Saturday, November 20, 2010

Historic homes of Sardinia--the one in Decatur County.

On a recent trip to Sardinia -- the Sardinia in Decatur County, Indiana, that is, I came upon this gorgeous old Italianate on that little settlement's main street, which is now SR 3. 

Below is the same house in a photo taken from the east and looking west across the highway.

And below is an etching of this house from the 1882 Decatur County Atlas. 
You can see that the tower is now missing, but the rest of the house is pretty much intact, though several windows are boarded up and there are roof issues that will wear this beauty down fast.  This would be a fabulously rewarding fixer-upper project for someone. 

The bottom house in the atlas etching above is still standing just south of the brick one, too.  But it's had an addition on the facade and new vinyl siding (yuck). It hurt my eyes, so I didn't take a photo.

Sardinia has an agricultural history of great wealth directly connected to the construction of the railroad through the town.  Although settled in 1835, all the once-grand homes in Sardinia and the nearby countryside date to the 1850s through 1870s, a time when the railroad was king and before "agribusiness" meant confined feeding operations and ownership of thousands of acres.  The wealthy of the countryside around Sardinia owned a few hundred acres at most.  They made the most of them and the rich land made them rich. Their houses show it and many of those old houses remain, though most have been altered.  The one below is still in good shape and probably one of the oldest in the area. She's a beauty, eh?

I  continue to be puzzled about the people who build cookie-cutter tract houses when grand dames like these exist all over the place. Decatur County is especially graced with existing brick homes from the second half of the 19th Century.  I know it's expensive to restore an old house of this scale, but the $100,000 you might pay for a crappy house in a subdivision would go a long way toward turning a house like the first one into a restored beauty like this one.  And it's an investment that helps us retain our history.  You should think about it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Decatur County Brick Houses, then/now

I've always been intrigued by the Italianate-style brick houses that pepper the landscape of Decatur County, Indiana.  I'm so intrigued that I decided to do a bit of research.  Apparently even in 1882, when the county's atlas was published, these were considered to be some pretty terrific homes.  Lots of Italianate homes are featured in lithographs in that atlas.  And more than a few of them looked familiar to me. 

So today, on my regular weekly visit to my parents in Greensburg, I took copies of those lithographs and we hunted for some of the houses.  It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be, but so far, we've found two.

Here's the 1882 lithograph of the Residence of M. Grover, Greensburg, Indiana.

At first I thought this was the house with later period alterations. Notice the unusual roofline and general shape, returns on the cornices and the siting on a hill. 

But no, that's not quite right. It's missing the bay window on the left side of the facade and it's not configured exactly right. 

So we scouted the old center of Greensburg some more. 

And got lucky.  Here it is. The Grover house, in the 300 bock of Central Avenue, in 2010.

The three windows over the porch and the stone wall in front of the house clinched the ID.  Once considered so impressive that someone sketched it and turned its image into a lithograph to represent the county's finest homes, this house now looks to be abandoned.  That's some fine architecture going to ruin.

The other home we looked for was one of a multitude of Italianate farm houses constructed throughout the county in the 1870s.  It would be a fascinating research project to see who the brick masons were who designed and constructed all these homes.  Some are doppelgangers of their neighbors' or other homes just down the road. That happened to be the case here.

Here's the 1882 atlas of the John E. Robbins farm.   See the gable of the barn facing the road off to the right?  Notice the stone wall in front?

There are two houses in adjoining farms that match the design of  the house in this litho. I'm not certain which is the right one. 
The house below has new rectangular windows but the original arched openings are still visible, bricked in around the new windows. People, you shouldn't do that. Yuck.  But even with these changes, you can see it's very similar to the, perhaps the very same, house in the litho.

And, lookee, next to the road, just to the north of this house (and not too far south of the one below), is the stone wall shown in the lithograph.

But wait.  Just north of this house is its doppelganger.  This second house is still in the Robbins family. Unfortunately, the trees are so thick you can't see the house well behind them in this photo. On the ground, I could see that the Gabled-Ell plan matched the one in the picture, and I could see the round oculus window under the gable, and the same brackets under the gable as shown in the house in the litho.  The porch is the same configuration as the litho porch. AND, although it's nearly impossible to see through the trees, there is a board-and-batten barn behind the house to the right in exactly the same location and with the same windows as the one in the litho above.

So, which of these is the house? 

Take a look at the front yard landscapes of both of these farmsteads, too.  See the remnants of the plan shown in the lithograph?  Although none of the trees in the two rows in front of the houses are old trees, both lawns show evidence that there was an allee of trees in the front lawn, later owners replanted trees where the original ones had been.  Both of these farmsteads retain this landscape feature straight out of an Andrew Jackson Downing book.

I know one of these houses is the match. In my opinion, judging from the set back from the road, the curve in the road in front of the property, and the board-and-batten barn, and the fact that it's currently a Robbins family property, I think the second one is the Robbins farm shown in the lithograph.  But since the first house also matches the one in the lithograph, and there's a portion of stone wall right next to the property, could be this is the one... Hm. 

Final bit of analysis is the Atlas map.  Not much help, it shows two houses [gray squares] on J. E. Robbins property along the Greensburg Sand Creek Toll Pike.  And, by the way, the "school" noted on the map just south of the Robbins farm is still there, too.

Which one is the one in the litho, then?  What do you think? 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tidbits on the City County Building, Indianapolis

Last year I devoted an Urban Times column to the Indianapolis/Marion County City-County Building. You can read that column here:

The City-County building is a nice example of glass curtain-wall International Style and it deserves more appreciation than it has received. I hope that appreciation begins sooner rather than later so that we can protect the building from misguided renovations.

A couple of weeks ago, J. Parke Randall, one of the architects who helped design the City-County building, sent me copies of some original documents about it. I want to pass some of that information and other bits I've learned since writing the Urban Times column to all of you who have a mutual interest in the building and those who may come to appreciate it as they learn more about it. The information below is basically copied from the documents Parke Randall sent, though I added a bit of my own commentary in a couple of places.

According to a ring-bound booklet about the building, the City-County Building was a joint effort by the "Allied Architects & Engineers of Indianapolis." The firms involved were Lennox, Matthews, Simmons & Ford, Inc. and Vonnegut, Wright & Porteous, Inc., the local "Allied Architects and Engineers" group. Harley, Ellington & Day, Inc. was the consulting architects firm from Detroit. J. M. Rotz Engineering Co. provided mechanical engineers and Metropolitan Planners, Inc., the landscape designers.

According to a list compiled by the Indiana Architectural Foundation in 1994 people in the building design team included:
Richard C. Lennox, Architect in Charge
William C. Wright, Architect in Charge
Robert E. Lakin, Project Architect (tower design, elevators, material selections, etc.)
Marion L. Cramer, Structural Engineer
Louis E. Penniston, Architect for the jail wing design
Herbert M. Thompson, Architect for the courts wing design
Joe McGuire, Architect (specifications)
Courtney Macomber, Architect designer for all areas
Lee Hollinden, curtain wall design
Charles Pye, stair design
Kenny Curtis, toilet room designs [and let me just say that the restrooms are modern-stylish in this building]
Parke Randall, interior designs, cafeteria, Mayor's office, etc.
Maynard Cox, structural design
Dick Roettger, construction supervision
Ken Goodrich, interior design (colors) [good work, Goodrich. The color choices are both elegant and whimsical in this building]
Don Woehler, parking garage structural
Don Hammond, Tom Leonard, Gordon Herbert, Milton Cuppy, draftsmen
Bob Shroyer (models for preliminary design)
John Coffin, structural canopies
Joan Izor and Donna Polling secretaries

J. Parke Randall began working on the City-County building in April 1957, when he was 30; he finished in 1959. Prior to his position on this project he'd worked with E.I. Brown and the estimable Indianapolis architect, Edward D. Pierre. He joined Vonnegut, Wright & Porteus and, along with William (Bill) Wright, represented that firm as part of the Allied Architects on the C-C building. Randall kept a log of his work on the project, which included preliminary planning drawings and department layouts for the Mayor's Suite, Police Identification Dept., Crime Lab, Police Line Up, Police Property Dept., Photo Labs, Library, Detective Assembly, Health and Hospital Labs, Civil Engneer Labs, and Parking Garage.

Working on a building that deserves recognition but is mostly unappreciated must be a special kind of disappointment. If you know anyone involved in the design of the City-County Building, take a minute to say thanks for that good modern building, one of few in this city.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Skidmore Owings and Merrill *SOM* in Indianapolis

Skidmore Owings and Merrill is a Chicago-based architecture firm made famous by its work in the International Style. Still winning awards for their innovative architecture, it's hard to list their best work, but among the most celebrated are the Lever House, John Hancock Center and Sears Tower. Lever House was one of the first glass curtain-wall office buildings in the U.S. when it went up in NYC in 1952. About 20 years later, SOM designed Chicago's John Hancock Center, and its Sears Tower was once the tallest building in the world. Their Infinity Tower opens in 2011 in Dubai.

This firm also has a nunber of significant connections to Indianapolis, and not just because they designed a handful of buildings in the city.

Nathaniel A. Owings, Nat, was born and raised in Indianapolis. In fact his family had been in the city more than a hundred years by then. His father, Nathaniel F. Owings was the Secretary/Treasurer of the Capitol Veneer Co. once located at 829 Chase St. In the book "Indianapolis Architecture" the younger Owings said that he grew up at 23rd and Park, but by the time he was 11, in 1914, the Indianapolis City Directories give his parents' address as 318 W. 17th Street (now a parking lot). By 1916, Owings was about to enter high school at Indianapolis's Arsenal Tech. His father had died in the intervening years; the City Directory shows that his mother, Cora, was a widow, and the family, which included his sister, Eloise, had moved to 3705 E. 16th Street (now part of Brookside Park). None of these houses has survived Progress in Indianapolis, so we can't make a pilgrimage to his early architectural inspirations.

Both Owings and his sister left Indianapolis by the 1920s. Eloise moved to Paris to attend the Paris Parson School of Design. At the same time, Louis Skidmore was traveling around Europe on a fellowship after finishing his degree at MIT. Like most of us, Skidmore especially enjoyed Paris. According to Louis Skidmore, Jr., his parents, Eloise and Louis, met at the Cafe Deux Magots. When they returned to the U.S. together, Eloise introduced her future husband to her brother, his future partner, Nathaniel A. Owings.

In 1936, Skidmore and Owings began their partnership in Chicago; they opened a New York office the following year. The third partner, John Merrill, joined the firm after he left Granger & Bollenbacher in 1939. Merrill had worked on a number of Federal Housing Authority sponsored apartment complexes and Skidmore and Owings hoped to steal some of that business away to their firm. Vassar professor, Nicholas Adams, states in his book, "Skidmore, Owings and Merrill since 1936" that SOM was the architect for Indianapolis's Marcy Village, an FHA apartment project near Broad Ripple in Indianapolis. But the architects of record on that project were Granger & Bollenbacher. Newspaper articles, beginning in 1938 and the project blue prints on file with the National Register nomination of Marcy Village all state G&B as architects. Perhaps Merrill worked on this project before he joined Skidmore and Owings but it seems impossible that Marcy Village could have been an SOM project.

Still, SOM had a profound effect on the built environment of Indianapolis. Their first project in Owings' home city was the gorgeous limestone-faced J. C. Penney building at 120 Monument Circle. [photo from "Indianapolis Architecture"] Constructed in 1950, two years before their famous Lever House International Style skyscraper was completed in NYC, the Penney's building is the object of preservationist scorn in Indianapolis because it replaced the fabulously opulent English Hotel and Opera House. Despite that grudge against the building, on its own merit, it was a beauty. At the beginning of downtown renewal, SOM offered Indianapolis an expansive and warm curved wall made of Indiana materials. There is truly reason to mourn the destruction of the English building, but, there is also reason to lament the later destruction of the beautifully modern Penney's, which has been replaced by a bland, post-modernish corporate HQ.

In its time the J. C. Penney building (or perhaps it was the firm's Lever House fame) must have impressed at least some in Indianapolis, for SOM landed another contract in the city in 1955. This time they built a modernist, glass curtain-wall low-rise office building for the Standard Life Insurance Company. Located at 300 E. Fall Creek Parkway, that building has not withstood the years particularly well. The neighborhood surrounding it has taken a downturn in the decades since its construction, but it must have always seemed out of context on this peninsula of land in a residential neighborhood. Traffic on Fall Creek Parkway moves so rapidly past the building that few people see it from the main facade with its International Style cantilevered aluninum canopy at the entry. Most are are more likely to recoginize it (if they notice it at all) from New Jersey Street's less-impressive facade. Now called the Julia Carson Government Center, the building has lately been the object of some rebirthing plans that will hopefully keep it around and relevant.

And there's still another SOM building in Indianapolis. The firm designed the former American Fletcher National Bank Building (now Chase Bank) at 101 Monument Circle. It opened in 1959, the same year that American Fletcher National Bank merged with Fidelity Bank & Trust. SOM gave Indiana's largest bank a modernist building in keeping with those modern times. They curved the spartan curtain-wall facade so it fit snugly onto the northeast quadrant of the Circle. [photo for sale at] Other than that curve, the building is classically International Style with great expanses of window walls and little ornament other than the wide, flat pilasters that rise from sidewalk to roof line. The interior was modern-opulent. Although American Fletcher National Bank dissolved into another banking giant in the 1970s and has been sold and merged into others since then, this elegant SOM building has staying power. In the midst of some remarkable and some unremarkable architecture on the Circle, it stands out as the most modern (far more so than many of the newer buildings).

Skidmore Owings and Merrill transformed the Circle with this building and the J. C. Penny building in the 1950s and they made their mark a bit further north along Fall Creek Parkway. That era of optimism and renewal brought good architecture to a city that has not seen much of it since then. SOM is internationally famous and continues to turn out remarkable buildings around the world, but Indianapolis has its own portion of that famous firm's work and can rightfully claim to have played an even more significant part in the creation of that firm.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Avriel Shull's Thornhurst MCM Addition on the National Register

*Avriel Shull* has finally made it. Almost 3 years after I started work on the nomination for the Thornhurst Addition Historic District the National Park Service has recognized Thornhurst with listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The addition is listed under Criterion C for its intact Mid-Century Modern architecture by a master designer/builder, Avriel Shull. And it's listed as an exception to the 50-years or older age requirement because, even though some of the homes are not yet 50 years old, the work is so significant it merits recognition.

Thornhurst is now Indiana's first MCM addition to be on the National Register. I'm thrilled that Marsh Davis of Indiana Landmarks asked me to research and write this project. Marsh knew about my interest and research into Mid-Century Modern design stretching back 15 years or more to when I was the owner of a 20th Century vintage modern shop, durwyn smedley 20th century, as well as a historian.

This nomination brought all my past work and research into play, and it was a hard sell requiring lots of extra research, photos, money and time. But it payed off in the end. Yeah for Indiana! Yeah for Avriel Shull! Yeah for Thornhurst!

You can read the National Register nomination here:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Gunnison Magic Homes

If you have a 1940s cottage or a mid-century modern home with no known builder or architect, there's a chance it could be a pre-fab Gunnison Home manufactured in a factory in New Albany, Indiana.

Foster Gunnison was a successful salesman/ designer of custom light fixtures for buildings including the Empire State Building and Waldorf Astoria in the 1920s. Then, in 1935, he translated his architectural and design knowledge into a mass production pre-fab housing factory in New Albany, Indiana. Gunnison Magic Homes, later renamed Gunnison Housing Corporation, became the housing equivalent of Ford Motors, manufacturing interchangeable parts to assemble mass-produced houses.

According to David Hounshell, who wrote, the book, "From the American System to Mass Production," Gunnison engineers designed an interchangeable wall panel that would fit 12 different house models by 1937. Gunnison could undersell a conventionally constructed house by almost 25%. A 1954 sales brochure states the homes sold for $8750 to $13,000, depending on options and floorplans, which could include breezeways and attached garages.

Competition for mass-produced, pre-fab homes was heated. Famous architects, such as Walter Gropius, worked on pre- fab home designs. In Gropius's case, for General Panel Corporation. But Gunnison and most of these other firms never really became a driving force in architecture in the 1940s and 1950s.

Gunnison employed about 300 people and claimed to have sold 4500 homes in 38 states by 1941. Gunnison was written about in Popular Science and national architecture and engineering magazines, but they aren't very well-known today outside of New Albany. They don't seem to have captured the imaginations or pocketbooks of the nation to the degree that the ubiquitious National Homes or even Lustrons did. The Gunnison plant was purchased by U.S. Steel in the 1940s and continued to produce ranch and split-level homes until 1974 in New Albany. Today, the factory is converted to a different use but you can still see Gunnison Homes in New Albany neighborhoods.

Do you have a Gunnison in your neighborhood? I think a neighborhood of these homes in good condition with original windows and siding would be eligible for the National Register. The Gunnison factory, too.

Former Gunnison factory, New Albany.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Avriel Shull and I

Avriel Shull has turned into a cigarette-smoking, blue-talking, red-haired guardian angel for me. Ever since Indiana Landmarks Modern Committee hired me to write a National Register of Historic Places nomination for her Thornhurst Addition, it seems that Avriel (the one-named Cher of Indiana architecture) shows up everywhere I go.

As an example, my new beau's ex-mother-in-law was sitting shiva and when we visited to pay our respects, one of the other attendees was Howard Wolner, an Indianapolis architect who was working at the same time as Avriel in the 1950s and 1960s (Wolner is still active). I mentioned that I had been researching and writing about Avriel Shull and he had an Avriel story about building a house right next to one she was building and hearing the bluest language he'd ever heard on a construction site coming from her. I've heard that story from several others; that's classic Avriel.

Avriel has become the Kevin Bacon of Indianapolis for me. Everyone's connected to Avriel. Either they lived in one of her houses, their parent went to Herron Art School with her, they worked for her, or, as in the case of my new friend, Keith, traced her drawings as a high school student! Everyone seems to have known Avriel. Everyone but me, that is.

But I'm getting to know her and the more I research and write about her, the better I like getting to know her. The National Register nomination is at the National Park Service waiting on confirmation to become the first Mid-Century Modern historic district in Indiana. But I'm still learning about her, researching and writing about her. So if you have an Avriel story, please share it with me. Avriel died in 1976 but her spirit definitely lives on in the many, many Avriel buildings and even more Avriel stories.

That picture up there, that's the first home Avriel built in Thornhurst Addition. Cool, huh?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inspirer, yes it is!

We got a long visit at the North Christian Church in Columbus today. I'm attaching a few of the host of shots I took at this Eero Saarinen-designed church which is one of the National Historic Landmarks in this town. Built in 1964, this building is sometimes affectionately called the Oil Can.
The church newsletter is called The Inspirer. Apt name for this glorious building, too. Believer or not, it's an inspiring, grand space. Here are three quick views from the Dan Kiley landscape, looking into the sanctuary, and looking into the chapel through the screen behind the baptismal pool.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Columbus bridges the gap in style

Columbus is home to extraordinary buildings. According to Wikipedia, a source I am using only because this is a quickfire post, 6 of this city's buildings are National Historic Landmarks. That's a big step up even from being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and several of these buildings made NHL status before they have reached 50 years of age. Which means they are so exceptional, they were listed even before they reached the normal age to even be CONSIDERED for listing!

There are also extraordinarily cool bridges bringing one into the city from the blahness of the I-65 interstate interchange. Check out these two bridges, shot from my car window as I arrived on this rainy day. Both were designed by J. Muller International. And the Gateway Arch (first pic) is owned by INDOT! Why doesn't INDOT have sexy bridges everywhere? Because not everywhere is Columbus...

Stay tuned for more Columbus posts as this Bloggers' Architecture Tour gets underway. You can follow along on Twitter at #COLMCM

Discovering Columbus

(image from the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau webpage)

Columbus, Indiana, you sweet Midwestern hot spot of modern design, here I come. And not just me: 15 modern architecture/MCM/design bloggers are on their way to walk and talk about you! Keep your eyes posted here for updates and follow along on twitter at #COLMCM

Friday, June 4, 2010

Evans Woollen, the Minton-Capehart Federal Building, and the Circle

Last night I had the opportunity to see and hear Evans Woollen speak for the second time in just a few months. And what a pleasure that was. (See my blog post below about Woollen at New Harmony.)

The lecture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art was more formal than the panel discussion that included Woollen at New Harmony. And it was packed full of more Woollen goodness.

I took notes, but unfortunately some of the most interesting stuff came during the lights-out portion of the talk when Woollen was discussing slides of the Minton-Capehart Federal Building in Indianapolis. This is a building that is often maligned in Indianapolis but its very simple aesthetic has always pleased me. I've written about it before for the Urban Times. (You can see that article here:

Woollen's insights made me appreciate it even more.

Here are some of the bits of architectural history that one rarely gets to hear straight from the horse's (architect's) mouth.

Woollen and his partners landed the federal contract from the General Services Administration, which was primarily building tall towers at the time. Woollen talked the feds into allowing his firm to basically squish a tower into a shorter, wider footprint that would help to frame the American Legion Mall and allow for use of the entire block without rising taller than the War Memorial across the street.

Thus the inverted ziggurat shape of the building. He talked about "weaving the building like a tapestry" to get the window placement just right and as minimalist as possible so that it would pay homage to the two grand buildings framing the mall on other sides, the Scottish Rite Cathedral and the War Memorial, both of which have few windows. Woollen also spoke about making sure the concrete in the Brutalism style Federal Building would match the limestone color in these two older buildings, and about his desire to design a new building that would be "subservient" to these historic edifices. His modern design was inspired by the Saarinen American Embassy building in London.

He also spoke about the Milton Glaser graphic that acts as a mural on the first story of the building. It was Woollen's idea to have a painting that "wrapped around the building." He wanted something like a "continuous Rothko" but he couldn't find anyone who could grasp the idea or who would take the assignment until he talked to Glaser. The now-famous graphic artist made that painting his own with vertical bands of vibrant colors. Those colors, which have now faded to pastels, showed up boldly and brightly in the vintage kodachromes of Woollen's slides.

What a delight to hear of the careful, thoughtful approach this man took to a building that has not been loved in this city. Earlier in his talk, Woollen said that "sometimes a building is despised at the beginning and loved at the end, or vice versa. I will abide by the end." I hope that his talk last night converts at least a few more Indianapolis residents to an appreciation of his federal building and I wonder if more of us will grow to love it over time.

Oh, Woollen answered a question about the proposed closure of the Circle to vehicles (see my recent blog post about that below). He says he was for it in 1955 and he's for it now. I cut him some slack on that opinion though. He's only human. He can't get everything right.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Circle is Unbroken

Weighing in on closing Monument Circle to traffic has become the subject du jour for bloggers and opinionators across the city. For a recent opinion piece by the "Star" reporter, Matthew Tully see

Closing the Circle to vehicular traffic is one of the most numbskull ideas to gain traction in this city in a long time. When Carmel is gaining national recognition for its innovative roundabouts, we're closing one right in the heart of our city. That Circle is a natural traffic calming device. It forces drivers to slow down and take a look. And there is plenty going on so there's always a lot to take a gander at when driving on the Circle.

The Circle also allows for parking directly in front of the few retail businesses that have made a stake on or near it. And we all know Hoosiers need to park within eyesight of their destination or they simply won't go there. So, as others have pointed out, closing the Circle to traffic and therefore to parking will kill the businesses that are there.

It also makes no sense in terms of drawing more people. The Circle is full of people almost all the time. Even on Sundays when there are very few business reasons to be there, people are all over the place. Sitting on the Monument, drinking their Starbucks, eating their burritos.

Given its popularity already as a pedestrian hangout, we gain nothing from making it a pedestrian mall. That is such a tired idea already. It was tried all over the state in the 70s and 80s and it virtually killed downtown areas like the one in Richmond, Indiana. Pedestrian malls are a failed revitalization tool. And Monument Circle doesn't need revitalization.

The Circle is already often closed for special events, which makes them seem very special indeed. The word "special" implies something that isn't ordinary. Making the Circle ordinary is the last thing we should be considering and closing it makes those special events not so special after all.

The Circle has been the heart of the city and part of what makes it so alive is the traffic that flows through it. People slowly driving around it get a gander at that extraordinary exclamation point at the center of an old city plan. And the Circle's history is that it has always been used for vehicular traffic, as well as pedestrian activity.

When I heard about this lamebrained idea it made me remember a meeting I attended when I was heading up the Mass Ave Merchants Association about 10 years ago. This was a meeting for the Indianapolis Downtown Inc. Marketing Board. At that time, the board included managers from all the downtown hotels, a representative from IUPUI, people from the Dept. of Metropolitan Development, folks from the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau, downtown realtors and others who were busy trying to sell Indianapolis as a destination.

At this particular meeting Kurt Flock, a downtown real estate agent, asked the members of the board how many lived downtown. Out of probably 50 people making their livings promoting downtown, 4 of us (including Kurt and me) lifted our hands in answer to that question. Kurt then asked: "what would it take to get the rest of you to move here?" The first answer was the most memorable. It came from a representative of the ICVA: "cul de sacs."

Well, here we are making a cul de sac out of the Circle. So I guess he's getting his wish.

People, cul de sacs belong in the suburbs not in the center of our urban city. Until the people who market our city get that idea into their suburban brains I guess we'll continue to see these suburban planning notions creeping into the city center. Pretty soon we'll be an extension of Carmel and Zionsville, Greenwood and Brownsburg.

Then I'll be moving to a city.

Friday, April 16, 2010

New Harmony, Evans Woollen and Architecture

Last week the annual Indiana preserva-tion conference, with the new name of Preserving Historic Places, took place in New Harmony, Indiana. I have an incredible fondness for New Harmony. The site of two failed 19th Century Utopian communities, it is very close to an architectural Utopia with amazing buildngs from the 1810s to the 1990s. The Rappite architecture beginning in 1815 includes lovely log cabins with innovative insulation and air lock entries to keep the cold Indiana winds from blowing into the houses. Their brick community buildings are resplendent.

The residential buildings of the Owenite years, and the grand Workingman's Institute and Thrall's Opera House, are equally beautiful. And the Victorian era, after the Utopian failures, was also kind to this small town, leaving grand and modest homes and a beautiful downtown commercial area.

Even tiny infill ranches from the 1950s are sweet in New Harmony. Mid-Century Modern has a small voice, as well.

Then Jane Owen, starting in the 1970s has given us the Richard Meier Athenaeum, a building memorable enough to be listed on Meier's biography, and the Philip Johnson Roofless Church. Proclaimed by Johnson protege, Dean of the School of Architecture at University of Houston---and soon to be New Harmony resident---Joe Mashburn,`to be one of Johnson's best buildings.

The town amazes me and is reason enough for a visit. But there was so much more.

Included in the offerings for the conference was a talk by Bernhard Karpf,associate partner of Richard Meier & Partners, about the Athenaeum.

But the two star performances of the conference were the panel discussion by Joe Mashburn, Bernhard Karpf and Evans Woollen and, of course, the keynote address by Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New Yorker. I may talk about Goldberger some other time. For me the funnest moment came in the panel discussion with Mashburn, Woollen and Karpf (that's Woollen in the center of the picture).

After brief introductions, and a few planned questions the moderator turned the questioning over to the crowd. I screwed up my courage and asked the last question of the day:

"Richard Meier said that light is one of his favorite building materials. If each of you had to come up with one sentence like that to describe your own work, what would you say?"

Berhard Karpf punted on this question, claiming to not have much architecture to draw conclusions from. Mashburn said that he and his partner (his wife) relied on the power of the landscape to shape their thoughts about what should be built. And Karpf made the intersting point that well-known architects all possess one similar trait, which is that they "are all good marketers." They know how to talk about their work in order to get other people talking about and appreciating it. He also confessed that he didn't really appreciate Philip Johnson's work. [perhaps a bit snarky considering the company]

But the big payoff was getting this answer from the leprechaunish Evans Woollen, one of my Indianapolis architect heroes:

"For me, every building is a whole new venture into a different context, different community. My buildings are crazily different from each other. I've been criticized for that but it's not an accident. My buildings are purposely inconsistent." Woollen used the New Harmony Inn as an example. He built that building to blend into the landscape. It was not intended to stand out and compete but to harmonize with New Harmony. And that it does. And there's a little insight into an interesting modernist architect's brain.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Oh Carmel, you hurt my eyes!

Drove to Carmel, Indiana, today to take a picture of the first home that Avriel Shull, a modern home designer/builder, constructed in that town when she was 23. Her house, the Golden Unicorn, holds up well as a design, despite its age. The Golden Unicorn, named for the animal Avriel mounted by the door was built in 1955 as I recall.

What doesn't work as a design statement in that town is the new construction going up along Rangeline Road. Ouch! My eyes hurt when I see all the cribbed fake historic building styles jammed into this one hulking behemoth of a building.
Why? With the funds that Carmel has available and that Mayor Brainard is willing to spend, why put money into a cobbled together copy of old architectural styles? Wouldn't it be great if Carmel would spend its municipal funds on great new, Modern architecture? Instead of copying a Palladian design for your Performing Arts Center, why not a Calatrava or even a Gehry?

With the funding muscle that Carmel can muster, even with a mayor embattled over his budgets, why shouldn't that town be the next midwestern mecca of modern design? Show us something new. Spend your money on fabulous, even controversial designs, not on hackneyed copies of buildings with designs that look more or less like styles from more than 100 years ago. Carmel seems to be the main player in the public architectural game around here these days. It's sad that they are playing it so safe and uninterestingly.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's a preservation gal to do? Let me tell ya.

I've been catching some heat lately from folks wondering why I haven't updated my blog. And no wonder. It's been more than a month since I last posted.

So this post explains why I haven't posted. I'm also going to attempt to answer the oft asked question: "So what is it that you do?" My usual answer is that my career doesn't fit well into a sound bite. Here's why.

By the end of this week, I will have finished researching, writing, photographing and creating a site plan for a National Register of Historic Places nomination for a district of homes dating from the 1850s to the 1920s in Edinburgh, Indiana. Once I'm finished drafting it I will drop it off at the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology for a series of reviews.

Right now I'm also working on several other projects. One of them is a regular gig. I serve as the preservationist/professional staff for the Meridian Street Preservation Commission. The commission was created by a state law in the 1970s and is appointed by the governor. I am the MSPC's first staff preservationist. In that I capacity work with applicants who want to make exterior changes to their homes within the district. The district includes Meridian Street generally from about 39th to about the canal, and also parts of Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Delaware streets. This month I have five projects to look at, meet with applicants for, try to work out any issues that raise red flags in terms of preservation and write recommendations for or against.

By April 10 I'll have written my next month's History 301 column for the "Urban Times." I often don't have the topic for that one figured out much more than a day or two in advance but I think May's column will be about the Wonderland Amusement Park that once stood on E. Washington Street.

I'm working on a research/writing project for an Indianapolis engineering/environmental firm. This work is for a federally funded project in southern Indiana near a ranch house subdivision from the 1950s. I will be researching and writing a history of the town and of ranch house development in the nation in order to see how this particular development fits into a greater historic context.

By April 22 I'll submit text and photos of an article on Avriel Shull and her architecture to the Recent Past Preservation Network.

In April, I'll attend the Indiana State Board of Review quarterly meeting to speak on behalf of the National Register nomination I wrote for Avriel Shull's Thornhurst Addition in Carmel. If all goes well, Indiana may soon have a Mid-Century Modern Historic District on the National Register!

I have an article on Shull coming out in the Spring Issue of "Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History". And yesterday I met with a graphic arts design firm that's asked me to write the text and select the illustrations for an artsy little booklet on her. And speaking of Avriel, I'm working with Historic Landmarks Foundation on a presentation about Avriel Shull's architecture that will be part of their fall offerings.

By the end of April I'll finish researching and writing a National Register nomination for Fire Station 32 in Broad Ripple. And I'll have put together a package for a neighborhood that needs a consultant to help with appropriate rehabilitation and renovation. I'll be helping those who are interested choose exterior house colors, light fixtures, appropriate doors, and wall cladding and even landscape plants and plans to return their early 20th century neighborhood to a more period-appropriate look.

In early May I'll finish researching and writing a National Register nomination for the Willis Mortuary, a great Arts and Crafts Era building important in the African American history of Indianapolis.

That's kinda what I do. At least that's some of what I've been working on and will be working on for the next month or so. And it's why I don't have time to write a blog post right now.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Preservation Consternation

The recent battle between preservationists and a bill sponsored by Indiana State Senator Pat Miller creates an opportunity for pondering. What I'm pondering is this: how does a city keep important historic buildings and districts while also maintaining a sense of vibrancy? And, how might Indianapolis enhance its unimpressive collection of contemporary architecture with new buildings that are architecturally significant, while also maintaining its dwindling collection of historic buildings that are architecturally significant?

This is a ponderance that requires much long and thoughtful attention. And probably more than one blog. But for now, I'm going to think just a bit about it. I think I know the questions to ask but am still struggling internally with the answers to them.

In addition to being a preservationist, I also happen to be a modern design freak. Talk about your cognitive dissonance! It would be much easier for me to be one of those preservationist-types who looks at the City/County Building and feels nothing but remorse for the lost Marion County Courthouse. But I'm not. I thought the Second Empire Courthouse was fabulous and wish we still had it. But I also think the Bauhaus-inspired City/County building is great and I worry that since so few others love it, it is in danger of going the way of the courthouse that was demolished to make room for it.

At the same time, if I could make a wish for my city it would be that we begin to demand amazing architecture in new buildings that are constructed downtown. For I believe that until we start showing some muscle with great, hopefully even controversial, architecture, we will never deserve the title of the "world-class" city that all of our paid marketing boosters claim for us.

So, how's a preservationist/modernist junkie to resolve these conflicting notions: keep the old, and build new and fabulous? Over the course of the next few posts I'm going to offer my ideas of how to solve some of these dilemmas and why some just can't be solved.

The first rule has to be: if it's downtown and architecturally significant and it can be saved, then developers must be required to make the effort to do that. And if they say that's not possible, let's charge a demolition fine for destroying a building that's been deemed significant. This fine would be on top of whatever regular fees are required and it could be dispersed in grants to owners of the other downtown historic buildings to appropriately rehabilitate and maintain them.

Significance can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. So let's establish some rules about determining it. First, let's just say that, when it comes to considering demolition, any building more than a century old is significant. No discussion. We must stop knocking down our heritage. If it's more than 100 years old, then you need to come up with some sound reasons to tear it down, and you need to pay up to the city for the loss you are causing to our cityscape and our cultural understanding of our history. If you simply cannot save one of our pieces of architectural heritage then pay up so that your fees will help other building owners save theirs.

Would this stop redevelopment downtown? It would deincentivize destruction certainly. But it incentivizes reuse. And makes wholesale demolishers pay up so that other significant buildings get more protection.

Rule 2. If you decide to build new within the MileSquare, then you have to bring it with the design. No more 3-story suburban housing developments. Yes, good design may also be in the eye of the beholder but no one in his/her right mind is looking at the development at Alabama and Ohio and thinking, Wow! that's fabulous! No more, blah architecture downtown.

My first rules to making a better city.

I know that we can't stop building in the city. This isn't a museum. If it were, we wouldn't have much of a collection. Not every old building is worthy of a fight to save it. Just as the pediatrician told us about raising children: save your "nos" for the most important stuff. Preservationists need to save their ballyhooing for the important buildings. Do I feel sad that the Jaws building is no longer a landmark downtown? Yeah, sort of, I guess. Even though that was a building that didn't fit---too small in scale, and probably would never have been considered significant, the redone building (now called the Broadbent building) is much worse. If we're going to give up an interesting old building, then a new one has to be better. Better in terms of design and in terms of landuse. (See Rule 2 above).

Stay tuned, more's coming. And I welcome your response to these first steps.

[black and white images from "Indianapolis Architecture"]

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Great Society and a not-so-great one: the importance and nuances of preservation

In light of the disturbing news that the Indiana State Senate has passed SB 177, which limits the terms of commissioners on the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission and which sends appeals of commission decisions to the Metropolitan Development Commission rather than to the Circuit Court. And in light of the Obama administration's withdrawal of budget support for some national preservation efforts it seems like a good time to repost a column I wrote for the July 2008 "Urban Times." Here is a brief primer on how and why preservation is important.


Downtown Indianapolis is brimming over with historic homes, historic districts, notable and outstanding properties, and even a National Historic Landmark (American Legion Mall).

Many downtowners are familiar with terms like “historic resources” and “historic preservation.” But unless you are a preservation professional (and even if you are) it’s difficult to understand the myriad of terms that define preservation in your neighborhood and even more difficult to grasp the nuances of the terminology. Here is a primer of sorts about the origin of those terms and their significance in the preservation movement.

We have Lyndon Johnson to thank for the federal government’s involvement in the national preservation movement. In 1966, President Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act. This act provides the groundwork for preservation on the local, state and national levels.

Lady Bird Johnson, a famous cultivator of historic and native plants and beautifier of national highways, wrote the forward of the report that became the impetus for national preservation and the preservation act. In her words, “…the buildings which express our national heritage are not simply interesting. They give a sense of continuity and of heightened reality to our thinking about the whole meaning of the American past.”

The National Historic Preservation Act gave the Secretary of the Interior the responsibility to expand and maintain a National Register of Historic Places. And Section 106 of the act gave teeth to the preservation movement. It was a legal mandate to consider historic preservation in federal planning and required that those working on federally funded projects had to take into account the effects of the projects on historic properties.

The preservation act called for the creation of governor-appointed State Historic Preservation Officers and required them to have staffs and offices and matching funds to oversee the preservation movement on the state and local level.

Each state’s historic preservation officer would oversee a statewide survey of historic resources. Since the mid-1970s, the Indiana State Historic Preservation Officer has overseen surveys of most of Indiana’s counties (about 3/4ths of the state has been surveyed). That survey is technically called the “Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory” (IHSSI).

Often conducted by graduate students, sometimes with little experience in evaluating historic properties, the IHSSI uses a standard form to collect info on properties’ materials such as windows, siding, foundation, and to postulate a date of construction and a style name for the building’s architecture, as well to record known history of the property. Surveyors are also asked to give the property a rating on a scale ranging from contributing to notable to outstanding.

Contributing properties are at the low end of the range. They retain enough historic integrity (original materials and design) to display their historic nature, but they may have lost some original materials, had additions of non-historic materials or they might simply be an unremarkable example of a common type. Small bungalows often fall into the latter category.

Notable properties have high historic integrity and may or may not have historic significance either as an architectural type or for their association with a person or event. Typically more research would need to be done on these notable properties to establish their significance and raise them to an “Outstanding” rating.

Outstanding properties have high integrity and their significance is known—either because the architecture is remarkable or because some historic event or person is associated specifically with the property, or because it is representative of a historic trend.

The information compiled by the IHSSI is published in book form in the county interim reports. Marion County has individual interim reports for each township. Unlike other county interim reports, though, Marion County’s township reports only list the properties rated notable or outstanding. The properties rated contributing in the IHSSI were not included in these report to keep the size of the reports smaller.

The National Register of Historic Places is a separate entity from the IHSSI and the interim reports. However, properties that receive an outstanding rating in the IHSSI and the interim report are considered eligible for listing on the National Register. But they aren’t listed until someone completes a nomination form and the State Historic Preservation Officer’s staff and the State Review Board both approve it and then send it on to the National Parks Service for review and approval.

The National Register recognizes the best of the best properties. Properties listed on the National Register may be individual buildings, districts, sites, objects or structures. They have both historic integrity and significance for architecture, or an association with a historic trend or events, or an association with a person of importance, or because the property might yield further information (though the latter is usually significant only for archaeological sites).

Properties that are listed (and also those that are deemed eligible for listing but are not yet on the National Register) acquire the protections provided for in the National Historic Preservation Act.

Any federally funded project that might have an effect on the properties must take them into account and try to avoid an adverse effect. If that adverse effect is unavoidable, then the project managers will enter into mitigation with the State Historic Preservation Officer’s staff and try to work out an agreement on how to mitigate the effect, which basically means coming up with a way to essentially repay the community for affecting its historic resources.

A National Register listing doesn’t in any way impede what a private citizen wants to do to his or her property. If you live in a National Register Historic District, such as Lockerbie Square, the Old Northside, Herron-Morton Place, Meridian Park and Ransom Place, there are no restrictions placed by the National Register on what you do to your home or commercial property. This is true if you own a property that is individually listed, such as the Athenaeum, or if you own a property that is within not individually listed but is within a listed historic district, such as the Jungclaus Campbell Co. in the Massachusetts Avenue Historic District.

-----If you live in a LOCAllY designated historic district, you are governed and restricted by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission, not by the National Register listing, as to how much, if at all, you can change your historic property. This local organization is the only protection that historic properties receive from their private owners tearing them down or painting them purple or pulling out all their original windows to install sliding glass doors, etc. The powers of the local IHPC are built upon the foundation that our architectural heritage is important to all of us and that private individuals are simply temporary stewards of buildings that can last for generations.

Although the nuances of historic preservation and its terminology can be confusing, we who live downtown reap the benefits of districts and individual properties, which are preserved for all of us to enjoy. For, as the National Historic Preservation Act attests, these resources are our “irreplaceable heritage.” Preserving them means that their “…vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.”

Historic properties are inherently “green,” for they require no new-construction energy. And they help us better understand who we are and where we came from as a people and a community. We can be thankful that Lyndon Johnson listened to his wife about that idea. We can only hope that our current leaders will have as much foresight.