Friday, January 14, 2011

An open letter to Indianapolis

A Good Time to Take Stock?

   Look and you will see, traveling the streets and alleys and highways of Indianapolis, an 80 year old florist and bakery sits empty; a shuttered coffee shop remains where a bank once was; parking lots lie where former landmarks stood; and like a lone oak on a plain rests an old, empty baseball stadium.

   A lot has transpired in Indianapolis construction in the past 150 years. We have built and bulldozed, reveled and reviled, ignored and adored generations of buildings. Indianapolis supplanted many of the late 1800s and early 1900s works of Robert Frost Dagget, Adolf Scherrer, and Vonnegut and Bonn for the 1920s and 30s work of Rubbush and Hunter, Paul Cret, and Pierre and Wright.  Restless and expanding after WWII, Hoosiers hired scores of local and outside architects to reinvent our city: it was with Evans Woollen, Thomas E. Stanley, Nathaniel Owings, Lennox, Mathews, Simmons, and Ford, and the last version of the old Vonnegut firm, Wright, Porteus, and Lowe that we came to the modern world. During the last forty years, Indianapolis has seen a steady building boom.  Perhaps at this moment of recession and slow growth we might pause and take stock.

    Along the way sobering losses shocked us -like the razing of the old Court House or the late discovery that our city’s only Fredrick Law Olmsted garden had been cleared for the Children’s Museum. Searching for an identity, we went from the “The City of Homes” to “Home of the Indianapolis 500” and then the “Sports Capital of the World” and “Super Bowl Champions”; now we claim to be the “Convention Capital.”

   The endangered old Bush Stadium (originally Perry Stadium, then Victory Field, built in 1930 by local architects Pierre and Wright) was the home of early baseball, the great American sport.  Its walls tell the story of the Indians and the Negro league’s Indianapolis Clowns, and the surrounding neighborhood where the Ink Spots lived and played and Wes Montgomery cut his teeth. In most other cities this would already be a nationally recognized treasure or a museum. Why not here?

   Many of our most familiar downtown structures were recently altered or demolished. Most notable was the re-skinning of the Regions tower and the old Merchants Bank/Zipper building. I often wonder why we lost Market Square Arena. Was that the only way to get a new home for the Pacers?  I know a lot of us saw some of our most memorable performances and games at Market Square.  The Hoosier/RCA Dome was our “build it and they will come” story. We took our “new” team to the Super Bowl in that building. It barely lasted twenty years and I can’t recall a single protest to its demolition.

   100 years ago Indianapolis had streetcars (first mule-pulled in 1864 then electric until 1953!), Amtrak trains, the Interurban electric train system and bicycles. In 1893 so many bicycles were on the street the City Council passed a $1 license fee. The Monon Trail used to be a direct train passage from Fishers and Carmel, through Broad Ripple to downtown. The downtown field of tracks and changing works were all pulled up and the buildings leveled for Market Square Arena, an area that is now a parking lot.  Currently we are facing a proposition to put in a light rail system, reinstating lines our grandfathers built. Gone are the tracks for which we paid long ago that ran all over our city and state and beyond.

   So I ask the developers and the architects and the investors and the homeowners and the taxpayers: are we going too fast? Is growth and convenience the bottom line or is humanity? Perhaps the point of civilization should be that we are also striving to form a great culture. Our past is not so bad. Our buildings are not so humble. A lot of farmland has been cleared, lots of malls and coffee shops and drugstores and parking lots and garages have been erected suddenly over our old hand built Indianapolis. Perhaps chain stores and car parks are not a fitting legacy for our generation. This is not to blame those who make our city what it is but to encourage them, to encourage all of us, to want more for our humble metropolis.

   As I write this plans are temporarily on hold to demolish the old Crawford’s Bakery building at 16th and Capitol, The Pilgrim Lutheran Church at 96th and Meridian (a stunning edifice built in 1955 by Edward Stade) is scheduled to be razed for a highway onramp. Dozens of our terrific public school buildings are being wildly altered by window replacement (non-opening) and giant cooling units, a curious allocation of funds.   
   Perhaps we can look at our older buildings again in the morning light and try to see them as ours. Maybe one day we will take our kids to the Bush Stadium Baseball Museum to learn about the old baseball legends. Maybe we will take an electric train there.

Vessel von Ruhtenberg

Modern Living

   It was sometime just after Christmas of 1977 that my sister, my father, and I moved from Indianapolis to Colorado Springs. My parents had just got divorced and as my mother was in law school and my father was unemployed we went with him to stay for the time being. I was eight years old.

Color Slide circa 1940 A.G. Jan Ruhtenberg Residence, southern exposure, Colorado Springs CO. Photographer unknown

   My father told us we were going to live with his cousin and her children in a house he had helped build. He said that our grandfather had designed it for himself when he moved from New York City to Colorado in 1939. Dad filled with pride when he talked about it, and once we arrived and settled into the upstairs apartment of the vast house, I soon knew why. Almost every room opened up to the outside. Only in the lew could you be more that one door from mountains, air, and prairie. The windows were huge in all rooms, great bands of glass in the bedrooms and giant floor to ceiling expanses in the living room and dining room replete with wide, razor thin protective eaves. The walls were pumice block, natural un-plastered, and the fireplace seemed to hover from above the hearth unconnected at one corner. Great thin cruciform columns appeared here and there still bearing their maker on the sides, “Colorado Springs Steel Company.” My upstairs room had a door that opened onto a balcony that wrapped around the entire second floor of the house and connected with my father and sisters rooms. The floors were radiant heat; no matter how cold it was outside, one’s feet were toasty and the climate comfy.

 Color Slide circa 1940 A.G. Jan Ruhtenberg Residence, Colorado Springs CO. Photographer unknown

    I didn’t think of it as modern or even different from any other house. Too young to have a modern bias, the house seemed simply smart. Every clever effort had been made to achieve and create a real home. Opposite the dining room glass wall was a great expanse of French wallpaper with electric blues and vivid orange and yellow floral designs that grandfather Jan Ruhtenberg had imported at great expense. Victorian rosewood carved John Belter chairs and a dining table with its four legs removed was instead held at the center to a cruciform column that was imbedded in the foundation. “So your legs and chairs can move freely under the table” my father explained with overflowing pride. I would later learn that I was living in an early Modern house and that my grandfather was a modernist and had studied under Mies van der Rohe in the late 1920s. I also learned that my grandfather delighted in combining antique fine carved furniture like Belter with restrained modern settings. This meant little to me. I only understood that up to this moment, I had never been in a place so opulent and livable, so open and so private, so rough and smooth.


Ruhtenberg Home circa 1940, Jan Ruhtenberg furnishings and antiques mixed with Mies prototype and Le Corbusier pieces. Family photographs.

    Some 28 years later I bought a “modern” house in Indianapolis (right). Built by period-man-turned-modernist Edward D. Pierre. The house was originally designed for the widow of racecar driver and mechanic Fred “Skinny” Clemons. It has walls of steel cased windows to the south, radiant heat in the floor and ceiling, bands of glass to the north, flat roof, and every room opens up to the outside.  I can barely imagine what it would be like to go back to forced air turning on and off all day and night, small glare causing windows that beg to be covered, and giant attics that steal heat in the winter and force it to linger in summer. It turns out, my most formative aesthetic education didn’t come from a book or school. It came from that experience in a glass house at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain. The moral of this whimsical architectural digression? Perhaps, those who don’t fancy modern architecture never lived in it, and people who live in glass houses should throw parties.

Vessel G.R. von Ruhtenberg

What's in a Name?                    

  Mid century modernism is a term growing in popularity every day, so much that it has become simply MCM to some.  Though this does describe a period of modern architecture and design in the mid 1900’s, it fails to divulge the great spirit of development and research that led up to that mid 20th century.

                        1818 John Nash, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, England. From Gideon, Space Time and Architecture. Photo uncredited.

    Modern architecture had its birth in construction.  In conjunction with ever expanding glass technology, the invention of the cast iron column in the 1700s and later the steel column posed new span potential (longer, stronger, areas of support). In 1818 John Nash brought the iron column inside and used it in a formal interior for the first time at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. By the mid 1800s, the major cities of England and America had large numbers of iron and glass structures. So many of these cast iron age beauties dotted the St. Louis riverfront between 1850 and 1880, and so large were the structural leaps, that the venerable Harvard professor Sigfried Giedion in his book “Space, Time, and Architecture” (Harvard Press, 1941) referred to this age as mid (19th ) century modern.

          1877, Gantt building, St Louis river front. From Gideon, Space, Time, and Architecture, 1940, courtesy U.S. department of Interior

   As these new building technologies gained acceptance so did the need for a new individuality. By the late quarter of the 1800s dozens of aesthetic alternatives to Victorian and Classic forms abounded. Virtually every country had an aesthetic movement spurred on by dreamers of the day. H.P. Berlag (Holland), August Perret (France), Christopher Dresser (England), Charles Rennie Macintosh (Scotland), Victor Horta (Belgium), Louis Sullivan, Irving Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gustave Stickly (North America) were all obsessive progenitors of an early modernism before 1899.
   During this exploratory time, designs of cars and ocean liners and telephones and other new technologies begin to affect the eyes and pencils of some of the most savvy architects and decorators.  The first published photographs of Mayan and Aztec ruins inform many of these aesthetic ideals as well.

   In 1908 Viennese architect Adolf Loos declared ornament a crime as Wright completed the Robie house, his first great departure from prairie-ism.  That same year, celebrated arbiter of architectural restraint, German Peter Behrens had three new men working in his office: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius.

     Frank Lloyd Wright published in Europe for the first time in 1910, his now  famous Wasmuth portfolio. It appeared simultaneous to Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Neue Sacklicheit, Funkis, and other angular, colorful, scientific, and experimental schools of thought that peppered the continent. 

                   1923 Storer House, Frank Lloyd Wright, Los Angeles, photo, 2009 Vessel von Ruhtenberg

    By the late 19teens and early 1920’s, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler had joined Wright (and Green and Green and Irving Gil) in reinventing Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Le Corbusier shocked Paris with his concrete smooth villas in bright colors and wrote about mid western American grain elevators with Amedee Ozenfant in Esprit Nouveu. Mies van der Rohe became the star architect of the avant-garde in Germany while joining the November Group and writing for “G” magazine.  In 1925, Walter Gropius designed the new Bauhaus building in Dessau joined by masters Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Marianne Brandt, Gunta Stolz, Kurt Schwitters, and Marcel Breuer among others, working under one flat roof.

 All of this happens before middle of the century mavens, Philip Johnson, Charles Eames or Eero Saarinen have built a thing.

   August 5, 1930 a young Philip Johnson was taken by a student of Mies (Jan Ruhtenberg) to nearby Dessau to see the Bauhaus. They went on to Brno, Czechoslovakia to see Mies’ just completed Tugendhat house. He met Gropius, experienced buildings by Le Corbusier, J.J.P. Oud, and Berlage, and dubbed it all  “the International Style.” To the disappointment of many of modernisms progenitors striving to alleviate style altogether, the term caught on. Just as misleading as International Style, is perhaps Mid Century Modern itself. What’s in a name anyway? No matter what it may be called, the strange house down the street may be older than you think, and the events that led up to its construction are as old as our country.

Vessel G.R. von Ruhtenberg


S. Gideon, Space Time and Architecture, Harvard press, 1941

Walter Gropius,  Scope of Total Architecture, Harper and Brothers, New York 1943

Elaine S. Hochman, Bauhaus, Crucible of Modernism, Fromm International publishing, 1997

Franz Schultz, Philip Johnson: Life and Work, University of Chicago Press, 1994