The Romanesque brick arches stretched out in all directions, disappearing into the shadows of the dimly lit underground chamber.
Barrel-vaulted ceilings and sturdy stone pillars rose out of the musty dirt ground, slicked by the constant drip of water from the surface above.
The scene seemed pulled from the eerie solitude of Europe’s catacombs. But this Gothic horror was just a few feet below Indianapolis’ modern skyscrapers and traffic-packed streets.
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The City Market Catacombs have been in existence since the 1880s, but still are a secret to most of the public. The remains of a grand meeting hall that used to stand in downtown Indianapolis is a callback to the city’s architectural history.
Only recently has the public been able to venture into the labyrinth, facilitated by tours offered twice each month by preservation group Indiana Landmarks. More than 2,000 people have taken the opportunity to step into another world.
“There’s something exotic about the word ‘catacomb,’” said Gwendolen Raley, director of Indianapolis volunteers and heritage experiences for Indiana Landmarks. “It’s a space you don’t see from ground level, and there’s an inherent curiosity about something that’s underground.”
Despite the name, no one is buried in the City Market Catacombs.
Rather, the series of archways and hallways are what remains of a formerly iconic Indianapolis building. Tomlinson Hall was an imposing building which could seat 3,500 people, situated adjacent to the existing City Market.
“It was a huge structure. It almost looked like it was four or five stories, even if it was only two,” said Mary Kummings, a volunteer tour guide for Indiana Landmarks.
The grand hall was designed by Dietrich Bohlen, the same man who created the City Market and the nearby Morris-Butler House. Construction was completed in 1886, and the imposing building housed orchestra performances and other cultural events.
John Phillip Sousa conducted concerts in the space. The first basketball game ever played in Indianapolis — featuring Yale University vs. players from the local YMCA — was in Tomlinson Hall.
For 71 years, the hall was a centerpiece of downtown Indianapolis. But in 1958, a fire destroyed the structure, forcing city officials to knock the building down.
The walls were still standing, but the interior had fallen in. It would have been way too expensive to rebuild, Kummings said.
Above ground, the only indication that Tomlinson Hall had existed is a single arch that stands on the pedestrian plaza. But underground, its history survives.
Arches and vaults fill the 20,000-square-foot space, arranged in all directions.
“It’s mainly a subterranean expanse of brick arches,” Raley said.
Huge limestone pillars, measuring 4 feet by 6 feet, provided the main support for the building above. Visitors can see the rough edges where the stone was carved out of the quarry, with marks from the slots where dynamite charges were set, Kummings said.
The earliest reference to it being referred to as “the catacombs” comes from the 1970s, Raley said.
The catacombs are owned by Indianapolis City Market, which maintains the space as well as the bustling marketplace on the surface. Organizers were looking for new ways to redevelop that space.
Indiana Landmarks became involved with it during the lead-up to Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. The organization, focused on historical preservation, wanted to do something special to spotlight the city’s architectural heritage.
Limited tours were given in the catacomb space, which proved to be immensely popular, Raley said.
“We found that it was more local people who came to the tours than folks from out of town. So we decided to keep it going,” she said.
Partnering with Indianapolis City Market, the organization provides tour guides and leads the excursions underground.
Guides provide some historical context above-ground, before descending into the dark basement and explaining some of the more unusual features.
Records aren’t clear what the tunnels were used for, though they are believed to play a part in the city’s history, Raley said.
During the devastating floods of 1913, when water swamped many of the city’s lower-lying neighborhoods, the space was used to keep disaster relief supplies. Often during the coldest of winters, the homeless were given refuge in the space.
Most likely, it was a place where the merchants selling at the market could keep their goods cool.
“You can infer that it was used for storage or things like that, but as far as a documented timeline, that doesn’t exist. So people can use their imagination,” she said.
Even though the catacombs weren’t used for burials, like similar spaces in Paris, Rome and Salzburg, some mystery does surround Indianapolis’ version.
People who have taken photographs on the tour have claimed to captured strange blurs or blips of light, Kummings said. Around Halloween, it’s common for groups to come down looking for spirits.
“Friendly spirits only, though,” Kummings said.
The tours run in half-hour sessions every first and third Saturday of the month from May to October. Though all ages are welcome on the tour, it is not handicap-accessible, since the rough dirt floor can be uneven in parts. Visitors are asked to watch their steps, as bits of stone and abrupt depressions can appear out of the shadows.
Organizers have been surprised at how many people have wanted to see the catacombs area, with more coming every year.
“Much to our pleasant surprise, it’s stayed popular,” Raley said. “We have the capacity to take 150 people each weekend we do the tour, so that’s about 300 people each month.”
City Market Catacombs
What: The underground remains of former Tomlinson Hall, a 3,500-seat performance hall that burned down in 1958.
Size: 20,000 square feet
Where: Underneath the outdoor Whistler Plaza at City Market, 222 E. Market St., Indianapolis
When: Tours are given the first and third Saturdays of each month, May through October. No tour will be given on July 4 this year.
The tours are given every 30 minutes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $12 for those 12 and up, $6 for children ages 6 to 11 and free for children 5 and under.
To buy tickets and make reservations: Go to indianalandmarks.org, under the Tours & Events tab.