Book Smart: Butler University's Irwin Library Turns 50

What better time to study this unsung architectural gem?

Half a century ago this month, Butler University’s Ivy League-ish campus received a boldly modern twist at the hands of one of the most famous architects ever commissioned to design a building in Indianapolis. But Irwin Library isn’t nearly as appreciated as it should be. Here’s a crash course on the unheralded landmark.

The Namesake
William G. Irwin, the prominent Columbus banker and one-time Butler trustee.

The Architect
Detroit-based Minoru Yamasaki, best remembered for later designing the World Trade Center. The library, finished in 1963, was his only commission in Indiana.

The Budget
$2.25 million, most of it provided by the Irwin-Sweeny-Miller Foundation of Columbus. All three families have played an important role in the life of the university for more than a century.

The Tree
An oak on the west lawn has curious Olympic roots. In 1987, former U.S. Olympic track coach Don Holst planted an acorn from the specimen given as a prize to 800-meter gold medalist John Woodruff in 1936. (The oak is the national tree of Germany, that year’s host.) Holst chose the Irwin Library as the location because, at the time, the building housed the National Track and Field Hall of Fame Historical Research Library Collection.

The Style
A hybrid of Classical and Modernism, Yamasaki’s signature scheme is called New Formalism. The exterior’s white arches represented the older design principles, while the narrow vertical windows were a modern touch.

The Material
Yamasaki called for quartz aggregate and plain concrete in “21 shades of white.” In the lobby, he installed a pool with a fountain to prevent an awkward silence from permeating the stone building.

The Muscle
Members of the Butler football team moved 165,000 books from the old library to the new one.

The Glass
Natural light is a hallmark of modern architecture, but it’s a threat to the university’s archives, housed on the top floor. A thin ultraviolet film on the windows helps control sun exposure and the temperature.


Photo by Tony Valainis

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue