The Pillar: Evans Woollen

One of the city’s most accomplished and controversial architects returns home for a retrospective. Are we finally done tearing him down?

Editor’s Note, July 2011: This feature originally ran in the June 2010 issue, and Clowes Hall underwent renovations in 2011. Evans Woollen will return to the remarkable edifice he built for a Jan. 30 “Architecture of Clowes Hall” conversation. More information here.

Evans Woollen was in over his head. When the 31-year-old architect arrived at the Butler University president’s office for his interview, his portfolio held only a handful of houses in Connecticut and Indiana—nothing in the league of the project at hand. And inexperience wasn’t even his biggest problem. His biggest problem on that day in 1959 was the man who had interviewed before him. His biggest problem was the great Eero Saarinen.

In the late 1950s, Saarinen—designer of the St. Louis Arch—was one of the most accomplished architects in the world. Without question, he was the leading candidate in the pool of architects pitching a vision for the proposed Clowes Memorial Hall, a new $3.5 million home for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his extraordinary resume, Saarinen was a close friend of Columbus architecture patron (and Butler University board member) J. Irwin Miller.

But Woollen had a few things going for him as well. An acquaintance of Allen Whitehill Clowes—son of George H. A. Clowes, for whom the hall was being built—Woollen had socialized with the family on occasion. And he was smart enough to make his candidacy a partnership with John Johansen, his former professor at Yale and Allen Clowes’s former classmate at Harvard. Johansen, based in Connecticut, was nationally known as one of the Harvard Five, a quintet of modernist architects trained by Walter Gropius. Still, with Saarinen in the mix, Woollen thought they had no chance.

“Saarinen was very nervous,” Woollen, 82, says today. “He had a flight to catch, and he kept glancing at his watch. Mrs. Clowes was very annoyed that he didn’t seem to have time for them. It was one of those freak things, and a great break.”

In a career-defining moment, Woollen won the job. But the pre-build courtship wasn’t finished. At the request of a Butler trustee, Woollen visited Minoru Yamasaki, a major architect in Detroit who at the time was a few years away from designing the World Trade Center in New York. Yamasaki had recently been named the architect for Butler’s Irwin Library, and it was to sit on the opposite side of Butler’s main drive from Clowes.

“It was a bizarre meeting,” Woollen recalls. “I was ushered into his office, and he had tea served to him and not to me. I suppose it was some sort of message about who was in charge. He gave me a lecture about how libraries were the most important buildings on campus, and the theater should not rival it in any way.”

There’s no question which building is more prominent now—or, perhaps, which has had more use over the decades. Even if Woollen and Johansen had not intended to upstage anyone, Clowes Hall is today the most commanding building on campus, the signature edifice of the school’s front entrance. To reconcile their modernist vision with Butler’s existing architecture, built in the 1920s, the architects used limestone as the exterior’s dominant material and broke up the facade into clusters of vertical sections that come off as austere, modern takes on the campus’s Gothic towers. Inside, a 24,000-square-foot lobby is visible from overhead crossings so that the audience becomes the performers, and beyond, a soaring performance space with raw-concrete balconies still evokes questions about when they will be painted.

Soon after it opened in October 1963, Clowes Hall made such a splash nationally that The New York Times Magazine sent a reporter to review the hall and its cultural impact. After scoffing at the locals’ fashion sense, the writer attended a show at Clowes. He called the hall “cool, dignified, quietly dramatic,” and concluded, “I don’t know what those imported operas have brought to the Hoosiers, but whoever created this building has brought them more than enough.”

Even if you can’t place his name, you know Evans Woollen’s architecture: Clowes; the Barton Tower Apartments on Mass Ave; the Minton-Capehart Federal Building along Pennsylvania Street; the Musical Arts Center at IU; The Children’s Museum addition in 1989. Most of those works (along with Woollen’s houses from the 1950s and ’60s) are considered the city’s best examples of modernism, and they gave Woollen a reputation—for both boldness and bombast. Some of his work has been celebrated internationally. Locally, some of it has been called downright ugly.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he followed modernism’s detour into Brutalism. The term comes from beton brut, French for “raw concrete.” But you don’t need an entomology lesson to get the gist of the style. The name, unintentionally, says it all—muscular forms and imposing stony masses.

Attractive or not, Woollen’s buildings always got noticed, which counts for a lot in architecture. On that merit, Woollen is right up there with Michael Graves as the city’s best architect ever. But unlike Graves, Woollen came home. He brought the modernist movement to Indianapolis in the 1950s, then spent his life as the city’s most vocal and successful advocate for avant-garde design. Love or hate the results (and we’ve done both), Woollen was driven by a deep desire to make Indianapolis a better place through architecture and urban planning. Retrospectives of his career presented by the IMA, iMOCA, and Indiana Landmarks this month should bring the big picture of his impact into focus.

People would drive out of their way to see an Evans Woollen house, says one longtime friend. “In the ’60s, that stuff wasn’t happening here.”

Even better, Woollen Weekend, as it’s being called, will be a chance to get to know the man whom colleagues consider the city’s last gentleman’s architect. By the 1980s, Woollen was firmly established as a pillar of his profession, revered as someone who succeeded as both a talented designer and an esteemed businessman. He was on good terms with the editors and writers at Architectural Record and often landed in its pages, as well as in House & Garden. He hired prestigious photographers such as Balthazar Korab to document his architecture, and he entertained nationally known architects such as Philip Johnson and David Lewis at his house. But for all of his links to the world of architecture beyond Indiana, Woollen prized collaboration with local colleagues and patrons above all.

CLEAR IMPROVEMENT: With its canopy of supports, the Central Library’s glass atrium soars. (Photo by Jeffery A. Kisling)

Working well past the traditional age of retirement, Woollen still headed projects throughout his 70s. And in 2001, the perfect Indianapolis finale came along—the Central Library expansion project. His largest commission ever, the job represented an opportunity not only to contribute a landmark to the city’s most architecturally important district, but also to protect the integrity of the original 1917 library, which had been designed by Paul Cret, the mentor to the great Louis Kahn, who had in turn mentored Woollen at Yale. It seemed almost divinely decreed—until Woollen was fired.

Evans Woollen III was born on August 10, 1927, to Evans Woollen Jr. and Lydia Jameson. The curiously plural “Evans” was his great-grandmother’s maiden name. Given such ancestors as Samuel Merrill, one of the men who selected the site for Indianapolis in 1824, and Conrad Baker, governor of Indiana from 1867–73, the Woollens have been called one of Indy’s most historic families you’ve  never heard of.

Woollens Sr. and Jr. ran the family banking business, Fletcher National Bank (now Chase). Both men were nationally recognized businessmen, influential supporters of the arts, and close friends with Indy’s top arts patrons. The eldest Woollen was instrumental in giving architect Paul Cret the commission for the original Herron School of Art and Design building on 16th Street, where  Woollen III attended art classes. He never caught the banking bug. “It sounds flippant, but I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was playing in the sand pile,” he says. “If I was missing, they always knew where I was.”

Woollen transferred to The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut during his junior year of high school, and then studied architecture at Yale in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when nearby New Canaan happened to be the American cradle of the modernist Bauhaus movement imported from Germany. At Yale, Woollen studied under great modernists: Philip Johnson, whose Glass House in New Canaan is a National Historic Landmark, and, most influentially, Louis Kahn, best known for designing the National Assembly Building in the capital of Bangladesh.

Woollen apprenticed at Johnson’s firm in 1952, and then struck out on his own. Well-connected and surrounded by East Coast money, he was poised for success and possibly fame. But his career wasn’t as mature as his romantic relationship with Nancy Sewell, an old friend from Indianapolis who yearned to return home from Philadelphia, where she was teaching.

In 1955, the couple moved back to Indianapolis and married. Woollen hung his shingle in what he calls a “broom closet” overlooking Monument Circle. Young couples with modern taste sought him out. His early home commissions adhered to the International style popularized by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Almost exclusively, he designed a rectilinear form with large expanses of glass, a flat roof with generous overhangs, and skylights. Some featured a see-through living room as a focal point—House & Garden featured the U-shaped Perlov residence off Spring Mill Road, saying it “combines the privacy of a castle with the invigorating freedom of open-to-nature rooms.” People would drive out of their way to see an Evans Woollen house, says Kathy Nagler, a longtime friend of Woollen. “In the ’60s, that stuff wasn’t happening here.”

Woollen rarely departed from International style, but in the early ’60s, he convinced a young couple to let him design a house inspired by ancient Trulli structures in Italy. Jordan and Joan Leibman would raise their family in conjoined white cylindrical huts with tall, pointy roofs (“little hats,” a critic from Architectural Record glibly called them). The couple still lives there, but Woollen has questioned the wisdom of this experiment. “Perhaps architects shouldn’t impose their ideas on young, impressionable clients,” he has said of the project. (Woollen never got around to designing his own house in Indianapolis. Instead, he and Nancy settled into Kurt Vonnegut’s childhood home in Butler-Tarkington in 1962, and raised two sons, Malcolm and Ian.)

Woollen’s East Coast aura and easy charm were a persuasive combination in Indianapolis. People knew that he had fancy connections from his years at Yale. His first civic commission was an addition to the Cret edifice at Herron. For Clowes Hall, completed shortly after, he was able to recruit some of the country’s best theater designers, a team including acoustics master Robert Newman of Boston; Jean Rosenthal, a pioneer of Broadway lighting design; and the seating specialist who had created the layouts for the Lincoln Center theaters in New York City around the same time. (Of course, sophisticated ideas didn’t go over well with everyone; some city leaders wanted to rip out the Continental seating and install a central aisle, and paint the exterior gold.)

In subtle ways with Clowes Hall, and increasingly with the civic projects that followed, Woollen established that he would not compromise his vision. He often won over the conservative-minded boards that controlled major building commissions. “He could project himself through a design so clearly that he could make it real to a client,” says Wayne Schmidt, a former Woollen protege who went on to become a fellow in the American Institute of Architects. Woollen’s persuasive skills were evident by 1968, when he designed the main building of the John J. Barton Apartments on Mass Ave. The rather ungainly Y-shaped tower is wider at the top than the bottom, but despite its awkwardness, it was covered in international architecture journals as an inventive take on public housing. The tower was originally connected to a building across East Street by a section of apartments suspended over the traffic. That bridge’s recessed balconies were painted with pops of color, a feature also seen on La Unite d’Habitation, Le Corbusier’s seminal Brutalist apartment building in Marseille, France. This significant bit of architectural DNA disappeared with the bridge.

DIVINE INSPIRATION: St. Thomas Aquinas Church (1970) bears Woollen’s signature bold geometry and represents his career-long focus on gathering spaces. (Photo by Balthazar Korab)

In 1970, Woollen unveiled a stainless-steel altar in front of a bright red wall at St. Thomas Aquinas Church near Butler, a project that won an honor award from the Indiana Society of Architects. It was a “shocker of a church,” says firm partner Larry O’Conner, and it served notice that Woollen cared more about his vision than being popular. But it was nothing compared to a major commission on the horizon—a $20 million project that would lead to what some call the ugliest building in Indianapolis.

In the mid 1960s, the General Services Administration called for bids to design a Federal Building at the corner of Pennsylvania and Michigan streets. Woollen’s firm won the job, and his sketches were published in 1967, though the Vietnam War delayed the start of the project until 1972. Woollen was thrilled with the commission, which he viewed as a monumental opportunity to achieve something through architecture more important than style and function: place-making. The Federal Building would replace a barren parking lot on the east side of Veterans Memorial Plaza, right in the heart of the Indiana War Memorial Plaza, a historic public gathering space on par with Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. Woollen believed that there was one main issue for the project. “We thought the whole plaza was badly in need of containment,” he said. “The buildings just weren’t holding things in or defining the park or the plaza.”

The firm convinced the GSA to abandon plans for a 13-story building on a small footprint in favor of a six-story structure that spanned the length of the block—“a much shorter, longer, and fatter building that would fill in the leaking space of the plaza and dramatize it in a way European spaces are,” Woollen explains. The design called for an inverted ziggurat, a stair-stepped shape that would be the inverse of the pyramid crown of the nearby Indiana World War Memorial; that is, each floor would be a little wider than the one below it. Woollen chose to render the building in concrete to suggest the permanence of the federal government as an institution. As construction began, he even ordered the mixture custom-blended to a particular golden hue, and gave it a polished finish. Thick columns lift the hulking structure off the ground to create an open plaza around the base, which is wrapped with a rainbow mural by graphic-design pioneer Milton Glaser, the founding design director of New York magazine and designer of the “I Heart NY” logo.

Woollen conceived the mural as something joyful, but he wasn’t surprised when it was met with disgust. “Indy rose up in arms when they saw the colors going up, probably because 80 percent of our city’s population are chromophobes,” he says. “There was a massive fright—letters to the editor, editorials in the paper.”

In fact, The Indianapolis Star later said that the building had been called “a pigeon coop” and that it appeared “ready to fall on its knees.” As far as Glaser’s mural—which has faded considerably over time—motorists were known to shout their disapproval to the construction crew even before it was completed.

Any focus on the building’s appearance puzzles Woollen today. “It’s not meant to be a pretty building,” he says. “It’s meant to do an important mission in terms of enclosing the Indiana War Memorial Plaza.” He anticipated that—as with European plazas—other buildings would come along and ensure that the Federal Building didn’t stick out so much. “We realized we were leaving a blob out there, but we thought it would eventually come together,” he says. “It hasn’t yet.”

Even standing alone, the Federal Building commands great respect from other architects, who prize it as one Indy’s few cutting-edge designs from the 1970s. “It will probably be restored,” says Schmidt, “as opposed to so much mediocre architecture that won’t be on the preservation list 50 years from now.”

Woollen managed to avoid controversy in the ’80s and ’90s by concentrating on theaters and libraries, categories that became the firm’s specialties by the end of the millennium. But even Woollen and his partners hadn’t seen a project like the Central Library commission that came along in 2001.

The $100 million project called for restoring the original Cret building and replacing the 40-year-old five-story addition behind it. Architect Bob Kennedy, a longtime colleague of Woollen’s, was responsible for recommending architects to the library’s board. He suggested only one. “Evans had spent his life in this city and was one of the best architects in the Midwest. I didn’t see any point in hunting around,” Kennedy says.

HOUSEHOLD NAME: Woollen’s residential projects, including the Leibman home (1962) startle as much as his civic buildings. (Photo by Gary Chiluffo)

Woollen led the design aspect of the project, and the board signed off on the boldest of the firm’s proposals: a six-story glass-and-steel addition joined to the Cret building by a soaring atrium with a forest of slim white supports. The addition’s height would also serve to enclose the War Memorial Plaza’s north end, an aim similar to the Federal Building’s intent 30 years prior. The project would be the firm’s largest ever and Woollen’s last before retiring and leaving the firm in the hands of partners Molzan, O’Conner, Kevin Huse, and William Brady. Construction began in 2003.

Then the concrete beams of the underground parking garage cracked. The problem escalated into a major defect that brought construction to a halt in 2004. Fingers were pointed in every direction, and lawsuits were filed, sending the project dramatically over budget (it ended up at $150 million). Woollen’s firm sued the library to prevent it from using its design, and the library sued the firm to recoup costs that resulted from what it said was a design flaw. While the drama dragged on publicly, Woollen and his partners were banned from the site, and eventually released from the job.

The firm settled with the library in 2006 and paid $580,000 but denied the accusations made by the library. The addition was completed in 2007 to critical approval, the consensus being that a historically styled design would have muddled the original building. Though dramatic, the addition curves gently toward the Cret in deference—an architectural genuflect. In 2009, the library’s structural consultants were exonerated in court, and it is generally accepted that the innocence extended to Woollen, Molzan, too. “Evans had nothing to do with any of it, but he got hurt pretty bad,” Kennedy says. Woollen himself won’t say much about the saga. “It doesn’t take much imagination to feel what it was like,” he says. “But it’s all part of life. And creation. It’s never going to be easy.”

Lost in Woollen’s aborted relationship with the library was a poetic bit of historical symmetry: His first and last major commissions in Indy were additions to buildings designed by Paul Cret, an architect who owes his first Indianapolis commission to Woollen’s grandfather.

Many local architects would take Woollen’s career, controversy and all. Most major commissions are now going to out-of-state firms. (The expansions of the IMA and the Indiana Convention Center were designed locally, but the biggies—Lucas Oil Stadium, the airport, and the JW Marriott hotel—were not.) Woollen, Molzan Inc. seems content to continue designing better libraries and as many prisons as it can handle. Woollen’s son Malcolm followed in his father’s footsteps but practices and teaches in Philadelphia. Even Woollen’s biggest detractors may soon lament the absence of his ambition.

After retiring, Woollen moved to Boulder, Colorado, and finally designed his own home. It overlooks the Rockies and features a studio where the 82-year-old spends much of his time. Painting, a lifelong passion, is now a daily pursuit under the tutelage of his girlfriend, Yvonne Jacquette, a successful artist based in New York City. His abstract style makes use of the same strong geometry present in his most modern houses and buildings. “There were already too many people doing schlock landscapes [of the Rockies],” he says. “I just thought, I’m not going to go on with the literal translation of this landscape. But I’m very conscious of these towering forms all around me. They have left some sort of imprint on the way I see things.”

Which may explain the tall, white boxes that popped up at the intersection of 106th Street and Spring Mill Road last year. The trio of starkly modern houses sits in the trees, no doubt causing drivers to take a couple of laps around the intersection’s roundabout to get a good look at them. Known collectively as “the triad” and commissioned as a set by the three current owners, they are more vertical and opaque than the low-slung modernist gems dotting old northside neighborhoods, but they are just as unmistakably Woollen’s.

This article appeared in the June 2010 issue.