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.