Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dear Diary, I'm in love...with some houses on the near Northside

A few weeks ago I took a drive through the relatively new redevelop-ment project called Martindale on the Monon. I got excited. So I took another drive through, and then another--with my camera.

There is something going on in that neighborhood that makes my heart go pitter pat. New ultramodern design, blended with old homes getting a facelift, and with a fair number of new decent contemporary-traditional homes is making that a nice place to visit and I just might want to live there. I'm not moving yet, but if I were looking for a new place to settle in Indianapolis, this is where I'd be looking.

The development itself is interesting, with a mix of market-rate and affordable housing, which comes with the possibilities of grant money for rehabs or new builds. The Martindale on the Monon project will sell lots or sell houses built to their specs. These houses are nice.

But the stars of the development are the very modern dwellings and the modern adaptations of some of the older buildings that have begun to dot the streetscape. According to Cindy Higbee at Martindale on the Monon, some of these homes are architect-designed, some are owner-designed. Take a drive down 16th St. and have a gander at the fabulous rehab of what appears to be an old firestation. The design touches that make this a stand out---super cool frosted glass entry doors along with groovy house numbers and a stainless mailbox have converted this abandoned building into a hip new home while maintaining original window and door openings and the building's historic integrity.

Across the street from the rehabbed fire station is one of the 'hood's modern, new homes. A cantilevered second story, shed roof, and a facade wall that has the look of a shogi screen make this house a sexy eyecatcher.

At 16th and Cornell is another modernist-statement residence. This 2-story brick has a center bay that projects above the flat roof and a cantilevered canopy over the entry. And the square, flat-roof garage is almost cooler than the house.

A bit north, Redev Group designed a tall, skinny house with side walls and roof clad in galvanized metal. Huge corner windows must make this home a stunner from the inside as well as the exterior.

Another gem in the neighborhood is the home designed by Mark Beebe at the corner of 19th and Bellefontaine. This small house reminds me of a teak box. Shed roof, boxed entry portal, and even the rear landscape design make it a stunner significant enough to be featured on the 2008 AIA home tour.

The neighbor-hood also features a stellar modernist rehab of the old National Auto Company into the Project School. The inspiring industrial building is a lesson in paying homage to old design with good redesign and reuse.

Martindale on the Monon is still sprinkled with its fair share of rundown, abandoned homes, commercial and industrial spaces. (Note to developers: if you get your hands on that little pagoda former gas station, please don't ruin it! Reuse, reuse, reuse!)

This is a neighbor-hood ripe for the picking and if I were you, I'd go grab a lot or an old rundown building and make something fabulous happen. Your neighbors have already gotten a good start on that!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

blog blahs

I know I've been a tardy poster as of late. Holidays, deadlines, schlepping around the state have kept me busy elsewhere. Look for a new post come late December on a sexy, new redevelopment project. I'm oh so excited about it but need a little time for some research before I publish. But, just know, it's made me excited to be an Indianapolis resident again. And come back and read and see why in a coupla weeks---maybe sooner.

In the meantime, here's my favorite holiday picture. Wishes for Happy Holidays of every persuasion coming your way from cResources.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lessons a House can Teach

This blog isn't devoted to home renovation. But, lately I've spent about a month painting my little Folk Victorian house and have been amazed at what I've learned about my home in the process. Even for a person who makes her living evaluating old buildings, there were lots of clues I missed in reading my own home. So this particular post is about my little house and the changes made to it that I've figured out either quickly or slowly while living here.

My house is in Fountain Square in a neighborhood severed by the construction of I-65/I-70 in the 1960s. My neighborhood has homes constructed from about 1860 to about 1960. My house is one of the older ones, with a construction date I estimate around 1895. The Folk Victorian style (a sort-of poor man's Queen Anne)was popular around that time and I know by looking at old Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of my neighborhood that my house wasn't here in 1887 and was here in 1898, so the approximate date I'd guessed fits the evidence I can find. (Love it when that happens.)

I chose my new paint color because I found this periwinkle color under several layers of pale blue, yellow and white paint on the house. I matched a chip of that old paint with my new paint. Green trim also showed up under the old paint though not exactly this shade of green. Next year I will add a magenta shade to the window sashes and mullions--she will be a real Victorian painted lady.

My house was originally a twin, but is no longer an identical twin, to the house next door. Sometime around 1915 or so one of the owners of my house "modernnized" it with a Craftsman-style brick porch that wraps around two sides of house. In the process the owners removed the original, small porch that once decorated a portion of the northwest facade with turned posts and a spindled frieze board. As a preservationist I seriously covet my neighbor's still-intact fancier porch, but I have to admit that my big shaded porch is one of the best things about living in this house. It's always breezy and pleasant there no matter how hot the summer days become.

At the same time the porch was added my house also got a rear addition, a 10' x 11' room that was built over the old cistern (which is now exposed under that room's floor in the basement). The rusticated concrete block foundation on the addition matches the foundation on the porch (the rest of the house is built on a brick foundation), indicating the two additions were made at the same time. The rear addition has a hipped roof, popular in the Arts and Crafts period when the bungalow was king, further supporting the idea that it dates to about 1915.

Probably at the same time the owners changed up the porch and added the rear room, they also installed some new windows. The facade and some of the northwest side windows of my house are classic bungalow style: wooden, double-hung sashes with three panes on the top and one pane on the bottom. They are also grouped in an Arts- and-Crafts period ribbon placement in a group of three contiguous windows in a row. Each group of three ribbon windows replaced two separate double-hung windows (judging from the sister house next door). What I also learned while painting was that even one of my remaining pairs of original double-hung windows was also altered at the time the new windows were installed. Although they remain in their original configuration of separate one-over-one windows, at least one set was replaced with shorter windows, evidenced by the replaced clapboard siding covering the original openings and a new sill, much smaller than the two original sills still in existance on the other side of the house.

At some much later point, maybe in the 1990s, someone got the bright idea to replace some more windows on the house. I actually believe that "someone" was SEND. Their classic move to pull out original wooden-sash windows and install vinyl was repeated all across my neighborhood, including in my house. So, three of my windows have been replaced at least twice. At least these newest (and no more efficient) windows are at the rear of my house and not very noticeable to a casual observer.

One other thing I learned about my house while painting is that my old steel gutters were mounted on the roof because there isn't enough space between my house and the house next door to allow for gutters to hang below the eaves. I count my old roof-mounted gutters as an asset because they didn't require ugly gutter boards around the roof edge and that means that my exposed rafter tails are all still intact and not cut off like many in my neighborhood. I think my house may not have had any gutters originally. There's no evidence of any other place where they would have been attached. My existing gutters, like my windows and porch, probably date to the Arts and Crafts period around 1915 or so. They are a typical style from that period.

Finally, one thing I had never noticed until I began to hit it while scraping the clapboard was that my house had hardware above the windows that must have held awnings of some sort. The awnings---I'm imagining Cool Vent aluminum slats from the 1940s or so---are long gone. Now, so is most of that leftover hardware, which I removed. The imprints on the wood from the hardware are still visible though, leaving a hint of the past for the next owners to ponder.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

New paint over termite-ridden boards

A lot of disparate events in the last few months came together in my mind today as I was reading the Indianapolis Sunday Star's article about revitalization along Martin Luther King, Jr. Street.

It's a touchy subject to be critical of a story about revitalization of an African American neighborhood when one is not African American, but a few things in the coverage of the project to revitalize the area seem wrong-headed to me.

As a downtown resident, and one who had to study some of MLK for impacts that might be caused to historic properties by the Cultural Trail, I have spent quite a bit of time walking and driving on the street. The article in the Star correctly states some of the problems, such as lack of parking and fast-moving traffic, and spells out some efforts that will be helpful in ameliorating them, including creating parking spaces out of one lane of traffic. New signage to direct visitors to local places of interest, banners "depicting figures such as [Martin Luther] King and local basketball legend Oscar Robertson" will line landscaped medians where the traffic lane once was, and the intersection where MLK meets I-65 will be "marked with two decorative pillars."

That all sounds fine. And it sounds a lot like the sort of ideas that Storrow and Kinsella, the landscape design firm in charge of the project, offer up for most of their downtown "revitalization" projects. Slow traffic, put something in the middle of the street, and create an environment that feels like something special is going on.

I have a few issues with this. First and utmost is that these are all just glossy paint over the much bigger issues on this corridor and in much of urban Indianapolis, which are abandoned derelict buildings and the crime and fear that comes with the broken window syndrome. Murals of Barack Obama and King are not going to make those problems go away. I have to wonder how much bigger an impact there might be if the $2 million spent on these cosmetic issues were put into making those empty buildings occupiable or even giving incentives to businesses and homeowners to move into them.

As a neighborhood activist in a working-class neighborhood with its own large set of abandoned buildings, and as one of a half-dozen neighborhood leaders invited to tour the southside with city department heads to talk about how we are trying to address this issue, I'm well aware that the issue of abandoned buildings is a primary problem in most neighborhoods and almost insurmountable for private citizens or citizen groups to tackle alone. The long waiting period while buildings sit empty before the city will place them on tax sales, and the city's own foul-up after the last tax sale, which voided the purchase of hundreds of these buildings, force neighbors to look elsewhere to try to address the problems that arise from having empty buildings around.

That's where beautification efforts come in. The thinking goes that if we make our neighborhoods look better in other areas maybe the folks we hope will make their homes here will overlook the broken windows and boarded-up doors in the 5 other houses in their block. As I toured the southside and heard the various stories of each of the neighborhood leaders on the bus the one thread that we all wove our tales around was abandoned buildings. Most of our neighborhood groups had coalesced around that issue, but none of them had been able to make any headway in solving it or even improving it much.

And that's why I think this revitalization effort is misdirected. Creating parking spaces for businesses and slowing traffic are laudable. But adding banners of Oscar Robertson and building up landscaped medians are not going to fix what's wrong in a neighborhood where a good portion of the buildings are sitting empty. And until those empty buildings are filled, no amount of makeup is going to cover the blemishes that mark the neighborhood.

The Star article neglected to mention where the funding for this effort is coming from or how much of it is going to the planners, but I strongly suspect that a different approach might render better results in the long run. I'd like to see the city make a real effort to fill up these empty buildings. And I'd like to see the monies that go into prettification go instead into incentivizing real people to take a chance on a troubled neighborhood.

A friend of mine just took me on a tour of a termite-infested house he's recently purchase for a song. His plans for rehabbing the house don't start with paint on the half-eaten boards or with a flower bed outside the front door so you won't notice what's missing in the beams and rafters. He's going to take out those termite ridden boards and put new ones in their place in somes spots; in others he can treat the board with insecticide and inject filler into it so that it reinforces the board from the inside out, making it strong once again. Painting and primping comes much further down the road for his house. He knows he has to have strong posts and beams first.

No matter how nice it is to have the city pay some attention and throw some money at a troubled neighborhood, unless the city helps do the real work of restoring the neighborhood and getting home owners and business owners into the abandoned buildings, it's still just painting over termite-infested boards.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Slowly comes a new Skyline

Indianapolis has been and remains a small topographical blip on the landscape of Central Indiana. But a couple of new changes to the downtown landscape are expanding and lifting the urban skyline. The first one, Lucas Oil Stadium, hulks massively over the southwestern edge of downtown. That's ok. It's not a terrible building. It's conservative, like most of our buildings. Some of the details, mainly the buttressed pilasters that define its window bays, are attractive. But in general it's just another huge football stadium, and it's another stadium (like Conseco Fieldhouse)that's paying design homage to the great beauty of Butler University's Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Lucas Oil Stadium is an architecturally benign growth.

I am happier with the design of the JW Marriott, the new hotel under construction along Washington and West streets as part of the revamped Convention Center project.

The JW Marriott was designed by HOK Architects, a firm that is also responsible for the no-big-deal Indianapolis International Weir Cook Terminal (which by the way, looks a whole lot like the also no-big-deal Providence, R.I., airport terminal). HOK has designed some cool stuff, like the Edificio Malecon Office Tower in Buenos Aires and the very cool Tyson Foods Discovery Center in Springdale, Arkansas.

The JW Marriott in Indianapolis isn't in the spectrum of cool that those buildings represent. It isn't a great building. But it is a kinda-cool building. Rising 34 floors (according to Wikipedia)the curved building is clad in shimery-blue glass panels. A shorter two- to three-story section spans its facade along West Street. The design is nothing special, but the look is attractive and modern. And the panels break the smooth line of the glass wall which prevents the building from looking like a curved blue version of the negative landmark, "gold" building. Shorter buff and tan block buildngs that attach on the south side and spring up to the rear of the blue high rise are also part of the complex and are attractive in their own right, although far more pedestrian.

This isn't knock-your-socks off architecture. But it is a big asset to the downtown skyline, adding a high-rise several blocks west of Meridian Street on a corner that has been uninspiring. It's a nice juxtaposition to two buildings I like a lot on the north side of the street: the sandstone Eiteljorg and the sort-of 1950s International-ranch retro style of the Indiana State Museum. And the JWM even fits nicely with one of the city's best old buildings, the Perry K Steam Plant, whose terra cotta details make it a remarkable, industrial Art Deco beauty.

So this new good building is making nice with some existing good architecture. Along with Lucas Oil Stadium, it expands downtown to the west. But the most important asset the JW Marriott building brings to downtown Indianapolis is its addition to the skyline. This is a tall and truly urban building that's making a statement. And I like what it's saying. Feel free to weigh in with your yays or nays.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Empty homes/homeless people.

I love that the next Indianapolis Pecha Kucha will be about a great idea to improve the city. A $10k prize won't go far in implementing a significant change but it could get the ball rolling on a fantastic idea. (If you don't know about Pecha Kucha, google it and then be sure you go to the one coming up in November).

I wish I had pulled together a presentation for P.K. but although I have an idea of what SHOULD happen, I don't have much to offer in the way of making it happen. What I do know is that a lot of smart, aware folks read this blog so I'm pitching my idea into the blogiverse to see if someone else can make headway with it or knows of a place where a municipality or private org is doing something like this.

I'm a neighborhood activist and I think one of the major issues affecting my neighborhood, our city, and the nation is abandoned homes. In my little working class neighborhood in Fountain Square there are about 20 abandoned homes that have been empty and boarded or empty and not boarded for at least as long as the three years I've lived here. Most have broken-out upper-story windows. At least one's been set on fire. There are 5 or 6 empty boarded houses on my two-block street.

My neighborhood is on the direct path to the Liquor Cabinet--the kind of charming, urban liquor store, usually found in poorer neighborhoods, that specializes in 32oz single beers and pints of the hard stuff. I notice on a daily basis a large number of homeless folks who traipse through the neighborhood on their way to or from the Liquor Cabinet and a cheap buzz. I also notice them sleeping under the trees and pissing against the buildings (which is annoying, but since there aren't public restrooms anymore and businesses understandably don't want a lot of homeless folks using their restrooms there aren't many alternatives). And now that Mayor Ballard is aggressively chasing the homeless out of downtown, their numbers on the near Southside have increased exponentially.

So here's my question to the city and to all of us. Why can't we pair up at least a small number of the homeless with some of our abandoned homes? Is it compeletly naive to imagine that we could create a great program that could put individuals or groups of 2 or 3 into abandoned houses that they "rent" or eventually buy with sweat equity? Set parameters that require them to be self-managing within the home with the clear requirement that they must secure, repair, and maintain the home in a reasonable manner in order to remain there. The city could pay for their utilities with the money they collect in those dumb boxes downtown so long as the tenants are living up to their commitments to maintain the home.

I know many of the homeless wouldn't be able to manage this sort of situation. But I bet you that some of them could and that there is, somewhere, a model for this type of program. A careful screening by program management could ensure that the people with the best chance of making it work enter the program, and ideally the households would be self-governing. The men or women within the home would decide the house rules and the penalties for violating them. That might mean that what goes on within the house might not necessarily be what you or I would want to see in our homes, but as long as the group decided that it was ok, and as long as the house is being maintained at least on the exterior, least at a minimal level, then the outside world doesn't get to make the judgement on it.

So, the neighborhood gets one or two abandoned homes filled and cleaned up, which results in lower crime and better home values. And a few people get off the streets, which also results in lower crime and a better life for them.

These people are already living in our neighborhoods and often times living on the down-low in these abandoned houses that they've broken into for a little shelter. So, we wouldn't be creating a problem. We would be addressing some tiny portion of the problem that already exists by providing decent, secure living space to a few of the homeless people already living in our neighborhood.

I know that there are mentally ill homeless and others who may not want or be able to maintain any sort of loose contract such as this would be, and this wouldn't work for them. Maybe it would work for only .05% of the homeless population. And it would take a very well-thought-out plan and follow-up process on the part of case managers, etc. And I'm aware of the concern that neighbors would have and that it would take an education process for those neighbors to give it a try, but I still believe that it could make a big difference in a few people's lives. And it could also make a big difference in a neighborhood full of abandoned, decaying homes.

A few homeless people get off the streets. A few abandoned homes get cleaned up and maybe even purchased through a sweat equity contract.

It could be a win/win situation. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have thought of this. I bet it's happening somewhere. Wouldn't it be cool if Indianapolis gained a reputation as the city that makes homeowners of their homeless? I think so, but I don't know how to make it a reality. So, I'm just putting it out there. That's my Pecha Kucha idea, sans the cool slides and the open bar. I'd love to read some or your ideas about how it might happen.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Holy Adaptive Reuse

For a while now, former architect David Andrichik, who is perhaps better known as current Chatterbox Jazz Club owner, has spoken glowingly of changes to a building I had been feeling sad about. David has turned me on to a lot of good design in the past (as well as several good beers) so I made a point of taking a long look at the Meridian Arch condo project at 802 N. Meridian St. I encourage you to do the same.

A few years ago I was the historian who evaluated all the properties along what will eventually become the Northwest section of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. One of the properties that was so disappointing to me at that time was the former Methodist Church building that is now the front section of the Meridian Arch project. Once a Gothic Beauty all done up in limestone, the church had been gutted, the back end removed, interior stripped, windows gone. It was a shell scheduled for rehabbing into condos. Strike, strike, strike. I was dismayed that the beautiful building would never be listed on the National Register due to all these changes and losses of fabric.

But...two years later I have to admit that I now think it's a better building. Clever adaptive reuse has turned a downtown church building, which would probably never have been reused in its original capacity, into a stunner of a redevelopment project.

Although some preservationists are loathe to express appreciation for keeping a facade intact while adding new buildings behind it, I have always thought that approach is better than completely demolishing a beautiful old building. I'm glad that Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf kept the original church building skin. I especially like how they fit new windows into the original openings, keeping the arched grillwork lintels in place and installing what appear to be operable sashes behind them.

And if ever a lesson could be taught in how to attach a new addition to an existing historic building, this property could be the text. The connection between original limestone and new brick is made elegant by the continuation of a buttressed limestone beltlline across the new section and the quote of the rusticated limestone foundation on the front section translated into the smooth squared block foundation of the newer section. The two buildings meet amicably with a slightly recessed window wall.

The new section of the building honors the old section with these details and with a somewhat whimsical design element that resembles stylized flying buttresses at roofline, and it is similar in color, which also helps the two sections meld well. But this addition is a fully modern building that in no way copies the original structure in front of it. I especially like the walls of windows opening out onto individual porches on the recessed bays. And the elegantly simple facade is made interesting with cool railings and interesting light fixtures.

This building, which seemed like such a sad idea a couple of years ago turned into a real winner. This is adaptive reuse done well. And although the alterations have made the church ineligible for the National Register, they made it eligible to remain a living, contributing building to the city. That was a good trade off.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Low Hanging Fruit isn't necessarily the best to pick.

A friend sent me a link to the NY Times book review of a new book by David Owen: Going Green: What Cities can Teach the Country. Owen's main point is that the huge metropolis of New York City is actually the greenest, most environmentally responsible place in the US, due in large part to its density, walkability and infrastructure.

Although I'm not sure I'm buying his entire argument (especially since I've only read the book review), I completely agree that to be truly green, cities must be densely populated rather than spread out across the horizon, and they must be correctly laid out to take advantage of urban density. This is where New York, and many other cities, beat Indianapolis hands down. There are few places in Indianapolis where one can walk or even bike to the grocery, dry cleaner, drugstore, doctor, bus stops, and other consumer needs. Within the Milesquare downtown, Broad Ripple and Fountain Square, where I live, are the only areas where that's possible in this city. In these few spots we have smart growth left over from the era before that name had a meaning. It's here in these innercity neighborhoods where we can and must proselytize our lifestyles. Developers can talk about New Urbanisim all they want, but West Clay will never be as smart as Fountain Square.

Going green is the best argument for innercity development that could be made. If we reopen the shopping nodes that once offered up goods and wares on neighborhood street corners, then we are being smart. When we put money into our urban areas we are also meeting all three of the greenies "R"s: reduce, reuse, recycle by filling up existing homes, not by building new ones on the city edges.

The review of Owen's book makes note of something that dovetails nicely with a message I've been preaching for the last few years. It says that Owen critizes those "who waste money on "inappropriate technology" such as solar panels while failing to beef up roof insulation, drive less, downsize or purchase more efficient HVAC systems." This is a mirror of how I feel about those who insist that to be "green" and not waste energy they must put new, Energy Star windows in their old house. When what they really need to do is insulate their roofs, recaulk their beautiful old windows, buy some insulated drapes which they close to keep out the sun in summer and open for solar gain in winter, and plant a tree in front of the window to create shade in the hot months.

Windows in old homes appear to be the low-hanging fruit which seems ripe for the picking. And it's true that those old windows may never be exactly as efficient as the hyped new ones. But if they are made to be as efficient as they can be, where they already exist, they are also preventing the need for manufacturing and shipping a new set of windows and for landfilling the old ones. Again: all three Rs.

And a P. Preservation.

I hope that as we environmentalists think about the future world we want to leave in good shape for our children's children, we also consider the architectural legacy we can leave for them. Pulling out the old windows from your Victorian or even your Mid-Century home means that it can no longer convey its history at a glance. It isn't the historic home anymore. And it may not have gained much in the way of conservation, either. It certainly doesn't gain you as much conserved energy as spraying cellulose insulation into your attic would have, or installing a new HVAC, or insulating your foundation.

So if you live in the city, and particularly if you live in an old home, be Smart. Be Green. Old house owners who live in a walkable community can be the greenest of all the citizens. We are triple R-ers!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Downtown gets Some Good Design

It's easy to complain about architecture I don't like (see the preceding post). There is a fair amount of uninteresting or downright awful architecture in Indianapolis. The good news is that there are also a few, mostly smaller-scale projects in the city that are both pleasing to look at and a good fit as infill projects within historic neighborhoods.

It's probably easier to reach a consensus about what's bad than about what's good, but these are three relatively recent (within the last 5 years or so) projects that hit on all cylinders in terms of scale, proportion, context and design. I know the design firm of only one of these projects but this isn't an advertisement so I'm not mentioning them nor seeking to find out who designed the other two.

The condo development at 10th and Park is my favorite newish residential building in the city. It's been finished for just a few years, within the last 3, I believe. I love this building. For once an Indianapolis architect/builder has taken a chance with materials other than red brick and clapboard. This is also a very modern design that manages to fit perfectly into the locally designated Chatham Arch Historic District. Matching the setback of the exisitng buildings on the street, the designer also managed a building of similar proportions and scale as those already existing in the district. It doesn't hurt that this building abuts another new development, but this one also plays well off of the turn-of-the-century four-squares to the west. The dark brown and tan brick sections are juxtaposed against luminous glazed block. The material changes make the exterior interesting and modern; a flat roof also adds to the modern feel. And the huge plate glass windows lend an interesting commercial feel to the facade, which fits nicely into this mixed- use neighborhood. This is good design that, unlike the 3 Mass building, for instance, pays attention to its neighborhood and manages to fit perfectly into a historic district.

Another new residential development I like is the shed-roof building in Holy Rosary District just west of Virginia Avenue. Until the terrible Villagio building went up in front of these condos this would have been a great place to live. The shed roof and quirky color choices on the balconies make this a very modern design and even the landscaping around the building is fun and modern. At the same time, the proportions, scale, set-back and that shed-roof (a common element found on additions and outbuildings in the historic buildings of the area) help the building fit perfectly within the historic neighborhood.

Finally, the newest residential development in the Fletcher Place area is also shaping up to be a winner. This group of buildings, facing both College and Fletcher Avenue, are the most traditional of the three developments I've talked about, but given their location, right in the middle of Fletcher Place, and the lack of other new buildings around them, the choice of a more traditional gabled design seems like a good one here. And the developers have made a nod to modern in their funky orange and chartreuse siding and irregular windows openings on the College Avenue facades, while taking a more traditional approach with dark blue clapboard and double-hung windows along Fletcher Avenue. The development looks fresh and new and not just because it is. But it also fits well within a historic district that has a collection of some of the finest old homes in the city.

Kudos to the developers of these three sites who found ways to be modern without overwhelming the historic architecture that they are joining. I hope to see more of this type approach in our city, which has allowed far too much suburban type development right downtown. We don't want the suburbs in Indianapolis. A city should be a showplace of URBAN development and architecture. We don't have much to show, but these three developments are a start.

Downtown Deserves Better Design

Downtown Indianapolis has a housing problem. I am not referring to the abandoned and foreclosed homes that blight many of our neighborhoods. This is a problem of new, prominent construction projects that are a visual blight in our built environment. I work as an architectural historian and am keenly aware that buildings have a huge and lasting impact on a city. I am also an aficionado of good modern design who thinks that new buildings should be stylish and well-designed avatars of the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, two of downtown’s recent, large-scale residential projects, the Villagio and 3 Mass condos, will represent our times to future historians as unattractive architectural mistakes completely out of context, scale and proportion with their neighborhoods. Massive buildings don’t dissipate like a bad smell over time. They can stink up a city for centuries, and these two are real stinkers.

If you haven’t seen the enormous nine-story box called the Villagio, you should. Drive south on Virginia Avenue as you pass it so that you get the full effect of the off-kilter concrete parking garage at the rear, as well. And if you think the front of the building is unattractive, take a gander at the rear. The developers snubbed their noses at three historic neighborhoods: Fletcher Place, Holy Rosary and Fountain Square with this manila-colored blank wall blocking the view of downtown.

A building that looks like a timeshare on the beach of Panama City, Florida, is inappropriate at this prominent gateway to the beautiful residential architecture of Fletcher Place and the Bohemian-tinged Fountain Square. This is not just an unattractive building, it is a monstrous clunky cube plunked awkwardly on a triangular tract of land. The square footprint defies the logic of the flatiron shape that our clever ancestors fit so perfectly onto city lots such as this one. Worst of all, the Villagio’s massiveness ensures that it’s here to stay. And the city is worse off for it.

Another residential project still under construction is also shaping up as a sad architectural blunder. The 3 Mass condos in the 300 block of Massachusetts Avenue are a good idea gone badly wrong. While the concept of filling a surface parking lot with a mixed-use condo/commercial unit is commendable, the actual building isn’t. From the corner of New York and Delaware, the disturbing juxtaposition of its hulking hugeness pushed up against the beautiful flatiron building in front of it conjures up the image of a whale about to swallow a tuna.

On Massachusetts Avenue, the heavy brick fa├žade overwhelms the comparatively small-scaled and elegant historic buildings that are its neighbors. 3 Mass is out of context in this charming historic district. An attractive modern design of appropriate scale and proportion could have worked well at this spot, but this isn’t attractive and it doesn’t work.

Thankfully there is reason to be hopeful that there won’t be other Villagios or 3 Masses in our future. The latter rushed into construction before Massachusetts Avenue was designated part of a local historic district, which would now require design review by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission. And in 2008, after Villagio and 3 Mass had been approved, the city instituted new Urban Design Guidelines. These new guidelines are intended to “set standards that will produce a more thoughtful design response to Regional Center development projects.” That thoughtful design response was sorely needed in these two projects.

Buildings are important in how we view ourselves as a people and a city. If Indianapolis is to become the “world class” city that we hear so much about we can only hope that these new guidelines will prevent such monumental mistakes in the future.

Note: a slightly softened version of this piece appeared in the September 5, 2009 IBJ as an Op-Ed.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Out the 9th floor window

I've spent this week on the 9th floor of what's now the Flagstar bank building at Penn and Washington streets, in downtown Indianapolis. Great view of the city out the windows of that old building. Some amazing old buildings that I normally see from the street up please me even more from the top down. I love all the terra cotta and carved limestone decorations at rooftop level on so many of the downtown buildings. Sweet details easily missed in passing. And it'sreally great to see the Soldiers and Sailors monument from its level.

What I didn't enjoy seeing were the two recently reskinned buildings just south of Washington Street, the Broadmoor Building and whatever they are calling the building now housing Scotty's Brewhouse.

I absolutely hate what they did to the quirky but interesting zipper building (a former Merchant's Drive-in Bank constructed in 1961) when they morphed it into the Broadmoor. Ick. Although I didn't think the Zipper was a particularly significant building, it was at least fun. Kind of like a big set of dentures smiling out at the street. Its new incarnation, with its bland marble walls and that ridiculous central clock, looks like it belongs on a fake street at Disneyland. It's a sort of poor man's contemporary-Americana style. The only good thing about the view down at that building is the occasional appearance of a man in full gaucho outfit emerging from the Fogo de Chao steakhouse inside it. Only when these employees come outside to take a smoke in their puffy shirts and knickers does the building provide something to smile about.

The other recently altered building, where Scotty's Brewhouse takes up the entire first floor, has also been reskinned. This building now has walls of windows with a sort of oil slick variation in color and a weird plexiglass appearance. Are those actually glass windows? They sure don't look like it. And the mullions and muntins dividing the panes are fat and clunky, eliminating any chance that it might have had at appearing appealingly "modern." This building, which was constructed in the early 20th century, was previously altered in the 1960s into an unremarkable streamlined concrete and glass structure. Although it was unremarkable before, now it has the appearance of a Schaumburg chain store.

Not surprisingly, I prefered the old building facades of both these buildings. I wish the Zipper's new owners would have expanded the building vertically, so that it would make better use of its prime downtown real estate, making our city smarter. This blah renovation is worse than the amusing original.

As for the brewhouse building. What was was late 1960s-early 70s generic is now 2009 generic.

Not all old buildings are significant pieces of architecture. Healthy cities change; old buildings get replaced or redone. Sometimes that's ok. It seems unlikely that either of these buildings would have been candidates for the National Register before they were altered. But, changes could have made them both much more attractive and modern. But these two buildings are now suburban mall-generic, sad juxtapositions to the stylishly detailed Italianate, Art Deco, and Chicago Style buildings that surround them.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Buy an Old House if you Want a New One?

A lot of what I do for a living is evaluating old houses to see if they might be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. That means I spend much of my time looking at what people do to their old house and talking to them about the changes they've made.

I'm always amazed and appalled at the folks who are so damn proud that they put in all new windows, doors and vinyl siding and replaced the old porch with a deck. Wha?! These are exactly the things that made your house interesting.

What I try not to say, but can't keep from thinking is: great, now everything that was old is new and the house is completely uninteresting. I just don't understand why people buy old houses if they really want a new one. There are cheap new houses. Many times cheaper than buying an old one and completely redoing it. So why make these changes that rob the house, and the neighborhood and community, of a building that might have been significant enough to be listed on a register kept by someone with the exceedingly cool job title of Keeper of the National Register?

If your old windows leak, plug the worst leaks, install storms, hang insulated drapes, or even cover them with window film in the winter. DON'T pull them out and stick in vinyl windows that don't even fit the original openings properly. A front porch is a thing of beauty that reminds us of the times when a family gathered in this cool spot on hot summer days to visit with the neighbors or look out at the cornfields. Even in some new housing developments, like West Clay in Carmel, Indiana, a "new urbanism" community (at least they call it that), porches are understood as important elements of community building, as well as design. Please, I'm begging you, keep your old porches. Use them.

Porches, windows, doors, siding. These are the fabric of your home. And these are key elements in your homes historic integrity. If you buy an old house, appreciate it for what it is, not what you can turn it into. Make changes if you need to on the interior but be sensitive about changing the exterior.

You may think your house isn't significant and it doesn't matter what you do to it. Maybe it's a common type, like a ranch. It's hard for us to appreciate what our parent's generation built. But, ranch houses of the 1950s are now old enough to be "historic." There are ranches on the National Register already, as well as entire districts of mid-century modern homes. Their aluminum windows and sliding glass doors are important elements of their original design. Keep them if you can.

And if you're looking at buying a home and just can't live with old windows, original doors and porches, on a house that's 50 years old or older. Please, consider just buying a new house, or a trailer. We need those old houses. They help define who we are and where we've been as a people.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What Agribusiness has done to our Built Environment is bad for us.

Films like Food, Inc. and King Corn have alerted some of us to the damage that agribusiness is doing to our food supply and our environment. What they haven't discussed is the damage it is also doing to our rural landscape.

When one huge farm swallows up the land of many smaller farms the agribusiness doesn't necessarily--doesn't usually--keep the exisitng farmhouses occupied with tenants. The original owners move out and the homes sit empty, slowly dying on the vines of our rural history.

It's sad and scary for anyone intersted in our architectural heritage to see how many great old Italianates, Queen Annes and Bungalow farm houses are now empty shells slowly disintegrating. And down the road a piece, sometimes a far piece, sits the brand spanking new agribusiness complex. Spread out and stretched tall across the rural vistas. These big business farming operations always have either a new faux mansion or an old, once beautiful farmhouse, which has been culled of all architectural history and distinction by the replacement of all its windows, doors, siding and context.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised that the business model to produce more of everything by polluting the soil and genetically modifying our food supply would also not give a hoot or a holler about our rich and beautiful rural architectural history. But it's a sad loss for our countryside and for us.