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.


  1. I don't think I'll ever be able to appreciate this place. But I'll defer to experts on its success as a structure. The real problem I have with this building isn't its front, but its back: the block-long no-mans land on Delaware Street. Complete dead space, without much potential.

  2. After the Oklahoma City bombing the building has unfortunately become something of a fortress, especially on that Delaware side. It's far less accessible than it appeared in the original photos.

  3. "Subservient." Interesting word. My translation: A bland ugly building is justified to highlight the beautiful nearby structures. Wouldn't be my way, but ponder-worthy approach.

  4. I sadly, did not get to go to the lecture.
    I have always really enjoyed the building. I agree with the others that Delaware St. is pretty bleak. I like the mural, and I like the "plaza" around the base. I hate the interior finishes. Crap, cheap, basic crap. But the basic building is fun and good for Indianapolis in my opinion. I do love when architects explain their thought process. So much goes into it that I never would have thought about. (i.e He wanted the concrete to match the limestone! Does it?"