Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

Columbus, Indiana

Columbus, Indiana, is one of America’s supreme built environments, in a rather unlikely place, located 45 minutes south of Indianapolis, Indiana. Over the past 70 years, there have been a string of distinguished buildings from the leading architects of the day, starting with the First Christian Church of Eliel Saarinen. In this small town of 44,000 is a treasure trove of civic and religious structures, many of them built in an agreement with the Miller family and their Cummins Foundation, who would pay the architects’ fees in exchange for a commission from their list of architects.

The town overall exudes Midwestern conservatism, no doubt a defining feature of Indiana, especially the southern part of the state. I perceived a bit of a Southern flavor as well, given that it’s south of the I-70, and within about an hour of Louisville, Kentucky, and two hours of Cincinnati, Ohio. And it was difficult to find a cup of coffee downtown.

I dropped by in mid-summer 2012, complete with oppressive heat and humidity, and crunchy brown lawns. The best of the buildings are the churches, I visited the three ‘historic’ ones, by Saarinen senior, Saarinen junior, and Harry Weese. Each of them is in a different style, and rendered even more amazing by the more recent McHouses nearby, typical of American suburbia. The Saarinens couldn’t be more different in style, and Weese puts a human scale to Brutalist architecture, and is a very underrated architect. Weese loves concrete and brick, and he did wonders with the First Baptist Church (1965), just as he did with his more recognized works in the DC Metro and Chicago. The outside is reductionist, almost windowless, with the clear elements of a church. The interior is a surprisingly warm space, with wood ceilings, and still plenty of natural light filtering into the sanctuaries. Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church (1942) is very large, occupying an entire city block, a sprawling complex with his signature brickwork and Craftsman-like woodwork. The building must have caused a stir when it opened, as it was unlike anything in the town at the time, and still dominates the area as the tallest structure downtown. Saarinen junior’s North Christian Church (1964) soars tall, with a 200 foot spire topping an asymmetric floor plan. The interior is subdued, with this filtered oculus that didn’t quite work the way it was intended, but still hovers high above the space in a thrilling way.

First Christian Church (1942)

Door detail, First Christian Church

North Christian Church (1964)

Oculus, North Christian Church

Downtown has stuff that one would never imagine today, for example the post office (Kevin Roche, 1970). This is no ordinary post office, it’s a rugged, brawny structure reminiscent of the Daley Center in Chicago. The main newspaper office (The Republic) is a clean, glassy block. Eero Saarinen’s 1954 bank building (Irwin Union Bank and Trust) is accompanied by the skylit addition (Kevin Roche, 1973) that could have been mistaken for 2003. The Saarinen building was probably the most distinguished bank structure since Louis Sullivan’s banks. And there’s a whole lot more, including buildings by Pei, Pelli, Stern, Meier, Venturi, Birkerts, distinguished public art, and all sorts of creative designs for schools, bridges, fire houses, and other civic structures. There’s also Saarinen’s Miller House, which is hidden away (but I think I’ve figured out where it is) and is open for tours, though they were sold out the day I visited.

Irwin Union Bank and Trust, with the 1973 extension on the left, and the original in the background

First Baptist Church (1965)

Interior, First Baptist Church

Still, given all the wonderful buildings in town, it’s hard to say how much this enhances the daily lives of its residents and workers.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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Getty and Ryerson Tombs, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago

These are two tombs designed in very different styles by Louis Sullivan at the turn of the 1890s, located about 500 feet apart in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.

The Ryerson Tomb (1889) borrows from ancient Egypt, and unlike Sullivan’s buildings, is a polished dark gray granite structure that portrays a sense of timelessness, by reflecting its surroundings. Sullivan’s famed decoration is minimal here, limited to the entryway, and even that is quite restrained. It’s pure Sullivan, however, and while the structure itself is Egyptian-inspired, the decoration isn’t. It’s probably best appreciated towards sunset, when the sun reflects off of the main entrance and the granite mirrors the immediate surroundings.

Ryerson Tomb, detail

Ryerson Tomb at sunset

The Getty Tomb (1890) couldn’t be more different, it’s made of intricately carved sandstone, with bronze doors that have acquired a rich turquoise patina over the years, and is one of Sullivan’s greatest decorative efforts. Less visible is the main door to the tomb, which is a bit difficult to photograph, but is extraordinarily richly decorated. The structure also marks the beginning of Sullivan’s mature decoration, his previous structures being relatively restrained (maybe also because they were generally lower budget residential and small commercial commissions). The structure is contemporary with the Auditorium Building and other large Adler and Sullivan commissions, like the Stock Exchange, Wainwright, and Schiller buildings. The Getty Tomb is freed from the constraints of commercial and residential design, and it was remarked that Sullivan planned the work in full-scale drawings. Even the perennially picky Frank Lloyd Wright was particularly fond of this structure: ” Fine sculpture. . . A great poem. . . Outside of the realm of music what finer requiem.

Getty Tomb, front elevation

Getty Tomb, side elevation

Front gates, detail, note decoration on the main door behind

State highpoint fever

It’s been great to be on the road again, and I drove around the zone between the American West and the Midwest. I did a bit of hiking in the process, visiting three state highpoints on the way. Nothing death-defying or dangerous, but fun places for the curious. Here we go, first stop, South Dakota.

September 25, Harney Peak: It’s in the Black Hills, and is advertised as the highest mountain between the Rockies and the Alps, topping out at 7242 feet (2207 m). A bunch of trails lead to the top from all directions, although I hiked it from the heavily-traveled trail from Sylvan Lake. It’s accessed by a very fun drive on the super-twisty Needles Highway, and most of the climbing is done in the car. As far as highpoints go, this is a relatively easy one, not too long, not too steep, well-maintained, and leads to a nicely constructed fire lookout completed in 1939 by the CCC. Geologically, the Black Hills are full of these rock pinnacles and phallic needles sticking out of dark evergreen forests, interspersed with grasslands and hidden valleys.

Harney Peak and the fire lookout

Summit view

September 26, White Butte: This is North Dakota’s highpoint at 3506 ft (1069 m), and lies on private property, so you need to call ahead, and deposit some $$$ in the mailbox at the parking lot. Getting there takes time, this is North Dakota after all, which is kind of out of the way from anywhere, and is sparsely populated. It’s about 10 miles driving from the tiny one-blink town of Amidon (population 20), down a series of gravel roads. Finally, there’s a mailbox with an arrow marking the way (down the road, and then up the hill), and it’s a straightforward, easy trail, 2 miles or so one-way, with a sampling of the diverse landscape of this part of the state. Yes, the state is not just wheat fields, buffalo, and oil. The main hazard on this trail is yes, rattlesnakes, including a fellow who would not be disturbed from his suntan.

Unhappy rattlesnake, interrupted his suntan

View from White Butte, with fall colors

Abandoned house

October 2, Mt. Elbert: It’s a hill, albeit a big rounded one at high elevation, sitting with a bunch of similar hills in the Sawatch Range. The Sawatch forms a 14000 foot barrier to the west of the Arkansas River Valley between Leadville and Salida, Colorado. There are two main trails to the top, none of them easy. After all, the top of the mountain is at 14440 feet (4401 m), and the northeast trailhead is at 10040 feet, climbing to the summit in 4.5 miles. The first part is actually relatively flat, and after turning right at the sign, the real climbing begins. It’s a trail all the way to the top, but the combination of altitude and several false summits turns it into an epic hike / flogging. I’ve had better views, it’s more or less a pile of rocks, but then again, how often can you get to this elevation? I don’t really have the desire to do it again, though. As for the day I hiked it, there was snow on the trail, it was icy in places, but the top itself was snow-free and relatively warm (around 8-10 C).

That’s NOT the summit of Mt. Elbert.

Ptarmigans, brilliantly camouflaged and getting their winter colors

Going down was worse, the snow really slowed the descent, requiring a few detours, and it was murder on the knees. A better way to get up and down is by mountain bike, as a German fellow I met at the top was doing.

NOT a recommended way of hiking a mountain.

Summit of Elbert, finally!

And all those mountains to the northwest, can anyone identify any of them?