House, grocery store, Kindergarten, dive bar, Prohibition, not Prohibition, Dorman has seen it all.
Digging into the history behind a fabled dive bar can sometimes be a difficult chore of piecing together one-off accounts. And there’s Dorman Street Saloon, an Indianapolis dive bar so steeped in its historic past that local publications and historical societies have done the difficult work already. All sources agree that Dorman Street is one of Indianapolis’ oldest watering holes, a location that predates Prohibition, occupying an unassuming street corner east of downtown since as early as 1900.
Before digging into the history of Dorman Street Saloon, know that sources differ on the precise dates on things like transitions in ownership, purposes and names of the building now at Dorman Street and 7th Avenue. General agreement exists around the building’s construction sometime around 1870 as a private home before transition to a grocery store to a school to a bar to any number of businesses in between.
One recollection captured by Historic Indianapolis suggests that the building was at one time home to a Kindergarten before being purchased by Frederick Miller Brewing Company and operated as a bar until Prohibition begin in 1919. One report similarly suggests that the location served the closest possible to alcohol, called “near beer” by the same account cited above, during Prohibition.
After Prohibition’s repeal, the location was reopened as a bar, perhaps initially under the name Anacker’s 9th Street Tavern before ultimately settling on the long-standing name of Mahogany Bar, perhaps in reference to a once-impressive mahogany bar within the space, the wood industry historically native to its Indianapolis neighborhood or both. According to the dive bar’s own web site, life as Mahogany Bar (nicknamed “The Hog”) extended until ownership changed hands in 1982 and the dive bar took on the name May’s Lounge. Today, The Hog can still sometimes be heard as a nickname for the location now under the name Dorman Street Saloon.
Any discussion of Dorman Street Saloon must at least address the series of rumors that exist that the building served as frequent visiting spot for John Dillinger prior to the robbery of Massachusetts Avenue State Bank in 1933. Though no definitive proof exists to link Dillinger to the building, the proximity of the two locations and the fact that some members of Dillinger’s crew lived nearby at least lends plausibility to a story far more entertaining to believe than discount.
The Dorman Street Saloon experience today, on the shoulders of all of that history, falls into a tale of two locations, one inside and one outside. Wood siding previously attached to the exterior of the building was at one point removed, revealing centuries-old murals underneath that have since been restored and elevated to visual prominence outside. The aesthetic is impressive, a faded mural you may expect to see on the side of a crumbling building instead dominating the side of a neighborhood dive bar.
Inside, renovations have covered up some of the historic, divey appeal of Dorman Street Saloon with fresh surfaces and features found throughout to modernize the experience. Though it can be missed in the midst of these wholesale changes, the tile bar is one of the centerpieces of the space, a reclaimed counter from a nearby decommissioned Greyhound Bus station that dates back to the early 1970s. From there, some of the wood features behind the bar show some pleasant wear, but most other elements inside have been touched by updates.
Without the bar set by its historical pedigree, Dorman Street Saloon embodies everything great about a true neighborhood dive bar, just with a few modern concessions like a robust and deliciousl-looking cocktail menu, chalkboard surfaces, fresh paint and even a bathroom door in the shape of a Doctor Who-style phone booth. A simple back patio extends off of a secondary room that serves as the bar’s pool table area, a small collection of metal tables distributed among a brick floor and slightly elevated patio.
Visiting Dorman Street Saloon is as much visiting a piece of Indianapolis dive bar history as it is experiencing a classic corner neighborhood pub. While some of the interior surfaces have been modernized and updated, hiding a bit of divey glory, the building’s exterior has been allowed to embody some of its considerable history. And given that said history stretches back to sometime around 1870 and may or may not include one of history’s great bank robbers, Dorman Street Saloon makes a strong case for a visit, trendy cocktails or not.