Milestones: An Indiana Architecture Road Trip
Touring the state’s great buildings with its most freewheeling architecture critic.
In the elaborate latticework of Indiana’s back roads, even a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece can hide. An entire campus imagined by Eero Saarinen, designer of the St. Louis Arch, can be forgotten. A bejeweled bank by Louis Sullivan, inventor of the skyscraper, can attract only the occasional tourist. Last summer, a colleague of mine suggested a series of road trips to find these gems. “You should cover the entire state,” she said. “And you should take Vess.”
If the name sounds familiar, maybe it’s from Vess Ruhtenberg’s days as the bass player for the Lemonheads. In recent years, he has been an instructor of architecture history at Butler University and a firebrand for saving the state’s 20th-century buildings. Vess’s grandfather, Jan Ruhtenberg, was a Modernist architect who studied under the great Mies van der Rohe (who adopted the phrase “less is more”). Perhaps it’s no surprise that the grandson harbors a fondness for steel-and-glass boxes in which others have a hard time seeing the artistry.
On our trips around Indiana over several months, my traveling companion remarked about the beauty of interstate overpasses and rest-stop sheds. He was just as quick to dismiss buildings many would find pretty. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, that Vess—he’s just into Midcentury Modern,’” he lamented. “That’s not true! I appreciate Gothic. I appreciate Greek architecture. I just don’t get along with nostalgists who wish they were living in a Thomas Kinkade painting.” Although I fall short of that description and admire risk, I prefer Classical to concrete. Together, we were the Architectural Odd Couple.
What follows is a photo essay of our most intriguing finds along the way. Some stops were planned (where docents would shake with excitement leading a tour they have given hundreds of times); some were surprises. Appropriately enough, our journey began in architecture-rich Columbus. In that tiny outpost and in others, we wondered, “Why are our small towns bold enough to try these things when Indianapolis doesn’t have a single building by Wright or Saarinen?” The answer, in hamlet after hamlet, was that no committee stood in the way. One brave person made the difference.
The floor is level with the lawn. The doorway to the bathrooms is a nearly invisible part of the wall. You get the feeling that if a curved line graced so much as a pen, it would be thrown through one of the ubiquitous windows. The Columbus newspaper headquarters’ strict adherence to Modernist principles recently won it National Historic Landmark status. “It’s what’s not here that makes it great,” Vess says. “If you weren’t focusing on the structure, you would just see people working—no building at all. As Mies van der Rohe said, ‘Beinahe nichts.’ Almost nothing.”
By now, the superlatives about this blockbuster are familiar: One of the first Modernist churches in America. First piece of Modernist architecture in Columbus. Vess’s favorite place ever. Actually, I’m just learning that last one. He gazes at it for 10 minutes before he realizes he’s on the steps of another major architectural landmark a few feet behind him. “I love that you can stand with your back to an I.M. Pei library in Columbus and not know it because you’re looking at something even better,” he says. Whatever you think of the straight lines of Modernism, there is no denying the craftsmanship—even the screw heads all point the same direction. “To recognize what’s pretty about something that’s unadorned,” Vess says, “takes a little more work on your part.”
“It’s not that I don’t like it, but in the great history of Modernism, I like it less than other things,” Vess says. “To say I don’t like it would be unfair, given all these ugly churches we’re about to drive by.” The witch’s-hat exterior (see the photo at the top of the article) has lost some of its shock value after decades of copies, but entering Eero’s Columbus sanctuary still feels like boarding a spaceship. The disorienting angles loudly announce that the rigid rules of Modernism (flat roofs, limited decoration) have been cast aside. I surprise myself by announcing it’s one of the most arresting spaces I’ve ever entered. “But you’re a traditionalist!” Vess objects. “And this is the least traditional thing we’ll see!”
When I speculate that this jewel box of a church must be a favorite among visitors who stumble across it, Vess sighs heavily. “It’s a vomit of ideas,” he says. “Art Deco, Classical, Egyptian. But I can see why people think it’s beautiful. If you put white marble in the sunlight, it’s like staring at fire—you can’t take your eyes off of it.” Commissioned by James Tyson, a Versailles local who co-founded Walgreens, the temple now hosts a small congregation of about 160. What a shame, I think to myself, that such a tiny group witnesses the spectacular interior ceiling mural—a depiction of the night sky on the evening Tyson’s mother died.
We arrive in downtown Evansville to see a decaying Art Deco Greyhound station but are immediately distracted by this hulking mass of granite and limestone in its backyard. Sure, there are other examples of Victorian Gothic in Indiana. But nothing with such disregard for expense. “It would be impossible to build this today,” Vess says of what is now an event space. “Not even the federal government would try.”
Even by the standards of the rundown Evansville neighborhood with which it shares the weeds, this 552-square-foot shed appears shabby. But it may be one of the most important houses in the state. William Wesley Peters, Frank Lloyd Wright’s lead apprentice and a native of the city, designed it—two years before Wright debuted his now-famous Usonians that look an awful lot like this. Usonians inspired ranch houses, so in a way, you’re beholding the world’s first. “The biggest surprise of the trip,” Vess says, beaming. (He would later call Indiana Landmarks and play a role in getting the house on the organization’s 10 Most Endangered List.)
In a land of log cabins, this enameled-steel (think of your clothes dryer) structure strives to be as free-thinking as the utopians who founded New Harmony. The labyrinthine interior of the town’s welcome center rises and falls in a series of ramps—if you have any kid left in you, you’ll long for a skateboard. The exterior style strikes me as a fad that was abandoned decades ago, but Vess sees some good in it. “The contemporary architecture fits nicely with the historical town,” he says. “It’s like a beautiful young woman leaning against an old building.”
The stupa in the middle gets all the attention, but the long brick wall surrounding Philip Johnson’s spiritual park is the quiet hero. “There’s no good way to photograph this,” Vess says, in awe. New Harmony’s longtime benefactor Jane Owen brought the famous architect of Connecticut’s Glass House here, and, as the racy story goes, it wasn’t just for his design skills. “He was interested in doing the building, and she was interested in doing him,” Vess says. “They both got their wish. What’s the saying? ‘Architecture is the second-oldest profession, and it resembles the first.’
Whatever our differences in taste, Vess and I overlap at Frank Lloyd Wright. “Architects are so sick of hearing about him,” my traveling companion says. “It’s like approaching a musician with ‘How about those Beatles?’ But he’s the original Modernist—he knows how to make it long and low. Then he decorates it like a rosebud about to bloom.” One of only 10 original owners of a Wright home in the world, retired Purdue professor John Christian keeps this one (named after its winged-seed motif) in museum condition for his 3,000–4,000 visitors a year. Every piece of furniture remains exactly where Wright specified it. “If I was going to hire this world-famous architect,” the owner has said, “I figured I might as well do what he told me.”
An ATM plugs what was once an ornate front door. An ugly addition clings to the back. You don’t even want to see the mess they’ve made of the interior. “Everything that could possibly be done to ruin this building has been done,” Vess says. “And it’s still beautiful.” Credited with inventing the skyscraper and mentoring Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan resigned himself to designing luxurious little banks at the end of his life. In the decorative terra-cotta tile and horizontality of this one, you can see hints of a style his student would make famous.
In what is surely the strangest cluster of five dwellings in Indiana, the Century of Progress homes—shipped here to advertise a new beach development after their debut at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago—demand to be seen. “In the summer, I have to keep washing the nose- and handprints off the windows,” says Bill Beatty, resident of the Florida Tropical House, essentially one big Art Deco patio that is arguably the prettiest of the five. Vess appreciates the minimalism here but is distracted by personal history. “My grandfather designed the Swedish Pavilion furniture at that fair,” he recalls. “He must have seen this house.”
I tell Vess in advance that this is the most beautiful skyscraper in the state, and I’m not taking any lip to the contrary. The 23-story Art Deco tower houses one of the most immaculately preserved old banks in the region, complete with marble bathrooms and a mural adorning its domed ceiling. From the open-air observation deck, you can see Ohio. Vess mutters something about architects sometimes hiding ugly buildings with Deco relief, and I have to stop him there. “As much as I prefer a big white wall, I love the stuff,” he admits. “It works on me, too.”
We never got closer than the curb for this one, as the structure is currently empty. But thanks to the abundance of glass in the first home designed by Indiana’s most famous architect, just about everything is on display. Situated in a neighborhood of boring early-’70s ranches, the Hanselmann House (named for the original owners) is about as outside the box as a white box can be. “I freaking love it,” Vess says. “It’s more Bauhaus than anything else we have. I can’t believe it’s empty. The place should have a flamboyant owner throwing wild parties that we’re both invited to.”
“So this is what the ’70s were all about,” Vess jokes as we enter the Concordia campus. Like the work of most great architects, it predates the era it inspired by more than a decade. A pastor associated with the college officiated at Saarinen’s wedding, which explains how a tiny institution in Fort Wayne landed a guy who had recently designed the St. Louis Arch. I mention how much better I like the architect’s house of worship in Columbus, and my traveling companion has to agree. “If you showed someone one of these dorm buildings, they’d say, ‘Why did you take me here?’ I could have done my laundry!’” he says. “But as a village, it sort of works.”
This article appeared in the August 2014 issue.