802 S. West has a century-old history as a tavern. Whether it was called a tavern, a bar, or a saloon, the venerable edifice four blocks south of the original city plat has been selling spirits and beer for 117 of the 141 years there has been a building on that site.
For 117 years of its 140 year existence the building at 802 S. West has housed a bar. So it’s strange that the only old picture we have is from the nineteen years it was a drug store.
This bar even takes spirits a bit further; we were forced to switch out the previous security system because the motion detectors were going off every night at 3:00 am and people in the building were smelling cigar smoke and hearing sneezing at night when no one else was present. The history of Indianapolis is alive and well in this building…. OK, it might not be technically alive. as the new owners, we are very proud of the long history of our tavern; it is a definite piece of Indianapolis lore and has some interesting tales to tell. Upon entering the building, one can feel the “ghosts” of the former tenants, so let’s take a few paragraphs to describe why this building is so interesting.
The first mention of a frame building at what was then 402-404 S. West (the buildings were renumbered in 1898) came in 1875; it was only five years later that the first saloon took up residence. That bar was run by George J. Kenzel, a former wheelwright at the Woodburn Sevrin wheel Company here in Indianapolis. He worked for that company for several years while he lived upstairs at 402 S. West, including the period of time when the famous naturalist John Muir was employed by Osgood-Sevrin and was temporarily blinded by a flying shard of metal.
George’s saloon (what is the difference between a tavern, a saloon, and a bar anyway?) passed through the hands of several people over the next few years, but then Frederick W. Gaul took over in 1888. This wasn’t so strange, since he was married to George Kenzel’s daughter, Louisa, and had been since she was just 15 years old. Gaul had run a grocer’s store in the north half of the building (402) since 1878, the year he and Louisa married. He and George took turns owning/running the bar right through the turn of the century.
John M. Rhodes was a sometimes doctor, surgeon, druggist, criminal, vaudevillian, and movie theater owner, but an all time drunk. Image credit: The Tavern
In 1913, the two halves of the building were joined, making room for just one establishment downstairs. This was the last year that George and Frederick ran a tavern there. Hard times followed, with the property considered a tenement by 1915 – this is what happens when you take away the people’s saloons. However, after this dark time, the building had one if its most colorful tenants. John M. Rhodes opened a pharmacy/drug store in 1916.
Rhodes had been in town prior to this date, with a doctor’s office and pharmacy at 728-730 S. West (just a ½ a block north), but it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the doc and he moved around a bit. He lost his physician’s registration more than once while in Indianapolis, and was charged with doing illegal surgery just before he died from complications of alcoholism in 1928. Isn’t it ironic that he was an alcoholic working and sometimes living at 802 S. West during the only period when that property wasn’t a bar.
Dr. Rhodes was married three times in his life, but his obviously active social life didn’t deter his business dealings. He was the president of the Indiana Motion Picture Exhibitors Association at the same he was running two doctor’s offices, two pharmacies, and was a mail clerk. He and Amzi C. Zaring owned four motion picture houses in Indianapolis, including the Garrick Theater at 2961 N. Illinois (right across the street south from where the dinosaur is exploding out of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum). The Garrick was designed by Louis B. Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright’s teacher; unfortunately it was razed in 1960. Over the years, Rhodes even boarded several young men at 802 ½ S. West who worked as film operators, so he could get back some of the money he paid them at the movie theater. Rhodes was a true entrepreneur.
When John M. died in 1928, his son, John W. Rhodes took over the drug store and ran it until 1935. The next year, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when 802 S. West returned to its alcohol roots, first as Surber’s Tavern in the 30s and 40s, and then as Jim and Mike’s Bar around 1950. Soon it became just Mike’s Bar, and Mike (whoever he was) happily served the near south side as such until the 2000s. In 2005, the building changed hands and the new operators took advantage of the coming of Lucas Oil Stadium Kenzel’s/Gaul’s/Surber’s/Mike’s Bar became the Stadium Tavern.
Many old taverns used tokens that patrons could redeem for beer, as change when drinks were priced in between denominations, or for when patron bought a round but you already had a beer. It kept the patrons coming back. Surber’s Tavern at 802 S. West St. in the 30s and 40s specialized in bock beers. Image credit: terapeak.com
Installed sometime in the middle 1930s, this bar and mirror in The Tavern are worth the trip just as they are. Turned wood and silvered glass take you back to the early post-Prohibition days.
500 feet from Lucas Oil Stadium, two minute drive from the loading docks of the Indiana Convention Center, free attached parking, and less than .10 miles from the Interstate, The Tavern is the perfect get away for lunch and stop off after work.