Monday, March 16, 2015

Indianapolis's Lockefield Garden, How Good Architecture, Design, and Heart created a Model Housing Project.

The phrase “housing project” conjures bad images of places like Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green. We imagine residents living in below-standard apartments, huddled around cooking stoves for heat and fighting off dog-sized cockroaches. 

But, in 1938, “housing project” was a phrase that resonated with an entirely different tone when an Indianapolis housing project offered a wholly positive set of visuals. That year, Lockefield Garden, the city’s first federally funded housing, opened on the near Westside amid much ballyhoo and with great success.

Funded by the Public Works Administration (PWA), one of the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s New Deal agencies, Lockefield Garden was part of a slum clearance and low-rent housing initiative. The location for the project, an area between the Central Canal and White River, was blighted, and many of the homes were below even the relatively low living standards of Depression-era Indianapolis. This area was also almost exclusively African American, with the pulsing heart of the business and entertainment district on Indiana Avenue forming its northwestern border.

Some historians have argued that the term “slum clearance” was a catch phrase for racial prejudice that resulted in demolishing the homes of generations of African American families. There is probably some merit in that argument.  However, photographs of the area between the then polluted and vile-smelling Central Canal and the also polluted (and probably also vile-smelling) White River, show that a goodly portion of the homes were mere shacks that appear hardly livable. City reports of the period confirm that, as late as the 1930s, when most city homes had indoor plumbing, a large number of the low-income residents in this area were still using outdoor privies and wells.

The Great Depression, which impoverished even the formerly wealthy, had been especially difficult on African Americans whose job-types and earning capacity was so limited in the still openly racist America of the 1920s and 1930s. The homes of this neighborhood reflected the suffering of their residents.

The double goal of the PWA housing program—to provide construction jobs and to improve housing in this blighted area, was a win-win situation for Indianapolis leaders and, like it or not, the black homeowners and renters in the area had little if any chance to protest.  The city demolished 363 homes on 22 acres bounded by Indiana Avenue, Blake, North and Locke streets to make room for the project.

The local architecture firm of (William Earl) Russ and (Merritt) Harrison designed the project. They based their plan on PWA Housing Division models but their attractive and functional design became a model of its own. Russ and Harrison placed the twenty-four buildings in two chevron-shaped rows flanking a wide, central courtyard. Landscape architect Lawrence Vinnedge Sheridan planted the courtyard with a grove of red oak trees and helped with the siting of the buildings so that each unit had maximum sunshine.

The yellow-brick buildings had flat-roofs and Art Deco-inspired limestone details. Interiors were stylish and modern and expressed the Art Deco style in tiled hallways and geometric stairway balustrades. According to the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, renters could choose from three-room apartments or four-room “group homes.” Rents ranged from $20.80 to $30.10.

The segregated complex opened in February 1938. Lionel Artis, a leader in the African American community, was the general manager.  With his master’s degree in social science Artis created a thriving community that became a locus of African American life in the city. 

Among the retail businesses located in the Lockefield Garden buildings fronting on Indiana Avenue was one owned by Lionel Artis’s mother. Mrs. Artis’s clothing shop was the source of gowns for proms at segregated Crispus Attucks, dresses for evenings on the town in the open-all-night clubs of Indiana Avenue, and fancy stage clothes for many of the local African American singers and stage performers of the 1940s and 1950s.  Flo Garvin, one of Indianapolis’s well-known and stylish chanteuses (inducted into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame a few years ago), remembered buying all her gowns at Mrs. Artis’s shop in Lockefield Garden.
In a lemons-to-lemonade scenario, the construction of racially segregated Lockefield Garden gave many African Americans a good place to live in a model urban housing project. In a city where blacks were restricted from living outside of a few enclaves, they found a comfortable, affordable and attractive home in the midst of an insular and thriving community.

Eventually fair housing laws, designed to end discrimination, began to change the nature of that community, and eventually of Lockefield Garden by the 1960s. By law, subdivision developers who wrote covenants denying blacks home ownership and local realtors who refused to show them homes and denied African American realtors membership in their organization could no longer restrict black homeownership or rentals to a few inner city neighborhoods. This was a huge factor in the suburbanization of the city’s middle-class black community.

As the housing market opened to them, African Americans began to move to newly available suburban areas. Sometimes they planned their own developments, such as Grandview on the city’s Northwest side, other times they bravely moved into formerly all-white neighborhoods.  By the mid1960s, this movement away from the city center coupled with the rise of a strong black middle class, whose members made too much money to meet Lockefield Garden’s new income requirements, began to empty the attractive apartments of Lockefield Garden.

By the 1980s, Lockefield Garden was falling into disrepair. More and more units were becoming vacant, Lionel Artis was deceased, and his mother’s swank clothing store was long gone. The pressing needs of nearby IUPUI and Wishard Memorial Hospital for more land brought about a plan to demolish most of the apartment complex and open the land for development. Although preservationists and other citizens protested, developers moved forward with that plan and, in 1983, demolished all but seven of the original 24 buildings.

Today, the remaining seven building and a portion of Lawrence Sheridan’s courtyard and red oak grove are all that remain of the Lockefield Garden model housing project.  The tall, stately trees now line a driveway to IUPUI and hospital parking lots and to newly constructed apartment buildings nearby. Although the last remaining buildings of Lockefield Garden are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, diners steps away at the Lockefield Place strip mall probably rarely notice the stylish buildings of the once-successful housing project on the opposite side of Indiana Avenue.

This article first appeared in the March 2009 Urban Times. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Living the Life of Riley: the Story of 52 years of High-Rise Living in Indianapolis

Many current downtown dwellers have lived at least a season or two in Riley Towers.  Those of us who did so appreciated the great views and the rare, in Indianapolis, opportunity for real, big-city living. Few of us realized we were in buildings that are historically significant.

Riley Towers is now past 50 years old, the minimum age at which the project could become eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Its contribution to the city and state’s sparse collection of significant modern architecture could earn them a place.

The towers are not architectural marvels. They’re not an exclamation. But they are a modern architecture statement in a city that can’t claim many others. And they are, to this day, the state’s tallest residential structures.

They are perhaps even more significant for their association with the urban renewal plans of Indianapolis business movers and shakers of the 1960s and this city’s unique approach to funding those plans. Ironically, they are also significant for their failure to change Indianapolis residents’ vision of what it meant to live in the “City of Homes.”

Chicago architect Wilmont Vickrey designed the James Whitcomb Riley Center (Riley Towers) to be this city’s first high-rise housing. At the time, Vickrey was a partner at Perkins & Will, a firm later responsible for many of downtown Chicago’s skyscrapers. (Today, the firm now called Perkins + Will has buildings in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Vickrey went on to open his own firm, VOA Associates, Inc. in 1969.)

Construction began on the buildings of the Riley Center in 1962, just two years after the high-rise City-County Building brought the International Style of Mies van der Rohe to Indianapolis. If, as Mies said, “God is in the details,” then Riley Center’s architect must have worshipped a household deity, for the most significant detail of the Riley Center buildings’ exteriors is the vertical brown-brick panels that give them a sort of high-rise hominess.

Architect Vickrey designed the towers of reinforced concrete construction with curtain walls that hung upon the framework but bore none of the building’s weight. According to the Indianapolis News, Vickrey used a construction technique that was new in the United States at the time: first building a central concrete utility core and then mounting a crane on top of it to lift materials into place as workers built the exterior higher and higher. (A practice that is now common in new construction). Inside the utility core were stairwells, elevators, and heating and air conditioning “chases” for piping and ductwork.

The Riley Center opened in 1963. Its two 30-story “Crown” towers, a 16-story “Twin Tower,” and a two-story restaurant when completed were merely Phase I of a much larger plan.
Between the south Crown Tower and the Twin Tower the two-story building that now serves as office and gym was originally the restaurant with a cantilevered second story suspended over a reflecting pool.

During construction, local newspapers noted that Riley Center’s architect stressed  the “human element” in the buildings’ design and function and made a point of avoiding “regimentation and institutional appearances” in his work.

According to the Balconies provided “unparalleled opportunity for apartment dwellers to enjoy outdoor living.” Their unsupported cantilevers mounted on the building’s glass curtain walls also made a clear, modern statement that was, to say the least, uncommon in 1960s Indianapolis.

The business elites involved in funding Riley Center were an Indianapolis “who’s who.” The Indianapolis Star reported that, along with Frank E. McKinney, chairman of American Fletcher National Bank (which opened a branch on the first floor of the south tower), sponsors also included Thomas W. Moses, at that time president of Investors Diversified Services (later chairman of the Indianapolis Water Company), G. William Raffensperger, president of the investment firm, Raffensperger, Hughes and Co., C. Harvey Bradley, chairman of the executive committee of P. R. Mallory and Co., and Harry T. Ice, partner of the law firm of Ross, McCord, Ice and Miller (now Ice Miller), among others.

Riley Center’s developers purchased 20 acres of land at North and Alabama streets from the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission. Their plan: to develop at least ten, 30-story towers. These buildings would add 1,800 new apartments to the city center, where new housing construction had come to a standstill.

Not since the construction of Lockefield Gardens in the 1930s had Indianapolis seen such an ambitious residential building project. And like the Lockefield Gardens project, the Riley Center started with a “slum” clearance of homes and businesses already on the land.

The developers proudly used local monies rather than federal urban redevelopment funds for Riley Center. This set Indianapolis’s urban renewal plan apart from those elsewhere in the U.S. But, even though the architect and project director claimed in an Indianapolis News article that local funding “expedited the project by at least five years,” it probably also eventually caused it to fall far short of its potential.

To fund their initial four-building phase in the project they hoped would eventually see as many as ten of the 30-story “crown towers” and several 16-story “twin towers,” the businessmen sponsors got a $9 million mortgage and sold 25 percent of their Riley Center stock to the Alcoa Company to help raise the rest of the $40 million required. In return, the architect used Alcoa aluminum extensively in the exterior window walls, entry doors, and stair railings.

On the inside, according to the development's promotional materials, the Riley Center promised gracious living. Apartments were generous in size and there were seventeen different floor plans, ranging from studios for “bachelors and bachelor girls” to terrace-garden apartments, to penthouses. Closets large enough for “a Beau Brummel” and piped-in Muzak were other selling points, though the latter may have been a dubious one.

Only “reputable and responsible citizens” would reside in the apartments.

The Riley Center also had ground-floor commercial establishments, beauty and barber shops, and amenities that included to-your-door dry cleaning pick-up and drop-off. The fine-dining restaurant in the center building was managed by Max Comisar (of the long-established King Cole restaurant located for many years on Meridian Street). 

Even with all these attractive (not counting the Muzak) amenities, the project developers knew they had to be creative to sell the idea of renting apartments to Indianapolis residents, who were among the most likely in the nation to embrace home ownership.

A 12-page insert in the May 19, 1963, Indianapolis Star painted Riley Center’s new picture of the American dream. In language straight out of an Ayn Rand novel, the insert assured readers that within the “ultramodern surging towers, the dweller in the center has command. All the city is stretched out below. In the quiet apartness of your apartment is privacy to read a book, whip up a new Danish dish, compose a sonata, type another chapter of that novel, have conversation with an interesting new friend, produce, create.”  But most importantly--Rent.

Despite those inspiring words, the Riley Center failed to entice enough residents to fill even the Phase I towers. Low occupancy precluded further construction, and eventually the city had to sell the unused “slum clearance” land that had been intended for the additional apartment towers.

Although the Riley Center did eventually reach full occupancy, that didn’t occur until the 1990s, almost 30 years after their construction.

Sadly, the project’s lack of immediate success continues to limit the skyline of Indianapolis to this day. Worries about high-rise housing have kept buildings low, and resulted in the city favoring new construction that is traditional and suburban-looking, even on prime residential real estate downtown.

Although a few skyscrapers have made their vertical marks, aside from low-income housing at Barton Towers on Massachusetts Avenue and Lugar Towers on Alabama Street, high-rise residential development has been noticeably absent from the “city of homes” since the construction of Riley Center. Even today, on the valuable Market Square Arena land at the center of downtown, submitted plans for new residential buildings don’t rise as high as the soon-to-be 45-year-old Riley Towers. The two 30-story towers were, as late as 2007, the tallest residential buildings in the state of Indiana.

The Riley Center did not reach hoped-for potential, but its tall towers have been a temporary and sometimes a long-term home for large numbers of downtown dwellers.  Though not always beloved in this city, the buildings remain a significant landmark of Indianapolis’s redevelopment, and of its insular business world that kept funding local rather than federal.

Riley Center how now passed the 50-year minimum age to be considered for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  It just might deserve a spot there.

This article appeared originally in 2007 in Urban Times. It was revised with current dates for this post.