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An Outhouse with a View

June 5, 2018

Among local historians in Indianapolis, there’s one building that is discussed with more consistent fascination than almost any other. It’s not the State Capitol Building, Union Station or the Athanaeum. It’s the two-story outhouse that once stood in a backyard on Agnes Street, now University Avenue. In 1940, photographer Larry Foster photographed the outhouse, and his pictures are now in the Indiana Historical Society’s collection.

“What sorcery is this?” you might ask. In other words, how would that have worked without serious detriment to whoever was using the facilities on the first floor? Based on the design of several remaining two-story American outhouses, it was a much tidier business than one might think. Double-decker outhouses in both Gays, Illinois and Belle Plaine, Minnesota feature second-floor privies that are set much farther back than the first-floor openings. Thus, waste from the upper story falls behind a false wall on the lower level on its way to the pit beneath. Functionally, the concept is not too different from buildings today in which restrooms are placed directly above and below one another so as to efficiently use the same pipes.

Exterior of two-story outhouse. Siding appears to be in disrepair.

According to Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, the structure was built sometime in the early 20th century and sat behind a four-unit apartment building. The site saw rapid and drastic changes midcentury due to demographic shifts and the development of the IUPUI campus. Nowadays, it’s the location of the IUPUI student center and the campus bookstore.

For a thoughtful, thoroughly researched discussion on outhouses (including this one), race and public health in Indianapolis, see Paul Mullins’ post “Sewers and Outhouses in the 20th Century Near-Westside” on the Invisible Indianapolis website.

Kate Scott

Kate Scott works in Reference Services, answering your questions about everything in Indiana history from Civil War uniforms to tenderloins the size of your head.

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