The 19th century town of Michigan City emerged as a plan before it ever became a settlement. The plan arose from the ambition to create a harbor on Lake Michigan, and a road to transport supplies to homesteaders in Indianapolis and central Indiana. In 1830, just 14 years after Indiana became a state, the land for Michigan City was purchased, sight unseen, by Isaac C. Elston, a real estate speculator who had made a small fortune in Crawfordsville. He paid about $200 total for 160 acres of land including the future harbor at the mouth of Trail Creek. The town was named after the road leading up to Lake Michigan.
Early visitors to the region were captivated by its rugged beauty, its abundance of wildflowers and berries, and especially the majestic sand dunes, one towering to 175-foot height. The land, however, was not suitable for farming. The growth of Michigan City was due to the flowing waters of Trail Creek, which afforded good locations for lumber and gristmills. Farmers came from miles around to have their wheat ground into flour. Other businesses developed rapidly.
By 1836, the year of its incorporation, Michigan City had 1500 residents, a church, post office, newspaper, and a thriving commercial district with 12 dry goods stores and 10 hotels. It was a stopping point for stagecoaches. The town had grown to 15 square miles - quite a large town in the midst of a forested wilderness.
Although some progress was made on the harbor, the project was afflicted by under-funding, competition from Chicago, political wrangling, shipwrecks and the drifting sands, which kept clogging the dredged waterways. New methods of transportation also opened up - most importantly, for Michigan City, the railroads.
In 1852, a major factory was founded here to manufacture railroad freight cars. In 1855, John Barker, a local grain shipper, joined two New Yorkers in establishing the firm of Haskell, Barker and Aldridge. It became Michigan City's largest and longest surviving industry, at one time producing 15,000 cars a year. In 1907, Haskell-Barker had 3500 employees; in the 1960's, its payroll was $9 million a year. Today, the grounds are occupied by Prime Outlets.
Michigan City's earliest settlers came West from Massachusetts and New York. European immigrants, forced out by crop failures, began arriving to take factory jobs. They tended to cluster in ethnic enclaves and soon founded their distinctive churches. Thus the New Englanders organized Episcopalian and Congregational churches, followed by German Lutheran, Irish and Polish Catholic institutions, and a Jewish Synagogue. So many immigrants came from Syria that Michigan City at one time had the largest Lebanese population of any American city.
The historic Downtown District has retained the ethnic diversity and rich cultural traditions of 19th century Michigan City.
As Michigan City grew and prospered, the early settlers' log cabins gave way to a range of sophisticated architectural styles. Many buildings have been preserved in the Historic Downtown District. The structures highlighted here provide a well rounded picture of Michigan City's architectural heritage, because it encompasses commercial buildings, churches, fraternal lodges, a school, library, bank buildings and residences, ranging from elaborate mansions to workingmen's cottages.
Houses - The most popular 19th century house-styles were Queen Anne and Colonial revival. The Queen Anne style originated in England and had nothing to do with Queen Anne, but its irregular design elements did bear a slight resemblance to medieval houses. The variety of materials and diversity of floor plans were very appealing to the American desire for individualistic self-expression. A surge of patriotism followed the American centennial in 1876, and this celebration resulted in a revival of American Colonial styles. Actually, Colonial architecture had drawn its inspiration from ancient Greece, because the early colonists identified with Greek ideals of democracy, and considered columned façades most appropriate for public buildings.
Churches - The Gothic revival style was widely applied to church buildings in this country and throughout Europe. Michigan City has several good examples of churches with Gothic pointed arches, stained glass windows, and tall spires soaring heavenward. Other ecclesiastical buildings in the Historic Downtown are Romanesque revival and Greek revival.
Businesses - The business district of Michigan City developed south along Franklin Street, where several commercial buildings have recently been restored. Prominent among the architectural styles is the Italianate, a favorite of small downtowns in the Midwest. The buildings are two and three stories high, with large glass windows at the ground level, arched windows above, and flat roofs with ornamental cornices. Several of these bear the names of the original owners.
Influence of John H. Barker - Although persons too numerous to mention contributed to the city's development, the city's history requires discussion of at least one - John H. Barker. In 1869, Barker took over his father's interest in the railroad car company. He became a highly successful businessman and community leader, contributing substantially to the design and funding of the "old library" and several other buildings including the YMCA, St. Anthony Hospital, Trinity Episcopal Church, Barker Hall, and the bandstand in Washington Park. He also supervised the expansion of the family home at 7th and Washington into a 38-room mansion. The fashionable neighborhoods that once centered around the "old library" now moved over to Washington Street.
Tour of Historic Points of Interest - Take a visual tour of some of the historic points in and around Washington Park. Each with its own degree of magnificence, and with a unique story to tell, all contribute to Michigan City's expansive history.
Architectural Tour of the Downtown District - Celebrating 100 years of Architecture in Michigan City's historic Downtown District! With no shortage of historical significance, buildings in and around Michigan City's downtown have all contributed to the City's rich heritage. See the variety of homes, churches, and businesses, and the architectural significance each offers, in this exciting architectural tour.