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The Seven Wonders of Fort Wayne

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


A couple months ago, we decided to come up with a list of the seven wonders of Fort Wayne.

Basically, we sat around the office and talked to friends and said things like “the Sunbeam bread sign. What’s up with that?”

But just to make our selection process sound a little more scientific, we came up with a few guidelines. For one, the “wonder” had to be non-commercial, which means no Coney Island or Powers, for example, though a good case could be made for those places (our designer here at FWR Towers certainly thought so). Secondly, it would help if the “wonder” attained some kind of notoriety outside the area, though we waived this in a couple instances. Finally, it should be unique to the area but overlooked by many in town. The zoo, for instance, is pretty impressive and gets a lot of praise from people outside Fort Wayne, but everyone in town knows how great the zoo is, and plenty of local people visit it every year. Same with many of our arts organizations. But the Diehm Museum? When was the last time you went there?

It probably says something that many of the things on our list are from another era, and have somehow survived intact to our present age. Usually, this happens because someone at some point recognized its value and took steps to preserve it. It also happens by accident; the cynics among us might suggest that just as often the reason some of these things are still around is because someone just forgot to demolish them and put in something Fort Wayne could really use, like another strip mall.

This is, of course, just our list. Disagree? Make your own list and send us a letter.

The Allen County Courthouse

Angie Quinn director of ARCH, is unabashed about her admiration for the Allen County Courthouse. “It is the most amazing thing that any Midwestern town ever built,” she says.

Quinn is laughing when she says it, but she’s laughing at her hyperbole, not the sentiment. The Allen County Courthouse, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, is a pretty amazing building. “There’s more decoration per square foot in that building than any other building in the state of Indiana,” Quinn says. “Every single surface has something going on.”

At the end of the 19th century, Allen County decided they needed a bigger courthouse. They had already outgrown three other buildings, so they set out to make the courthouse four times as big as they thought they needed. City leaders looked at designs from all over the country and settled on local architect Brentwood Tolan. After working with a citizen committee, Tolan came up with a plan in a Beaux-Arts style, a highly decorative architectural style that uses elements of classical features of different past styles such as Roman, Greek, and Renaissance (I’m being as brief as possible here).

If the caustic tiles, the four 25’ by 45’ murals, and the stained glass, and 250’ + domed rotunda weren’t enough, the courthouse features a lot of a faux marble called scagliola that’s made out of plaster. In fact, Angie Quinn says there’s more scagliolia in that building than any other building in the Western hemisphere. “It’s a lost art form,” Quinn adds. “Craftspeople don’t know how to make it anymore, so when the courthouse was going through its restoration, the Courthouse Preservation Trust ended up hiring David Hayles from England, who is one of the handful of people in the whole world who know how to do it.” (Jack Cantey did a profile of Hayles’ assistant on the project, Neil Wiffill, for FWR #74).

We’re not the only ones who think the Allen County Courthouse is a remarkable piece of work. “The Smithsonian collects lots of art and items about American culture, and they’ve done some comparisons and rankings on county courthouses all over the country,” says Quinn. “They’ll never tell us we have the best courthouse, but they’ll always say ‘well, you’re in the top three.’ I think they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

The Sunbeam Bread Sign

There’s something quintessentially Fort Wayne about this artifact from the late 50s. It takes you back to a time when “spectacular signs” — signs with moving parts — were considered genuine attractions, and families made the drive into town to watch the bread fall endlessly out of the Sunbeam package the same way the attendees at a turn-of-the-century world’s fair used to gawk at the horseless carriage.

The Sunbeam Bread sign has been looming over downtown Fort Wayne (or at least the parking lots between Pearl and Main streets) and cranking out bread since 1957, and by the time its official 50th anniversary rolled around on September 7, it had dispensed 685,565,217 slices of bread (yet the stack never gets bigger).

According to the folks at Aunt Millie’s Bakeries, the sign features an engine that rotates nine bread slices, each taking 2.3 seconds to fall. It sits atop the headquarters of Aunt Millie’s Bakeries, formerly Perfection Bakeries and, before that, Perfection Biscuit, and was commissioned by H. Leslie Popp, the late brother of the current company president John Popp. Originally there was a replica of Little Miss Sunbeam sitting on top of the loaf, but it was taken down after being damaged by wind.

Aunt Millie’s Bakeries threw a celebration in their parking lot during lunchtime on September 7 to mark the sign’s 50th anniversary. The sign was also treated to a face-lift courtesy of Creative Sign Resources, who mounted composite panels made of aluminum and plastic to the existing sign structure, then decorated the panels with a digitally-printed vinyl film and finished them with a UV-resistant laminate to make the images look vivid and protect the sign from the weather. So, here’s to another 50 years.

The Lincoln Tower

Once upon a time, the Lincoln Tower was the tallest building in Indiana. It lost that title in the 60s, but it’s easily the coolest-looking tall building in Indiana; it certainly looks a lot cooler than those other two tall buildings in town, and it has an impressive history, too…

It was commissioned as the headquarters for Lincoln National Bank and Trust and started going up in the late summer of 1929, just a couple months before the crash that catapulted the U.S. into the Great Depression. Despite the hard times, construction continued on the building. “When they started building it, Lincoln National Bank and Trust was one of a dozen different entities that were doing banking and loans,” says Angie Quinn. “By the time construction was finished, half of those places were gone. The fact that they continued to build while everything seemed to be falling apart gave people in the community a sense of confidence that things maybe weren’t so bad as they seemed.”

These days, the Lincoln Tower is admired as one of the best-preserved Art Deco interiors in the country. The bank’s lobby is, more or less, very similar to what it was when it was first built. “I talk to people from other states who are working on restoration projects,” Quinn says. “They want to know what’s in the bank lobby, because their building has been modernized and they don’t have it anymore.”

The fact that the building’s lobby hasn’t been significantly modernized in the almost 80 years it has been around is sort of a minor miracle. Tenants and owners have come and gone, and about ten years ago, Lincoln Tower was sold at a Sheriff’s sale after a mortgage default. Sure, the Lincoln Tower is a great example of Art Deco, an impressive structure, and an important piece of local history, but plenty of other important pieces of local history have been tossed under the wheels of progress (though in the case of the Lincoln Tower, those would have to be pretty big wheels). Why hasn’t anyone “messed with” the Lincoln Tower? “I think it’s just serendipity,” says Quinn. “It’s a well planned, well designed building, and the bank that used it all those years saw no reason to change it.”

The Fred Reynolds Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library

Whenever a group of people are sitting around trying to come up with something, anything, that might make Fort Wayne significant on an historic, national scale, someone will say “do you know the Allen County Public Library has the second or third best genealogy department in the country?” This is usually mentioned right after “the guy who invented TV lived in Fort Wayne” and “the first prototype of ‘Pong’ was created here at Magnavox,” and right before someone says “what’s genealogy?” While video games and television are probably more indicative of Fort Wayne than historical research, the Genealogy Center at the Allen County really does rank very high among the nation’s genealogical research centers.

“If you’re going to use the qualifier ‘best,’ all modesty aside, we think we are the best,” laughs Curt Witcher, the manager of the Fred Reynolds Genealogy Center. “We’re the second largest genealogy research center in the country, the first being the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.”

And how large is large for a genealogy department, exactly? Witcher explains the center has over 332,000 print volumes and close to half-a-million piece of micro-text, so about 800,000 items in total. They also have subscriptions to the five largest genealogy databases on the web.

The origins of the center almost sound like something out of a “how to” guide for entrepreneurs. Basically, back in the late 50s/early 60s, library director Fred Reynolds saw genealogists as an under-serviced demographic, and set out to develop a department catering to their needs. “He was concerned that genealogists weren’t getting treated well in libraries,” explains Witcher. “They tend to be atypical patrons. They don’t come with one question, or to get just one piece of information, or a book. They really come to learn a process; they want to stay for a couple hours, and they ask a lot of questions.”

Reynolds wanted to give genealogists a place where they could talk with a staff that could teach them a process for doing genealogical research, and help them use resources not only at the Allen County Library, but throughout the country.

The department took off, and as the center’s reputation as a great place to do research grew, so did its collection. On book buying trips Reynolds would pick up copies of local histories, and people began sending their county or church or family histories to the library.

These days, Witcher says the center gets 93,000 – 100,000 visitors a year. “Every year by about this point, we usually have two visitors from every state of the union spend at least two days with us,” Witcher says, adding that they passed that milestone for this year in June. There are also some international visitors (they’re currently working with the Ulster Foundation in Ireland) and some “regulars. “”We had a couple from Washington State spend all of May and most of June here, at least six hours everyday,” Witcher says. “This is an annual pilgrimage for them.”

On August 15 – 18, the Fred Reynolds Genealogy Center hosted a national genealogy conference, with 1300 individuals attending. That’s a lot of tourists in downtown Fort Wayne. No word on if they found somewhere to eat and quench their thirst.

The Embassy’s Grand Page Pipe Organ

One of Fort Wayne’s biggest musical stars has a permanent gig at the Embassy: the theater’s Grand Page organ. “This organ is considered one of the better ones in the world,” says John Foell, head of the organ’s maintenance crew. “We attract a lot of name organists from all over the world to come and play, and it’s considered a joy to perform on.”

“This theater is known all over the world, primarily for the Grand Page,” adds Dyne Pfeffenberger, Embassy historian. The American Theater Organ Society (yes, there is such a thing) has named the Embassy’s Grand Page an organ of exceptional historic and musical merit, among other accolades (it won the ATOS’s Vintage Award for restoration and modernization in 1997). Pfeffenberger says that when the ATOS holds their national convention in Indianapolis next summer, the entire group will travel to Fort Wayne for a couple of concerts featuring the Grand Page.

It deserves every bit of its renown. Seeing and hearing it in action is pretty spectacular; one organist with 10 fingers and two feet creates the kind of monstrous wall of sound that normally would take an entire orchestra or banks and banks of MIDI keyboards to accomplish. It’s a powerful, living reminder of a bygone era, made all the more so by the fact that the organ’s sound has not changed all that much since it was installed in the Embassy in the late 20s. “The Grand Page Organ and the Embassy are matched,” says Foell, “They were made for each other. If you put it in a different venue, or replaced it, it wouldn’t sound the same.”

When Foell says the Embassy and the organ were made for each other, he means it literally. Installed in 1928 when the Embassy was built, the Grand Page Organ was constructed to scale by the Page Organ Company of Lima, Ohio specifically for the Embassy’s auditorium. The organ is a “unit orchestra,” designed to provide the soundtrack for silent films. “A theater organ simulates all the sounds of an orchestra, and then has a number of sound effects — galloping horses, train whistles, telephone bells, sleigh bells, depending on which company made it and what instruments and ‘toys’ were included in the specifications,” Foell explains.

Dyne Pfeffenberger says that such instruments were very popular in the big movie palaces in the 20s. “They could pay one individual to accompany the movie, and still have all of these sounds and all these special effects,” he says. “If they didn’t have the organ, they would have had to pay an orchestra.’

The Embassy’s organ is one of three organs of this size built by Page, and one of two still playing (the other is in the Casino Theater on Catalina island). Pfeffenberger says the third is being installed in a high school in the Atlanta, Georgia area.

The organ is all original pipe work, except for a brass trumpet that was added about 20 years ago to "round out the ensemble". These days, the chests, the pressure regulators, and the action all work on a computerized system. “A large portion of the original relay is still up in the blower room, but it’s unusable,” says John Foell. “It’s made of basically leather and string. It’s gotten stiff and it’s not reliable enough to play.”

“But we try to maintain it as an original instrument. We don’t take anything out,” adds Foell. “We have made some additions so that it has more capability now, but the idea is, if you don’t play those additions, you can basically hear what it sounded like in 1928.”

The Jack Diehm Museum of Natural History

“Who’s Museum of Natural What?” It’s a good bet that while many Fort Wayne residents of a certain age know exactly what we’re talking about, it’s just as likely many of you don’t. Even the people who know about the Diehm Museum of Natural History are probably a little surprised to discover it’s still around.

But still around it is. A staple of school field trips through chunks of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the Jack Diehm Museum of Natural History features 63 stunningly realistic (or creepy, depending on who you talk to) displays of mounted wild animals — rearing polar bears, snarling wolves, bobcats ready to pounce — in detailed reproductions of their natural habitats. Alongside the predators are some less intimidating specimens, like geese, badgers, and mountain goats, as well as mounted animal heads and fish.

The museum was the brain child of local taxidermist Berlin Diehm, who developed the museum after receiving so many requests from school children to visit his taxidermy studio. “I remember Berlin talked to me about lots of school children wanting to go through the house,” laughs Madeline Diehm, Berlin Diehm’s wife. “It just got to be too much.”

Named after Berlin’s son from a previous marriage, who died in an automobile accident at the age of 21, the Jack Diehm Museum of Natural History was dedicated in October, 1965 in Franke Park, with a second wing added in 1973. “Berlin did most of the taxidermy work,” says Madeline Diehm. “A lot of local artists worked on the backgrounds and dioramas.”

When a fire destroyed the museum in February 1975, Diehm set to work re-building it, and after six years of planning and fundraising the museum opened again in 1981 in its present location on the east side of Sherman street directly across from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

Uncovering the history of the Diehm Museum of Natural History is kind of difficult. Berlin Diehm died in 2004, and Madeline Diehm didn’t marry Berlin until 1991, many years after the museum’s development.

These days, the Diehm Museum of Natural History in managed by the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. “We took over the daily management of the museum about 12 years ago,” says Cheryl Piropato, the zoo’s education director. “We supply staff and overhead.”

“A lot of teachers still utilize the museum, and we admit those groups by appointment,” Piropato adds. The Diehm Museum of Natural History is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays, noon – 5 pm. Call the Zoo at 427-6800 for more information.

The Lincoln Museum

You could say that the Lincoln Museum began as a way to pay a debt.

In 1905, when a Fort Wayne life insurance company decided to call itself “Lincoln” after our 16th president, they knew what they were doing. What better representative for a life insurance company than someone who is an icon of honesty and integrity? The Lincoln family approved, and Robert Todd Lincoln sent a photograph of his father that the company used as its letterhead.

Many years later, Arthur Hall, one of the founders and presidents of Lincoln Life, felt he needed to pay some dues for all the success the company had had with Lincoln’s name. In 1928, Hall invited Lewis Warren, a Lincoln scholar, to oversee what he called a Lincoln memorial project. “No motive of commercialism or profit entered into our plans to assemble this wealth of Lincolniana,” Hall said at the time. “We seek merely to provide the means and the channel through which there may continue to flow an ever increasing volume of information concerning Lincoln…”

The company had already begun collecting Lincoln items before the museum began, including the Robert Todd Lincoln’s photograph, the Pickett bronze bas-relief plaque, and a white rose bud from Lincoln’s casket.

These days, the museum’s collection is enormous. It numbers over 18,000 volumes, 300 Lincoln manuscripts, more than 10,000 19th century photographs, prints, broadsides, political cartoons and the Lincoln family’s personal photographs. The museum owns thousands of artifacts, including the inkwell Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. It not only owns the inkwell, it owns an extremely rare edition of the Emancipation Proclamation. Thirteen copies of the 13th amendment were signed by the president, but the Lincoln Museum’s copy is one of only three that were also signed by members of the Senate.

It’s also garnered its share of awards and accolades. The Chicago Tribune named Lincoln Lore, which Lewis Warren began publishing in 1929 (making it the longest continuously published periodical devoted to Abraham Lincoln), one of the top 50 magazines for 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Mary Clement of the Lincoln Museum says they get tens of thousands of visitors annually from all over the world, but even more impressive are the number of requests the museum gets from researchers. “Not only are we the world’s largest privately owned Lincoln museum, we also have a huge research library,” Clement says. “Into that library come requests from film makers, writers, students… from people in every country you can imagine.”

“Our claim to fame is the level of talent that we are able to bring to Fort Wayne in association with the museum,” she adds. “So many of the major authorities on Lincoln have done their research here, and we’ve been able to bring so many scholars and historians to speak here.”

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