Teaching Vonnegut: A Tour of Vonnegut’s Indianapolis

On the third and final day of KVML’s Teaching Vonnegut conference, teachers embarked on a two-hour bus tour of Vonnegut landmarks in Indianapolis. Vonnegut was a big name in this city even before Kurt’s writing became popular. Here are some of the places our guests got the opportunity to see.

The Athenaeum

If you’ve lived in Indianapolis for any period of time, you’re surely familiar with this sprawling building on the corner of Michigan and Mass Ave. The Athenaeum is now home to a theatre, a coffee shop, and the Rathskeller, the oldest restaurant in Indianapolis. It’s also considered a German heritage landmark, but it wasn’t always. In fact, the building’s name was changed from Das Deutsche Haus to the Athenaeum after World War I. Apparently, anything German didn’t sit well with Americans after that.

A side view of the Athenaeum.

So what’s the Vonnegut connection, and why is this building a German landmark now? The building itself was designed by Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt’s grandfather. It was built in 1898 to host the city’s Turnverein, which is like a secular German version of the YMCA. That Turnverein was founded in the 1850s by Clemens Vonnegut, Bernard’s father. Bernard’s brothers also helped teach gymnastics there. You can hardly even think about this place without tripping over a Vonnegut.

Shortridge High School

This was the high school Kurt attended in the 1930s. Since his family’s architecture business went under during the Great Depression, the Vonneguts lost most of their money, and Kurt was the only one of his three siblings to attend public school. Kurt’s mother thought this was a huge comedown, but Kurt himself loved public school. He was inspired to become a writer while working on Shortridge’s daily paper. If you’re thinking a daily paper is pretty ambitious for a public high school, you’re right. At the time Kurt went there, Shortridge was the only high school in the country to have a daily paper. Kurt wrote a joke column for it. You’re shocked, right?

Shortridge High School on 3401 N. Meridian Street.

Shortridge may have been a public high school, but it was still one of the best schools in the city. Its student body comprised plenty of bright, college-bound kids like Kurt. One of Kurt’s classmates was Madelyn Pugh, who became the head writer for I Love Lucy. Dan Wakefield, a writer who would later become Kurt’s friend, went there about ten years later. (Our teacher guests ate dinner with him on the second night of the conference.) Oh, and this building was designed by none other than Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt’s grandfather.

Kurt Vonnegut Childhood Home

Although they couldn’t enter, our guests were able to take a look at the house where Kurt lived as a child. Kurt Vonnegut Sr., Kurt’s father, designed the house himself. There’s a rumor that he was so insecure about his architectural skills that he didn’t design his own house. Like many rumors, it’s untrue. The address is 4401 N. Illinois Street. The house was open for tours a few months ago, so keep an eye out for similar opportunities before you visit.

Kurt’s childhood home on Illinois Street. It’s a lovely house even without the autumn leaves framing it.

Crown Hill Cemetery

Almost the entire Vonnegut clan is buried here, but not the one person everyone wants to see: Kurt himself. But you can see the graves of his parents, grandfather, and uncle. There’s also a gorgeous monument to his paternal grandmother’s family, the Schnulls. Also, Bernard Vonnegut designed part of the entryway to the cemetery. It’s the little gatehouse on the far left of the entrance.

The building with the pointy roof on the left is the work of Bernard Vonnegut.

Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Did you know Kurt Vonnegut Sr. was one of the founders of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum? He was a museum board member in the 1920s. He also created the museum’s first logo, which featured a seahorse named Sidney. Kurt would have been a toddler when the museum was founded, so he probably visited it often growing up. Of course, he would have visited its old location in its founder’s old house, not its current location on 3000 N. Meridian Street. You should pay a visit, and not just for the Vonnegut connection. This is a fantastic children’s museum. And, of course, you should stop by KVML while you’re in the area. We’d love to have you.

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From seahorses then to dinosaurs now.

If you or a teacher you know would like to learn more about Teaching Vonnegut, check out a blog called Teaching Vonnegut: A Recap or visit the Education section of the Vonnegut Library website.

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