Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Christmas Wishes for the City of Indianapolis

I was pretty excited when Urban Times publisher, Bill Brooks, asked me to give him my Christmas Wish List.
I thought keeping my list to only two items, that vintage Mercedes 250 SL I’ve been wanting for a while now and a bottle of Chanel #5 (because how can you drive around in your vintage Mercedes convertible without Chanel #5?) showed my restraint nicely. And really, I planned to appreciate the boss’s kind gift-giving gesture almost as much as I would that supple leather interior.

Then he said: uh no, not a wish list for yourself, one for the City. What do you hope and wish for the City for Christmas?

So ok, I can’t exactly drive around in it, but now that you mention it, I have had my eye on a few things that I’d like for my city, specifically downtown, too. And in the altruistic spirit of the season (which doesn’t smell nearly as nice as Chanel #5), here’s my wish list for you, Indianapolis.

1.      A pile of money as big as the one you used to demolish houses last year (reportedly $13 million), devoted this time to stabilizing the ones that are left, creating a Land Bank that works and will move them into the hands of buyers, and maybe even giving a cash incentive to folks willing to come into the neighborhoods, take on a house that’s abandoned, fix it up and live there.

2.      No more flat-roofed, tiny eaved, multiuse commercial/housing developments. Enough. The idea is a good one, but surely there is more than one way to design a building for multiple purposes. Look at the Argyle building on Mass Ave. It’s attractive, multi-use and still standing more than 100 years after construction. None of this current crop of blah sameness will last until 2113. That may be a good thing, but building not to last in a style that’s now become ubiquitous is not a lofty goal.

3.      Let’s eliminate some of our one-way streets dedicated to the massive outmigration of workers each day. Add back the opposite travel lanes. Maybe if we slow them down by making their commute a little less easy, they will take a minute to look around and see how much better life could be if they just moved into the city.

4.      On my list five years ago and still on it today: a GREAT building. Somewhere in our downtown area. How about a GREAT building, even a controversial one? Hello? Anyone?

5.      More restaurants that serve breakfast with gluten-free toast (Ok, that one is kinda specifically oriented at me, but I think the City will be a better place if I can eat breakfast out more often). And in that same theme, a microbrewery serving up some fine gluten-free beer.

6.      That Urban Transit stuff. Yeah, let’s get that going.

7.      And when we get that light rail, or improved bus system or old time interurban happening, let’s recreate those bustling nodes of commercial development around them. And then we can use the money I asked for in Wish List #1 to help stabilize and/or help new homeowners renovate the homes in the neighborhoods around these nodes, bringing those educated, young professionals we are always talking about, back to our inner city. Win, win, win, win!

8.      Super Bowl Spirit 2014! Let’s take all that energy and the monies we devoted to making the City Super-Bowl ready and put it into making the City an awesome place for those of us who live here, which will, in turn, make an awesome place for others to want to move to. That was cool that we knitted scarves for Super Bowl volunteers; how about we do that for our homeless population, for our police officers? And again, back to Wish List #1 (sensing a theme, Santa?), how about we plow some dollars into adversting showing where in the City there are abandoned homes that need TLC and new residents and how great it would be to become a new resident by taking on one of these project houses and turning it back into a home to live in in our awesome city? Heck, in the long run this might make the City more money than that fleeting Super Bowl. We’re talking tax-paying residents, property tax dollars, job holders, neighbors.

9.      More grocery stores, please.

10.    And finally, for some real big-city charm and the occasional cheap purse: street vendors. Need flowers? Pick them up at the corner. Lose your wallet? You can buy one downtown, corner of Washington and Illinois. No matter what we say about being a world-class city, I’ll believe we’re a big city when I can find a “317” T-shirt vendor on the sidewalk on Meridian Street.


That’s my wish list this year.

Before I sign off, I want to say that you’ve done a pretty good job with the City in some unexpected ways over the last couple of years, Santa. The Cultural Trail, well it’s really something, proving that we really will get out and move if you give us a place to do it, and adding much-needed green space that winds throughout downtown. The boom in good restaurants, that’s been great, too. And I’ve always been a fan of a vintage cocktail, so thanks for bringing that.  Food trucks, yeah.  You’ve been busy and I appreciate it. Now it’s time to get the elves working again.

Happy Holidays, everyone!  May your lists be short and your wishes fully realized. I guess I’ll be waiting until next year for that sweet little Mercedes.

  Originally published in Urban Times, December 2013 issue.







Sunday, September 29, 2013

Marion County, Indiana, Courthouse-- Uncovered Plans

Throughout the history of the preservation movement there have been moments that kicked preservationists in the seat of their pants. Sometimes these moments, like the demolition of Penn Station in New York City, give the movement meaning and impetus. Sometimes they simply cause pain and make preservationists wish they’d done something. One of those moments occurred in the early 1960s in Indianapolis when the Marion County Courthouse was demolished.

The majestic courthouse is the one of our saddest losses out of the countless numbers our city has experienced over the years. It was razed in the 1960s and many of us don’t remember seeing it standing. We know it only from photographs.  But most who care about architecture, preservation or history understand that this bit of lost Indianapolis is a truly sad loss. We mourn it.

So when I got an email a few months ago from the state archivist, Alan January, who said he thought I might want to see some new information the archives had discovered about the courthouse. I got the note because I’d written the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis entries about the city buildings and the courthouse architect, Isaac Hodgson, and when January had looked up one or both entries he’d found my name and thought maybe I’d be interested. Heck yeah, I was interested.

The first Marion County Courthouse was completed in 1825 and originally doubled as the state capitol building when the legislature moved here that year. Fifty years later the city was becoming cosmopolitan and it was time to replace the old brick and frame courthouse.

The county hired Isaac M. Hodgson to build a new courthouse.  Hodgson, who was born in 1826 in Belfast, Ireland, had attended the Royal Academy. At age 16, he entered the office of Sir Charles Lanyon, architect of the Palm House at the Belfast Botanical Gardens and of Killyleagh Castle in Ireland. In 1848, Hodgson immigrated to New York and then to Louisville, bringing his architectural training with him. In Louisville he got practical experience, working as assistant architect on several city buildings.

In the 1850s Hodgson relocated to Indianapolis. In this still young city, he was one of only six professional architects. After a decade or so of working here, he landed the commission to design the buildings at the United States Arsenal in 1863 (now Arsenal Technical High School). He also designed several of the original buildings for the Female Reformatory in 1870 and he designed several residences. 

In 1876 his Marion County Courthouse was befittingly the most elaborate courthouse in the state. It was one of several courthouses he designed in the Midwest.

The Marion County Courthouse was completed July 5, 1876. The building fronted Washington Street and covered the block between Alabama and Delaware, standing about where the plaza is for the current City/County Building.

This elaborate courthouse  building cost $1,422,000, to build, almost twice the original estimate. It was ornate Second Empire style with a mansard roof, towers on each end and a clock tower in the center. The building was five stories tall with the clock tower rising several stories higher. The fa├žade was Indiana limestone with red granite.  When it was completed, a local newspaper reported that it had a “bewildering profusion of colors,” along with interior frescoes and intricate trim.

This second courthouse remained in use for 85 years. When Charles Bookwalter took office in 1906 one of his priorities was to construct a new city hall. On September 30, 1908, the Neoclassical City Hall opened.  Probably from that moment, the old elaborate courthouse began to feel dated in comparison to the subtle beauty of the new City Hall (which we now call “Old City Hall”).

By the 1950s an increasing number of city and county offices were renting space outside the city hall and the courthouse. Interest in a single new building where both city and county office could be consolidated rose. In 1962 Allied Architects completed the current high-rise International Style City/County Building.  For a short time the extra fancy courthouse remained beside this young upstart, but not for long.  Within a year, the old courthouse was gone, forever antagonizing future preservationists who, in hindsight, cry over its loss.

So, what can be news about a courthouse built in 1876?  What had the archives turned up that excited Alan January enough to contact me? 

Turns out they have been processing 19th Century Indiana Supreme Court documents. Among them is a lawsuit that Isaac Hodgson brought against the Board of Commissioners of Marion County. 

In Case No. 10,079, filed in 1884, Hodgson sued the commissioners, stating that he had not been paid the balance due him for his design work as the architect and superintendent of construction of the courthouse. A lower court had denied his suit, so he appealed it to the Supreme Court. His attorneys claimed the lower court had not properly recorded affidavits supporting his case.  Unfortunately for Hodgson, the court decided against his claim and upheld the lower court’s decision.

The case doesn’t offer much for the historical records. However, the treasure included with the record were the drawings submitted as evidence. Folded into squares for more than 125 years in the massive bunch of records passed along to the archives, were Hodgson’s original drawings and an original rendering of his design. 

Conservation technician, Elizabeth Hague, lovingly unfolded those drawings, working on them for more than three months to flatten and clean them so that they could be viewed. And two weeks ago I got to see them.  Some of the sheets were too dirty to get very clean, the creases and stains still showed.  These had apparently been working drawings, perhaps carried around the construction site by Hodgson or his builder.

On several sheets of the shiny fabricky paper, in Isaac Hodgson’s hand, were details, about the building we wish still stood. “Good wooden finish to all doors, windows, etc. Tiles to halls and wood flooring to the rooms…Slate to the roof, rough plate glass to the roof over central hall and polished plate glass to the windows…” was written on the top of the first story plan. The ink a little smudged at the top from architect Hodgson’s hand as he wrote the text.

Page after page of drawings, including a very Escheresque detail of all the staircases and their fancy balustrade lights. That drawing is Elizabeth Hague’s favorite.  For me, it may have been the roof plan, showing the “mansarde” on one side and the “naked” roof beams on the other.  But somehow, it was that ink smudge that really made me understand that the man I’d researched and written about, whose accomplishments in my city more than a century ago, whose most famous building I lament losing even though I never saw it, that man was flesh and blood. He drew and wrote and misspelled “height” as “hight”, and somehow probably got cheated out of some of the money he was promised for designing that building.

Aside from the few original arsenal buildings at what is now Arsenal High School, I’m not aware of any other Isaac Hodgson buildings that are still standing in Indianapolis.  But he was important in our city and not just for his buildings that we tore down.  In 1894, he and eight other architects chartered the Indiana Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, an organization that still exists.

And now you can see his drawings, and his handwriting, and that little smudge made by his fist, at the Indiana State Archives. Treasures. Pirate booty. Discovered by archivists. Go see them. Tell Alan January that Connie sent you.
[This article first appeared in Urban Times, October 2013.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Henry Ulen. Small town boy. Worldwide impact.

Henry Ulen, the small town boy with a worldwide impact.

You may not have heard of Henry C. Ulen, who briefly had a public works business in Indianapolis. But the people of Greece, Poland and Bolivia have.  
Henry Ulen's home in Ulen, Indiana
Ulen was born in Boone County, Indiana, in 1871. His father was a storekeeper in Lebanon. Young Henry exhibited a disdain for standard education, a strong independence and a flair for making his wishes to visit far flung places come true. He became known in Lebanon as a boy who skipped school and jumped trains. His flair for adventure was part of his early mystic; a part that didn’t particularly impress the mothers of Lebanon.

 Despite a general concern about his character, a concern shared in the Thorntown Argus by his new in-laws, Henry Ulen convinced Mary Dutch that he had potential as a mate and the couple wed at her parents’ home in Thorntown, Indiana, in 1890; their marriage would last more than 60 years, until her death.  Luckily for Mary, by 1894 Henry’s potential was being realized. That year, the kid who never completed high school passed the bar exam and began practicing law.

 In 1899 Ulen moved to Indianapolis and organized the American Light & Water Company to install municipal utilities. In 1908 he moved the company to Chicago. By 1912 he was a Chicago banker and so well known the New York Times wrote an article about this outrageous youngster who became a successful banker and businessman.

 In 1916, Ulen Contracting Co. undertook a contract to construct modern water systems for several cities in Uruguay, South America. Ulen found a unique way to bid on the project that would lead the way to an international career in public works construction. The project was funded with $5 million in bonds and set up so that Ulen purchased securities in the project.

When it became clear that transporting the necessary machinery to the project areas would be nearly impossible overland, Ulen purchased an American sailing schooner, the Alice M. Colburn, to transport the machinery to South America. Nothing stopped can-do Henry Ulen.

In 1921 Ulen Contracting signed an agreement with the Bolivian government to construct a railroad, including stations and terminals through the country. The project had an expected completion date in 1927 and a cost of $10 million dollars. With his feet wet in this large project, in 1922 Ulen organized Ulen and Co. in New York City with authorized capital of $5 million. He retained ownership of Ulen Contracting Co. and was president of both companies. He was also vice president of the Shandaken Tunnel Corp of New York. Ulen Contracting Corp. was in the process of constructing the Shandaken Tunnel, the longest tunnel in the world at the time, through the Catskill Mountains, to provide drinking water to New York City.

In 1922, a member of the Fortnightly Club in Lebanon, Indiana, decided to contact Henry Ulen in New York because Ulen had expressed interest in building a golf club in past discussions when he was in his hometown. Ulen agreed to build a $50,000 clubhouse once the site for the course was determined. He also agreed to become a member of the club’s first board of directors. In 1923, Henry Ulen and his wife bought a house on East Washington Street in Lebanon and moved, at least part time, back to their home state.

Meanwhile, Henry Ulen’s companies were gaining work across the globe. Negotiations often required Henry and Mary Ulen to travel to far parts of the world to secure contracts and check on Ulen and Co.’s progress, which given the nature of the work and the political unrest in some parts of the world, did not always progress smoothly. In 1924, Ulen began work on water and sewer projects in ten Polish cities. Arthur W.  DuBois signed on as General Manager of Ulen and Co.’s work in Poland.  In a pattern that would become the norm for many upper-level employees, Dubois went to Poland to set up housekeeping and begin work and then his family sailed to Europe – in style-- to meet him.

DuBois's son, Bill, recalled in a book about his father written decades later that their ship was the President Roosevelt.  “Our cabin was huge and mother had a big steamer trunk,” he remembered. In Poland, the family had a maid, a gardener and a groom for their horses. Ulen took care of his important employees.

A chaotic political situation led to fighting in the streets of several Polish cities, including the one where Ulen had its office. Bill DuBois personal secretary, who had traveled with his family from America, was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet in the Ulen offices. DuBois hid out in his office for three days until things settled down.

Setbacks and tragedies did not slow the steady flow or Ulen and Co. projects. Nor did they long hinder progress on the country club and golf course in Lebanon. Although the Country Club building construction cost twice what Henry Ulen had pledged toward it, he covered the inflated cost and the club opened in 1924 -- the same year that Bill DuBois was building waterworks across Poland. The country club hosted U. S. Senator Samuel Ralston, who was at the time favored as the next presidential candidate, at an early dinner with Henry Ulen as the toastmaster of the event.

In 1928 Ulen & Co. landed a huge project in Persia to construct 800 miles of railroad from the capital of Teheran to the Persian Gulf. Bill DuBois became General Manager for the project. Ulen ultimately encountered problems with the Reza Shah authoritarian government and had to leave the project, seeking, but not receiving, help from the United States State Department to recover the money owed the team for the construction of the southern leg of the railroad.

By this time Henry Ulen had decided to move his company’s headquarters to the tiny town of Lebanon from New York City. The new country club may not have been enough incentive to make his top executives and board of directors happy about the move, so Henry Ulen sweetened the deal.  He began to build them a town full of high-end homes right next to the country club to help with persuasion. By 1928 several of his executives and a handful of Lebanon’s upper-crust business community had constructed a number of homes on land that Ulen had purchased.

By 1929, the year that the Town of Ulen incorporated, Ulen Co. had completed contracts totaling one billion dollars in the 30 years that Henry Ulen had been in business. Principal stockholders in the firm were American International Corporation, organized in 1915; Field, Globe and Company (a banking concern run by Marshall Field (son of the Marshall Field retail magnate)); Stone and Webster, one of the largest engineering contracting companies in the world; and Ulen Contracting Corp.

Ulen and Co. completed the construction of the all marble Marathon Dam in Athens, Greece, and its men were working on railroads and water and sewer facilities in Bogota, Columbia in 1929. The firm acted as agents of the municipality involved on a fee basis to find funding through bonds and securities, which Ulen invested in. Ulen neighbor, Charles Jones, remarked that in his later years Henry Ulen had leather satchels full of “millions of dollars” in the bonds that ultimately failed on some of these project, but at the time Ulen was pioneering a method of financing that would become a standard for public projects across the world.

In 1931 an Indiana magazine reported that Ulen and Co. was the “largest engineering and contracting corporation in the world” with millions of dollars in contracts each year. Ulen’s work had taken him around the globe 30 or more times an article in an Indiana magazine noted, which must surely have seemed exotic and extravagant to Hoosiers caught up in the midst of the Great Depression. At the time the article was written Ulen and Co. was constructing a 90-mile canal for irrigation and hydropower in Texas.

As the financial times remained hard, Ulen personally took on the mission of keeping Ulen Country Club in the black. In 1933 when loss of membership and finances forced the club to dissolve and reorganize, Ulen provided cash infusion by underwriting newly issued shares of stock in the club, almost single-handedly meeting the club’s expenses through 1938.

When the U. S. entered World War II, Henry Ulen was hoping for an opportunity for rebuilding and the potential for millions of dollars in new contracts that could rise out of the destruction at war’s end. But by the time the war ended, Ulen was no longer a major player in construction projects. An article in the Indianapolis Star referred to Henry Ulen’s work in the past tense. Ulen and Co. had “financed, planned and constructed big projects…No job was too big.” The company was still in business, but by 1950, the Indianapolis News noted that Ulen “no longer undertakes construction work.”

The demise of Ulen and Co., probably as a merger into a larger firm, took place in what seems to be a historical vacuum. No record of the end of the company has been found, although there is some indication that the American International Corporation, which had partnered with Ulen beginning at least as early as 1922, purchased the company.

The end of Henry C. Ulen is, on the other hand, well documented. Newspapers far and wide published Ulen’s obituary in 1963, including the Nevada State Journal, Montana Standard, and the Kittaning, Pennsylvania, Simpson’s Leader-Times.  Henry C. Ulen passed from the world on May 16, 1963. He was 92. His legacy was worldwide, including water and sewer works, dams, and railroads from South America to Iran, numerous philanthropic gifts, and the still swanky town, country club and golf course named for him. He is buried next to his wife, Mary, in Oak Hill Cemetery, Lebanon, Indiana.



Saturday, June 1, 2013

20th and 21st centuries Modernism in Indianapolis

Today I'm leading a walking tour of Indianapolis modern architecture for the American Institute of Conservators whose annual meeting is in Indianapolis.  Did you think Indianapolis doesn't have good modern architecture?   Think again.  By the way, you'll also see what I think is one of Indianapolis's worst 21st century buildings here. Which one do you think it is?

These page are large, so I've had to move them down past all the side bar info.  Just cursor down past the side bar info.