In 1870, James Woodruff, a civil engineer from Auburn, New York, came to Indianapolis to direct completion of the city’s new waterworks. Woodruff bought a 77-acre parcel and laid out Woodruff Place east of downtown in 1873. His ideal for the development was a Victorian version of formal Italian Renaissance gardens. Three streets were constructed, each centered by a wide, landscaped esplanade with fountains, flower urns, and cast-iron statuary built to resemble the figures of Versailles. A fence would surround the purely residential enclave and isolate it from what might come later on surrounding land. Woodruff wanted prospective buyers to get the proper image of his community.
The financial panic of the 1870s bankrupted Woodruff, but other investors carried his plans forward. Woodruff Place incorporated as a small town in 1876, and remained independent until the 1960s. A stuccoed English Cottage-style Town Hall at 735 East Drive, designed by Elmer Dunlap in the 1920s, reminds visitors that Woodruff Place had its own government. In the 1960s, the community’s strong sense of pride began to lead to restoration and better maintenance of public fountains and private homes, with the Woodruff Place Civic League leading the neighborhood’s efforts. Later, the Woodruff Place Foundation began to purchase and restore homes. The Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission has designated Woodruff Place a local historic district, and the commission reviews alterations to historic properties within its boundaries.
Town Hall is a good place to start a tour of the neighborhood. The fountain in front is one of three original fountains. They and the cast-iron statuary were likely ordered by catalog from the J. L. Mott Iron Works in New York.
The cottage at 811 East Drive is a double-gabled bungalow with Arts & Crafts and Tudor Revival influences. Brandt Steele, son of famous Hoosier School painter T. C. Steele, lived here designing the home himself in 1904. Just south of the East Drive fountain, 686 combines influences from Tudor, Shingle, and Arts & Crafts architecture.
On Middle Drive by the center fountain are three houses that are unusual for their building materials. 756 Middle Drive, Stick style in appearance, is unusual for its dressed concrete block walls. 680 and 686 are two matched houses, both with concrete block lower walls and clay tile upper walls.
At 578 Middle Drive, architect Thomas Winterrowd designed a large 2½-story frame house with Queen Anne features and an arcaded Romanesque Revival/Shingle Style porch, c. 1890. The cast-iron urn on the esplanade in this location is the literary urn, with relief portraits of Shakespeare, Milton, and other greats. The house at 720 West Drive has Free Classic elements including the large, columned porch, bay windows, and center gable with Palladian window. 894 West Drive, one of the oldest remaining houses in Woodruff, is a riot of color, texture, and design in the Stick Style with its 1875 construction date carved into the gable end. The unusual house at 638 West Drive combines Romanesque Revival and Shingle styles with an interesting arcaded porch and circular tower/balcony.