Prior to its designation as a cultural district, the Wholesale District was one of Downtown Indianapolis's most decayed and blighted areas. Around the turn of the 20th century Indianapolis had one of the largest networks of railroads in the USA and hundreds of trains passed through Union Station daily, the streets local to the station were lined with businesses, hotels, warehouses, retail shops and more. Wholesale grocers sold fresh goods daily before the advent of the modern grocery store. The district had many such grocers, but also wholesalers who sold dry and finished goods. The House of Crane, whose facade remains part of Circle Centre, sold cigars; Hanson, VanCamp & Co. sold hardware. In addition, South Delaware Street became known as Commission Row, where farmers brought their produce to merchants who sold the goods for a commission fee. The Wholesale District was of primary importance in the transformation of Indianapolis from small town to big city. No longer did shoppers have to rely on retailers who sold finished goods shipped from Louisville or Cincinnati. They could now go to a central location and buy the same items at wholesale prices. With Union Station nearby, wholesalers could ship goods more cheaply and more easily. Unfortunately, the Great Depression devastated the area and few businesses remained.
Since 1995, more than $686 million has been invested in the area, transforming it into one of the city's premier arts and entertainment districts. Recent additions include more than 35 new businesses, Circle Centre, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, restoration of the Omni Severin Hotel, and a number of upscale restaurants. The area also includes the Hilbert Circle Theatre, home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which underwent a $2.5 million renovation in 2003.