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.