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LIMESTONE, STEEL & CONCRETE; A new way to enjoy the State Fair

July 31, 2014

state fairMost go to the Indiana State Fair for the food, exhibits, shows or rides.

But did you know you could go for the buildings?

Not what’s in the buildings, but the structures themselves?

Sounds weird at first, but some date to the turn of the 20th century.
Most have stayed essentially the same, including the outside of the newly renovated coliseum.
The State Fair Architectural Tour will tell you why and how. Even if you know nothing about architecture, you’ll learn a different — and relaxing — way to enjoy August in Indy.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said David Heighway of Noblesville, who took the tour for the first time a few years ago and is a repeat customer. “When you go to the fair, you’re usually overwhelmed by all of the other stuff that’s going on.
state fair“The tour took me to some spots you should go and showed me things you don’t normally notice.”
The DNR Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology (DHPA) and the State Fair Commission have teamed up to offer the tour since 1998. Paul Diebold, architectural historian with the DHPA, came up with the idea. He says the setting offers more than people realize.
“Yes, the fair’s fun, it’s amusement, it’s a learning experience to see the animals, but it’s also a historic place because those things have happened over such a lengthy period of time,” Diebold said.
The tour is given on one of the standard trolleys on which fairgoers can buy rides each day. The tour’s specially scheduled rides are free and last about 45 minutes.
The tour guide starts by telling why the fair, which focuses on agriculture, is located nowhere near an actual farm.
The State Fair has been staged in Indianapolis on and off during its more than 150-year history. The State purchased the current site in the early 1890s. The acquisition moved the event to the current 38th Street location from the Herron-Morton area of Indianapolis in 1892.
Back then, the area wasn’t inner city like now.
state fairDiebold is an Indy native who grew up near 46th Street and Millersville Road. He lived close enough to the fairgrounds to hear the races that entertained grandstand crowds. He conjured up the tour after a few years of working inside the Natural Resources Building at the DHPA booth. He also saw it as a chance to promote the DHPA, which can get confused with organizations like Indiana Landmarks and the Indiana Historical Society.
“People come to the fair largely because of tradition, I think, and a heritage tour seemed to be a good way to reach out to those people and let them know that this is a special place,” he said.
Kay Thompson, who has volunteered to drive for the tour every year, says it’s a must-do.
“If you don’t do it, you’re going to miss one of the best things at the fair,” she said. “It is a fantastic way to invest your time out there.”
All you have to do is look and listen but questions are welcome. Diebold and his DHPA colleagues take turns as tour guides.
The tour changes slightly from year to year as the DHPA discovers new secrets, so even if you’ve gone before, you might want to go again.
“I learn something new every year,” Thompson said.
state fairRegular features include the Track, Horse Barns, Swine Barn, Administration Building, Cattle Barn, Home & Family Arts Building, Northwest Pavilion, Agricultural Horticultural Building and 4-H dorms. The earliest of those was built in 1892; the latest went up in 1939.
“It’s a really great way to travel around the fair,” Heighway said. “You get to sit down and look around. The running narration is the key. When you take the regular shuttle you’re just going from point A to point B, so this is different.
“Here you’re just taking it easy after trudging around all day.”
The tours are offered first-come, first-served. Takeoff is from in front of the Natural Resources Building. It’s one of the most recently constructed buildings, but it’s still more than 60 years old. This year tours run on Aug. 1 at 5 p.m.; Aug. 2 at 11 a.m.; Aug. 7 (Heritage Day) at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.; and Aug. 9, 14, 15 and 16 at 11 a.m.
You go to the State Fair for many reasons, and they are usually the same old reasons. Now you have another—to relax and see old things in a new way.
(Reprinted with permission from Outdoor Indiana, the official magazine of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Subscribe online at
By Marty Benson
Outdoor Indiana