Historic Structures

Tee Pee Restaurant, Indianapolis Indiana

Date added: June 9, 2022 Categories: Indiana Restaurant Roadside Attraction

The Tee Pee Restaurant, was an art moderne drive-in highlighted by a stucco-covered teepee, stood as a significant representation of 20th century roadside commercial architecture in a state where such examples are rare.

Roadside architecture is characterized by structures designed as a direct result of the influence of the automobile. Roadside architecture is most frequently associated with diners, drive-ins, tourist cottages, roadside parks, and the whimsical designs such as the Tee Pee Restaurant which mimic real or fanciful objects designed to draw the attention of the passing motorist. Due to the expansion of the interstate system and the popularity of fast food chains, many of the few remaining early roadside structures stand vacant and neglected; most have already been lost.

There is very little of the roadside architecture characterized by the Tee Pee in Indiana. Only two other known examples remain, which date to the 1950s and 1940s, respectively. The Frank-N-Stein, a hotdog stand in the shape of Frankenstein, is located on U.S. 20 near Hammond; the Coffee Pot is located on U.S. 40 in Pennville.

On July 4, 1932, at the height of the Depression, Albert R. "Mac" McComb opened his first Tee Pee Restaurant at this location, which was replaced by the present structure in 1939. The original Tee Pee drive-in was a free standing teepee-shaped structure which stood directly on the ground. As the first drive-in in the city to serve food (previous drive-ins were limited to ice cream) the Tee Pee had a varied menu throughout its existence with items which ranged from sandwiches to ice cream. The first City Directory listing for the Tee Pee read, "Albert R. McComb--restaurant." In 1936, the name changed to the "Tee Pee Cone Shop," which it remained until 1940. In 1941 the name officially changed to the "Tee Pee Restaurant."

Prior to his ownership of the Tee Pee Restaurant, Albert McComb was the secretary, treasurer, and manager of the C. H. Meyer Cigar Company. McComb spent his winters in Southern California, where he was part owner of a cafe at the Santa Anita Racetrack. In California McComb was introduced to roadside architecture. He returned to Indianapolis with the idea to construct something similar. The present location proved to be very successful. Not only was the restaurant at a busy intersection of Indiana Highway 37 and a major east-west artery (38th Street), but it was also the southeast corner of the Indiana State Fairgrounds. McComb leased the property from the State Fair and built his restaurant. Initially, the drive-in operated during the summer season, only; but later, due to its success, the restaurant expanded to include the entire year.

The 1930s witnessed a growth in the use of the teepee design for commercial purposes. While Albert McComb's original Tee Pee Restaurant was not the first such structure, it did precede the patent of wigwam-shaped motels: it was not until 1936 that Frank Redford patented the design for his nation-wide chain of Wigwam Village Motels. There is, however, another early example of teepee architecture. Located near Lawrence, Kansas, was a wigwam complex which opened in 1930. The complex, which preceded the Redford patent, consisted of a 50-foot tall teepee gas station in front of 14 teepee cabins arranged in a semicircle.

In 1939 McComb demolished the original Tee Pee to make way for a larger facility which would accommodate sit-down dining. The new building was designed by Maurice Thornton. Thornton had received his architectural training at the University of Illinois. He later formed a partnership with A. W. Rodecker which lasted from 1928 until 1930. After a brief period as an insulation salesman, Thornton returned to practice architecture in 1937. He maintained his office at 604 Fort Wayne Avenue in Indianapolis.

The popular restaurant/drive-in attracted numerous customers with its eye-catching design. The Tee Pee was a natural draw for students of nearby Butler University and numerous local highschools. By 1952, expansion was a necessity. Architect Frank Schroeder, assisted by Thornton, designed an addition to the kitchen and the rear of both wings. Once again, George Barr served as the contractor. The basement was also enlarged to extend south under the parking lot. Located in the basement was an extensive food preparation area which included a self-contained butcher shop and a bakery, among the other numerous rooms. In 1954 Albert McComb contracted for the construction of a smaller, yet architecturally similar, southside Tee Pee drive-in at 2830 Madison Avenue.

On June 24, 1964, the Tee Pee's original owner, Albert McComb, died. His wife, Dorothy, maintained ownership of the property and continued to operate the restaurant with the assistance of her attorney, Jim Beatty, until she died in 1972. At that time Charles McComb, the son of George and Dorothy, gained ownership of both the north and southside Tee Pee establishments. Charles continued to operate the restaurants with the assistance of American Fletcher National Bank until 1978, at which time he sold the southside property to the McDonald's Corporation (who, in turn, demolished the structure) and sold the original Tee Pee to the Indiana State Fair Board.

Since 1978 the Tee Pee Restaurant witnessed several different tenants: Richard P. Turner; Theodore Shaver (1980); Acie and Billie Williams (1981); and Ralph Brandi, the last tenant. Circa 1980 the structure was painted white, which obscured the characteristic Indian motifs on the teepee itself. In 1981 the Tee Pee received a Preservation Award in the continued use category from Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. In November, 1984, the restaurant closed and its interior furnishings and equipment were sold at an auction.

It was demolished in 1988 and replaced with a parking lot.