In a past column I featured the Eagle Creek City Park in Indianapolis, one of the largest and most informative in the U.S. One of the most interesting attractions in the park is the Ornithology Center where one can learn all about the birds in Indiana. The building where the center is located has a very unusual history. In the 1930s and 40s it was used as a library by J. K. Lilly Jr. who was a member of the Lilly family that started the pharmaceutical company that is today one of Indiana’s largest companies.
Mr. Lilly was a very wealthy man due to the success of his family company. In 1834, he purchased a parcel of land on the west side of Indianapolis that became known as Eagle Crest Estate. Lilly purchased a total of three farms that he called the Eagle Valley Farms. Over the next several years, he obtained more land and as a true conservationist he began to restore much of it to forest lands that he named Eagle Crest Forest Reserve. To help protect his forest, Lilly built a series of roads on his property and constructed a 100-foot fire tower to help protect it from fires, which apparently was very frequent in the 1930s. On his Eagle Crest Estate, Lilly built a lodge, library, and a caretaker’s cottage. Lilly was a true collector. He had a very large collection of books, gold coins, toy soldiers, models of all kinds, stamps and firearms.
As can be expected, his collections were quite valuable. To help protect his things, he had sliding metal shutters built on his windows, thick doors that had a series of large locks, and to top it all off a huge, room-sized safe to store his most priceless artifacts inside. In one part of the library, he had a large table top glass case that he used to show off his collection of authentic toy soldiers. This also showed scenes from all of the U.S. wars during the 1900s. In another room, Lilly had eight rows of custom-made metal bookcases. The cases had double doors made of glass that helped protect his rare book collection. Lilly started his collection of rare books in 1926, and it soon grew to over 20,000 books and 17,000 manuscripts. It was valued in the 1950s at over $5 million when he began to turn them over to Indiana State University, where they are now housed in the IU Lilly Library.
The prize of his book collection is a huge copy of John J. Audubon’s Birds of America. This book has 435 hand colored plates. This very rare book is on display at the IU Lilly Library and each week a different page is opened to the public to show a new bird. It takes eight-and-a-half years to show the entire book, which is worth at least $10 million. In 1950, Lilly began to donate his estate to Purdue University. This continued for five years until Purdue had obtained over 3,000 acres. In the 1960s the city of Indianapolis obtained this land for the construction of a water supply reservoir and a new city park. The old Eagle Creek Library was remodeled in the 1970s and became the new Eagle Creek Nature Center. It remained as a nature center for 30 years until a new Earth Discovery Center was constructed in 2007. The building was again remodeled and in 2009 was then reopened as the present Ornithology Center.
A few items remain at Lilly’s old library. Also, the door of the large old safe is still there and has the name Eagle Crest Library inscribed on it. In addition, the old sliding metal shutters still can be found on the center’s windows. If you go to Eagle Creek Park be sure to visit the Ornithology Center, as well as the other attractions that help make this one of Hoosierlands show places.