Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Modern Architecture, Hoosier Style

Apart from Columbus, Indiana is not known as a hotbed of modern architecture. But good examples of it can show up in surprising places. One of these is New Albany, a city in far southern Indiana across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. Three major civic buildings there were done in a modern style, and are clustered together on Spring St. between 1st and Scribner. Here are some pictures.

First is the city-county building.

I think this is a rather handsome structure. According to a historic marker there, this building was originally the site of an 1822 school building that in 1880 became Scribner High School, an all black school. That building was replaced in 1907, then closed in 1952 when desegregation took effect.

The city-county building was constructed in 1961, and according to a plaque there was the first building in the state constructed under Indiana’s building authority act. I’m not familiar with this act, but the Indianapolis city-county building dates from about the same era, so perhaps it had something to do with facilitating joint city-county courthouse replacement projects.

Here is a frontal shot of the entrance.

I love those seals at the top. Here are some closeups.

Very nice design, indeed.

There were two previous county courthouses in New Albany. The original was built in 1824. This was replaced in 1865. The 1865 court house was razed (similarly to the Marion County Courthouse) when the new city-county building was built. I’m not sure where that was located, but one map I saw had the court house labeled at State and Market, though this might have been the original 1824 ones. Old timers could certainly tell us for sure.

You may have noticed the Corinthian columns flanking the new structure. I presume these were rescued from the old court house. The plaque there says “erected in 1967”, which I presume refers to the column installation. Here’s a closer look.

Here is a rendering I found of one of the old court houses. I do note that there are four Corinthian columns in front of it, though this drawing makes them look taller than these. You can see the discontinuity in the middle of these new columns, so perhaps they removed a section from the middle when installing them in order to give a more human scale.

Across the street on the north from the city-county building is the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library at 180 W. Spring St.

The library was founded in 1884. It moved into a Carnegie library building at 201 E. Spring St. in 1904. This new library was built in 1969 and the old library building converted into a museum. Here is a picture of that old library, now called the Carnegie Center for Art and History.

You might have noticed the sculpture at the front of the new library. Here’s a closeup of that.

This is not as successful as the city-county building, IMO. It’s a bit too brutalistic for me, but nevertheless is a rather tasteful infill structure as these things go.

Lastly, we’ve got the federal building, which is across 1st St. from the city-county building on the east at 121 W. Spring St. This houses an outpost of the US District Court for Southern Indiana among other things.

I believe this building was completed in 1971 and is now named after long time 9th district congressman Lee Hamilton. Here’s a closer view of the east side of the building.

These three buildings are all in different styles, yet are clearly all an expression of modernism. They work well with each other, and, probably because of their smaller scale, aren’t the urban planning disasters of so many modernist projects. These are understated, solidly executed projects that blend in so well in their setting that it is easy to almost pass them by without realizing you just passed such a collection of buildings.

I did not have time to contact the local historical society to get all of the details. I could not determine the architect of any of the buildings, for example. But should you be interested in things like this, it should be easy enough to find out.

Note that these buildings are only about a block or two from the I-64 interchange serving downtown New Albany, so are easy to check out even if you are just passing through.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Louisville

5 Responses to “Modern Architecture, Hoosier Style”

  1. thundermutt says:

    The Federal Courthouse is very similar to the WISH-TV building at 20th & Meridian in Indianapolis, with the stately tapered white concrete pillars and the contrasting black windows. For me, it's the best of the three "modern" buildings.

    There is a building very similar to that "new" library somewhere in Indianapolis, and in another day I'll remember where it is.

    As modern libraries go, I think it's tough to beat the library in Columbus, which was built in about 1968. It's one of the best "modern" buildings I've ever seen. But none compare with that beautiful Carnegie building…

  2. John M says:

    The federal building design seems to be fairly popular. Star Financial Bank in Columbia City has a similar design (presuming the downtown office is still open). There’s also a downtown bank in Muncie with a similar design. It’s also similar to the ground level portion of One Indiana Square.

    I’m a complete amateur when it comes to architecture, and I’m not a fan of 1950-1970s modern architecture. Even allowing for that, and even compared to the other examples, I find the New Albany City-County Building depressingly ugly. I’ll grant that the seals are a nice touch. Everything else about it–the shape, the materials, the color–is lost on me. To my eye, the sawed off columns add insult to injury.

  3. Lord Peter says:

    I’m not a big fan of modernism, but I do like the city-county building. What’s nice about it is that it – unlike so many modernist buildings – is not too large and it does not overwhelm its site. It is set back and of a small enough scale that you are able to appreciate the modernist details.

    When I was a kid in the ’70s, there were several buildings built like that library – in fact, I believe the original 1969 library in Bloomington (before its upgrade 15 years or so ago) had a very similar look. I always found those buildings to be both inviting (because of the glass) and cozy (because of how the roof sort of embraces and protects the glass). Also – although I can’t tell for sure on this library – there were typically a lot of nice features round the pavement and front entryway, such as sunken stairwells, reading benches, lighting, etc., that also invited you into the space. Unfortunately, concrete does not age well as a building material, and if not sandblasted and otherwise maintained, the buildings can begin to look a little shoddy.

    But I’ve never liked those buildings with tall dark glass behind thin, white, arched pillars. First, the pillar part always strikes me as a purely ornamental afterthought, with no real connection to the building itself. And second, it always seemed like a giant placed a big white cage around what would otherwise be a glass building.

  4. Gary says:

    Passing by these buildings would be the best option for me. I am not a fan with the except of the library.

    I agree with Thundermutt, the one building looks exactly the WISH-TV building in Indy. I always thought that building was ugly too.

  5. Paul says:

    It’s hard to judge many of these modern buildings as iconic or having a specific image. Modernism in architecture in the twentieth century spoke more about experience one might have being an occupant.

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