April 26, 2022

Preserving the City Archives & Archiving City Preservation

Editor's Note: Every year we provide space for recipients of a National Preservation Award to share a piece of their work. This story is from Jordan Ryan, the recipient of 2021 American Express Aspire Award, which recognizes an emerging leader in the preservation field who has made significant achievements in preservation.

You don’t know what you don’t know, and that's one of the many attractions of the archives for me. Since receiving the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s American Express Aspire Award in 2021, I have had the opportunity to work on many built environment history, archival, and interpretation projects. One of the most extensive projects this year has been archiving materials for the City of Indianapolis’ Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD).

The DMD’s jurisdiction includes Indianapolis’ historic preservation commission, current and long-range planning, brownfields redevelopment, Community Development Block Grants and other community investments, certified neighborhood plans, and much more. I spent years in a previous position archiving materials of some of the Midwest’s most significant architectural firms, and I thought I had a good grasp on what kinds of materials exist. However, I find myself repeatedly amazed by the kinds of records I’m finding that perhaps are not traditionally what we think of to search for or use in scholarship—but nevertheless just as insightful.

In November of 1922, the Indianapolis City Common Council adopted its first municipal zoning ordinance, in line with many cities in the United States. This is a map key of a copy of the original 1922 map that includes all zoning pages encompassing the 1922 city boundaries. Do you know when your city enacted its first zoning ordinance? It was interesting to see just how much the city zoned dwellings out of its central core by the 1920s; an issue we’re still struggling with today. | Credit: City of Indianapolis, Department of Metropolitan Development Collection.

Why Archives?

I will always be a cheerleader for the archives—and for investing in and valuing archivists, whose work includes everything from arranging, carrying, digitizing, and sharing materials. The power of the archives is vast: it helps us understand the context of our past, better visualize and ponder our future, elevate voices of marginalized and excluded communities, celebrate both unique and shared experiences, and provide materials to the public, scholars, and anyone with a curiosity. In a very real way, the archives can literally save buildings and spaces.

It is in these places where we can find the documents, maps, and other evidence needed to advocate for the preservation of a place. If we are to be even more specific, there’s an interdisciplinary value of municipal and city archives that helps provide documentation and context to historic preservation projects (especially district studies prior to historic preservation protections), city planning initiatives, redevelopment plans, and other neighborhood and quality of life programs.

When we start layering different planning commission reports, master plans, and so on chronologically, we can begin to trace values and changing ideologies in how our cities are built, preserved, destroyed, and/or rebuilt. Below are a series of archival material that I found in municipal archives, along with some of my thoughts on how they can be used for protecting historic places.

A rejected site plan to demolish the original City Market and redevelop the block that used to house the city’s market and large public meeting space, Tomlinson Hall—which was demolished after a 1958 fire. The proposal would have included a modern City Market, along with a public library branch and an office building. To the south is the extant City-County Building and Public Plaza. Unbuilt proposals like this can be used to show how city planning ideologies change over time, particularly in terms of historic preservation values, as well as architectural styles. | Credit: City of Indianapolis, Department of Metropolitan Development Collection.

Street Plan

A 1925 street plan to expand major downtown streets to accommodate the increase in automobile traffic. These maps include documentation of the structures that were demolished for the expansion, rerouting, and/or addition of new streets in 1925. These illustrated plans are helpful because it documents a year between major fire insurance map decades, serving as a quick reference for building owners, uses, and businesses. Again, this document serves as a planning value statement: cars and motorists are the priority, and that value leads to a radical transformation of our built environment.

Plat Book

A plat book layering the planned footprint of the downtown I-65/70 highway system on the Indianapolis Model Cities Area existing land use plan of 1972. These plats provide details on the types of housing per lot, which give us new specific details into what kind of building stock was lost to highway construction, something relevant as we grapple with a new highway development project. Throughout the country, we are facing a similar debate regarding downtown highways and the harm caused to central core historic neighborhoods. Learn more about advocacy related to removing highways from the Congress for the New Urbanism.


A photosurvey of Washington Street, the city’s main commercial corridor and connection to the National Road. These photographs document what the important street looked like prior to historic preservation rehabilitation and intervention via both a National Register district (1997) and then a locally protected district status (2013). Does your local preservation commission have an archive or survey files? These materials help show change over time and can be used to advocate for preservation funding and policies.

Washington Street photosurvey. | Credit: City of Indianapolis, Department of Metropolitan Development Collection.


A rejected signage update for commercial storefronts at the northwest intersection of West 38th Street and North Illinois Street, including the iconic punk rock venue sign for The Melody Inn. This rejected proposal is a great case study in how design changes can impact the authenticity and uniqueness of places. What kind of aesthetic trade-offs have impacted your favorite spaces?

Landscape Plan

For the landscape architects—documentation of the planting schedule for the City Market renovation plan from November 1979. This includes both spring and summer planting schedules of tulips, geraniums, begonias, petunias, etc. Other sheets in this valuable set cover irrigation and drainage issues. Plans like these can be extremely valuable to future maintenance and infrastructure repairs. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy learning about the historic, preferred plants of the 1970s?

Archiving City Preservation

The only constant in the city is change. Municipal planning archives fascinate me because we can see these ideological changes in planning materials. From the creation of city planning as a profession, to our first zoning ordinances throughout the country, to civic-minded public and green spaces of the City Beautiful Movement. Fast forward to the changes of the mid-20th century with Urban Renewal, suburbanization, and the expansion of our highway system. Yet at the same time, the historic preservation movement grew nationally, developing grassroots efforts and local preservation commissions. And in more recent years, comprehensive planning with a focus on community engagement, access, and equity has been at the forefront of many initiatives.

A landscape maintenance plan from Indianapolis. | Credit: City of Indianapolis, Department of Metropolitan Development Collection.

So what’s next? I’ll keep working through this incredible half century backlog. Part of the magic of this archive is that I don’t know what I’ll find next. One thing I hope to find more of is one of my favorite things—a rejected or unbuilt proposal. Even with those, we’re able to visualize a story involving the changing planning values. It can be fun to imagine “What if?”... but it can be even more satisfying to sigh in relief at what wasn’t. Every city has a mystery hidden in their archives.

What story are you hunting for?

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Jordan Ryan is an architectural historian, archivist, and principal owner of The History Concierge LLC. Their scholarship revolves around the built environment, urban planning, historic preservation, and spatial equity.

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