Hidden Downtown: 11 things you might not know about Downtown Fort Wayne

In recent years, Downtown Fort Wayne has become a popular place. But if you’re just the occasional visitor, you might not realize all of the nooks, crannies, and hidden gems that add to its allure.
 
As dedicated leaders at the Downtown Improvement District (DID), Michael Galbraith, Crissy Moloney, and their staff are regulars in the 99 blocks of Downtown for work, leisure, and everything in between.
 
We sat down with the DID to get their insider tips on 11 things you might not know about Downtown Fort Wayne.
 
  1. There's a dapper, old-school barbershop on the 7th floor of the PNC building.

Location: 110 W. Berry St, 7th floor



For gentlemen seeking high-end barbershop services, there's none "higher" than the Executive Barbershop on the 7th floor of the PNC Bank building on the corner of Berry and Calhoun streets. Take the elevator up, and you'll find a classy, old-school barbershop experience, offering beard and mustache trims, hot lather shaves, custom cuts, and the opportunity to "kick back, relax, and reminisce about great times."

The Executive Barbershop has been grooming men in the Downtown district for more than 44 years. After your appointment, be sure to browse their Live Dapper Store, where you can find grooming products and clothes to keep looking your best.



  1. You can grab something to-go at a New York City-style bodega (or one of its sister businesses, including a historic phosphate soda fountain).

Location: 127 W. Berry St.



If you’re walking along Berry Street, past Star Financial Bank, you might notice a sandwich board on the sidewalk, prompting you to step inside the Revitalize Health Bar. This hole-in-the-wall shop in the bank’s storefront might remind you of a New York City bodega—“a little space with lots of stuff,” as the Co-Owner and Manager, Mandy Tye, describes it.

She and her husband, Joel Tye, actually designed the shop to look like their favorite bodega in Manhattan, Tribeca Bagels.

“We try to go to New York every other year for the holidays,” Mandy says. “It’s our favorite getaway, but we haven’t made it there since COVID-19 began.”



While the Tyes won’t be going to the Big Apple anytime soon, they are going to town on expanding their business in Fort Wayne during the pandemic. Since opening the Health Bar in 2015, they’ve added three additional downtown eateries to their repertoire, including two new ones in 2020.

“Each one has a different look and a different menu,” Mandy says.



In the basement of the Rousseau Centre, their Revitalize 110 Cafe offers hot breakfast and lunch bar options, catering to Fort Wayne’s working crowd, with made-to-order items and a popular pay-by-the-weight salad bar. 

During the pandemic, they’ve grown their business by taking ownership of the historic phosphate Lincoln Tower Soda Fountain in the storefront of Lincoln National Bank. They’ve also brought business back to the 7th-floor restaurant inside the PNC Bank building.



At the soda fountain, they’ve maintained much of the shop’s original architecture and its historic menu that’s been in use for the past 92 years. Mandy says you must try their famous handmade sodas, which can charm even the most skeptical pop drinkers. She recommends a cherry vanilla phosphate.

“It tastes so fresh compared to traditional soda,” she says.

At their newest location inside PNC Bank, the couple has their largest salad bar, as well as a full breakfast and lunch menu. 



Mandy originally got into the restaurant business at her previous residence in Battle Creek, Mich., where she owned two eateries: A breakfast cafe and a burger joint. When she fell in love with Joel, a health food fan from Fort Wayne, the couple opened the Health Bar together to share their favorite cold-pressed juice and yogurt smoothie concoctions, made from as much fresh, local produce as possible.

Today, the Health Bar is stocked with goodies for appetites of all kinds, from candy bars and sodas to fresh fruit, salads, sandwiches, pastries, and more. Even Mexican fare, like quesadillas, are popular menu items.

“We try to cater to everybody,” Mandy says.
  1. You can find delicious, authentic street tacos at the Marathon Gas Station.

Location: 437 E. Washington Blvd.



Don’t let its humble location inside the gas station fool you. The street tacos at Jalapeño Mexican Grill are delicious and reasonably priced at $1-3 each. We recommend the chicken and al pastor tacos with cilantro and onion (of course).


 
When it comes to salsa, the name “Jalapeño” isn’t an understatement, either. Just be sure to order a large Agua de Horchata to soothe the spice. In fact, this restaurant’s Horchata might be the best in the entire city with the perfect amount of cinnamon.


 
If the weather is nice, we suggest taking your fiesta to enjoy at the riverfront Promenade Park just a few blocks away.
  1. The Grand Wayne Convention Center is bustling with activity, bringing different cultures to the city.

Location: 120 W. Jefferson Blvd.



We know what you’re thinking: the Grand Wayne Convention Center? Really? It’s one of the most obvious buildings downtown. It takes up two entire blocks across from Parkview Field. But what you might not realize about the Grand Wayne is all of the activity that goes on within this seemingly static space. 

On an average year, the Grand Wayne hosts about 320 events, and one of the reasons you might not realize anything is happening there is because you’re not invited, jokes Marcy McKinley. Instead, many events the Grand Wayne Center hosts are corporate events, associations coming into town, hobby collection meetings, and faith-based meetings.

The Grand Wayne gets a lot of business from groups across the U.S. due to the fact that it’s considered a “drive-to” destination, or within one day’s drive of half the nation’s population. It even attracts some international conventions, like the International Jugglers Association and the International Blind Sports Association, to Fort Wayne. 

So what’s the benefit to local residents? All of these events bring interesting and eclectic groups of people to the streets, restaurants, hotels, and shops of Downtown, contributing to a cultural vibrancy that feels bigger and more diverse than you might expect from a mid-sized city. This activity also generates an estimated $10 million per year in local revenue. As an added bonus, some events at the Grand Wayne are open to the public, like the annual Bridal Extravaganza, among others. Check Visit Fort Wayne’s calendar for details.
 
  1. There’s a delicious vegan and gluten-friendly café in the Auer Center for Arts & Culture. 

Location: 300 E. Main St., #102



You might know the Auer Center for Arts & Culture (Arts United's building) as an office or a dance studio for the award-winning Fort Wayne Ballet. But you might not realize that it also has an amazing and sustainable vegan, gluten-friendly cafe on the first floor, known as the Pembroke Bakery & Cafe



This first-floor eatery has an extremely friendly staff who makes fresh baked goods, sandwiches, soups, salads, and more in a kitchen that is tree-nut and peanut-free. They even accept custom bakery orders for those who need allergy-friendly treats.


 
Pembroke also supplies some of its goodies to the local 3 Rivers Co-Op. If you visit their café at Arts United, be sure to watch for the ballet practicing in their studio nearby while you eat.
  1. Freemasons Hall is a historic (and budget-friendly) rentable event venue.

Location: 216 E. Washington Blvd.



When Ed Snyder was a boy, he would walk past the regal stone pillars and steps of the 10-story Masonic Temple in Downtown Fort Wayne, also known as the Freemasons Hall, and he would wonder about its purpose and design.

"I assumed it was either a government building or a church," Snyder says. "In reality, it's neither."

Snyder

Instead, Freemasons Hall at 216 E. Washington Blvd. is an affordable and historic event center in the heart of Fort Wayne, owned and operated by the Masonic fraternity, a global charitable organization that's unaffiliated with any specific religion.

Snyder joined the masons about 10 years ago when he retired and wanted to meet more like-minded men in Fort Wayne with a passion for service and their community. Today, in addition to being a mason, he's the building's "unofficial manager," eager to help anyone learn more about its history or book its rentable venue spaces for their next event.

The Auditorium at Freemasons Hall.

Freemasons Hall was built for about $1 million in 1926 and designed by Charles A. Weatherhogg, the architect behind many notable homes and buildings in Northeast Indiana, including Fairfield Manor Apartments and the old Journal Gazette building.

At the time of its grand opening, Freemasons Hall served more than 10,000 mason members in the Fort Wayne area as a place to fraternize, host meetings, dances, and other social functions. To this day, about 500 masons still use the space, but its historic spaces once privy to members-only are now offered for budget-friendly event rentals.

"We're not looking to make this into a highly profitable rental business," Synder says. "We just want to maintain this space and keep it available to the community."

Ed Snyder opens a 1920s elevator at Freemasons Hall, an affordable event space in Downtown Fort Wayne.

The Hall's historic first-floor Ballroom (with original wood floors) can hold up to 500 people and can be booked for events like weddings, with packages costing about $3,000 total, Snyder says.

"That includes the use of the Ballroom the day of the event, and the entire day before the event, as well as the rehearsal dinner," he says. "We also provide security, all of the tables and chairs, and the setup and teardown of our equipment. The only thing you have to do, as the host, is tear down is any decorations you brought with you. Plus, you can hire any licensed caterer you'd like to use in this space because we're not in the catering business."

The Ballroom at Freemasons Hall

Along with the Ballroom, you can rent the Hall's second-floor Social Room, which formerly functioned as an exclusive gentlemen's club for the masons, with pool tables, foosball tables, high back chairs, and flatscreen TVs.

"We host a lot of anniversaries, birthday parties, graduations, and funeral dinners in the Social Room," Snyder says.



On the fifth floor, you'll find another amazing rental space, known as the Auditorium. It has 34-foot-tall ceilings, walnut wood furnishings, and lights by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Set up like a regal theatre, this space has 365 built-in folding chair seats around its perimeter, each adorned with a wire hanger for your tophat. 

"The Auditorium also has beautiful wool carpet that was installed in 1926, and we're very proud of that carpet," Snyder says. "So the only events we host in the Auditorium are performances or marriage ceremonies that have no food or beverages."

The 1,100-pipe organ at Freemasons Hall.

In addition to the carpet, the auditorium has a rare 1,100-pipe organ that was donated to the building upon its completion by the Bass Family of Fort Wayne. Legend has it, Mrs. Bass paid $13,500 for that organ in 1926, which in today's money, is about a quarter of a million dollars, Snyder notes.

"And the sound is totally amazing," he says.
  1. There’s a special window seat at Proximo where you can catch some sunset magic.

Location: 898 S. Harrison St.



It's no secret that Downtown Fort Wayne is magical at golden hour, when the setting sun makes the buildings glow. But if you really want to enjoy this city's splendor, there's one special spot that will give you a gorgeous view.



Place a reservation at Proximo at sunset, and get a table by the window on Harrison Street. Across the street, you'll see a gold-laden mural by the Tokyo-born artist JUURI, and when the sun hits it just right, the mural sparkles.
  1. Rudy’s Cigar Shop is more than cigars. It also offers wine slushies, DeBrand chocolates, and fire pits.

Location: 409 W. Brackenridge St., #3313



Don't let the name deceive you. Rudy's Cigar Shop is more than a boys' club treasure trove of premium cigars and craft beer. This small business, built into a two-story house, also offers a wide selection of Indiana wines, including Two-EE's famous wine slushies. Along with their beverages, you can treat yourself to a truffle from DeBrand Fine Chocolates while you're there. 



The Owner, Rudy Mudhara, says these expansions of his business (beyond the stereotypical boys' club) have earned him national recognition. “No place else in the country that has cigars available is as female-friendly as we are,” he says



We recommend visiting Rudy's during the warmer months, so you can enjoy its fire pits on the back patio or its elevated second-story deck only blocks away from the TinCaps Stadium.
  1. There's a baseball-themed skyline suite you can rent at the Hampton Inn, overlooking Parkview Field.

Location: 223 W. Jefferson Blvd.



You might know that you can catch a TinCaps game at Connor's Rooftop Bar atop the Hampton Inn overlooking Parkview Field, but did you know that just below the bar, you can rent a baseball-themed corner suite in the same hotel?



Treat yourself and a few lucky guests to skyline views of the city for an enjoyable stay-cation or gathering. These rooms are great options for small family get-togethers in the holiday season, and while there might not be a baseball game to watch, the snowy scenes of downtown are breathtaking.
 
  1. There's a plant-filled atrium inside the Hilton Hotel.

Location: 1020 S. Calhoun St.



You might know about the Botanical Conservatory in Downtown Fort Wayne, but did you know that across the street, there's another plant-filled atrium at the Hilton Hotel?



This little oasis amidst the urban setting offers a refreshing greenhouse-like atmosphere for guests. Grab a cup of coffee to go at the Hilton Starbucks down the hall, and enjoy.
  1. You can get Fort Wayne gear, and make your own custom, small-run apparel at a direct-to-garment digital print shop.

Location: 127 W. Wayne St.



Looking for a way to express your Fort Wayne fandom on a super soft tee or sweatshirt? You might not see it from the street, but park near J.K. O’Donnells, and walk into The City Exchange Shops at 127 W. Wayne St.

Down the hall and to your left, you’ll find an entire retail floor of direct-to-garment digitally printed apparel, home goods, and accessories—all designed and made-in-Fort Wayne. This shop is First & Wilkerson Designs (FWD), and it's locally owned by John Ambriole and his family. 



Ambriole got into the digitally printed apparel business when he left his job in corporate America about four years ago to pursue his passion for entrepreneurship. Along with the wide selection of prints and products on FWD's website, you can bring them your own designs or concepts to print on their apparel.

Ambriole says one of the benefits of digitally printing products (rather than screen printing) is that they can easily transfer photos or digital designs with no upcharge on the number of colors needed. 

"You can have a high detail, high-resolution design with as many colors as you want," he says. 



Have a cool concept for a shirt, but only want one or a few? No problem. FWD offers on-demand, small-run services with no minimum charges either. 

"We wanted to create a business where, if you came up with a design or a funny line with your friends, you could easily make a shirt with that on it," Ambriole says.

 

For all of its apparel, FWD uses quality, super-soft products by Bella + Canvas. The cost for a printed t-shirt is $28 (with no upcharge for bringing in your own design or up to 30 minutes of design work with FWD's staff designer). For more complex designs that require consulting, you can hire their designer for $40 an hour.

While you're Downtown, we suggest checking out some of FWD's pre-designed Fort Wayne-specific gear in their shop, ranging from the iconic "Fort Wayne badge" with the three rivers and Old Fort, to more creative options, like a line of Fort Wayne tees based on popular rock concert tees by ACDC or the Rolling Stones. 



"We try to stay a little edgy," Ambriole says. "Along with First & Wilkerson Designs, our initials 'FWD' also stand for 'forward.' That's been my mantra since I left corporate America."

***

Well, that’s all for now. But that’s not all that exists!

Downtown Fort Wayne is full of interesting people, places, nooks, and crannies that make it special.

Send us some of your favorite insider tips at [email protected].

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.