for the Pioneers. It was an appropriate and memorable way to conclude the Fall Pilgrimage.