Nancy Ann Brown remembers one striking element of Columbus City Hall when she moved in as mayor when the structure opened in 1981.

“That front window had a grand view of the Bartholomew County Courthouse, and that happens to be where I started in politics,” she said.

Architect Charles Bassett intended partly to provide a panoramic picture of downtown Columbus, according to Brown and others. The building he designed with Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill will be the focus of a new exhibit, “Columbus City Hall: Center For Civic Inspiration,” opening Friday at IU Center for Art + Design, Third and Jackson streets in downtown Columbus.

The display will provide a picture, via renderings and other resources, of what the now-late Bassett intended for the building.

Story continues below gallery

Brown and Bartholomew counties historian and Republic columnist Harry McCawley will have a conversation at 5 p.m. Friday at City Hall as an opener to the exhibit. Three other programs will follow in the coming weeks.

Brown recalled people being concerned about the structure’s triangular shape.

“Some people thought there might be a lot of empty, wasted space,” Brown said.

Just empty concerns, the future would prove, she said.

Tricia Gilson, archivist and curator for the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, pointed out that the front-window glass, besides offering a sweeping view, also was meant to reflect the courthouse.

“I believe that was a powerful design decision,” Gilson said.

Some quotes from Bassett, who died in 1999, will be a part of the exhibit. That will include his focus on the building’s openness, including many of the meeting-room doors and other design elements, being symbolic of an open democratic process.

Overall, Gilson views the exhibit as one aimed at both the local newcomer and the longtime resident.

“For those who don’t know the building at all, this will be a good introduction,” Gilson said.

That includes background on the public art purchased for the building after a Hardhat Ball at the building in 1981 raised $100,000. Those funds were teamed with a National Endowment for the Arts grant and one from the Indiana Arts Commission.

Today, the structure still holds a Robert Indiana “C” painting, William T. Wiley’s “History-Mystery” mural, and Balthazar Korab and J. Bruce Baumann photos. Also, Amish quilts from Goshen still hang in a conference room and also in the Cal Brand meeting room.

Gilson acknowledged that longtime residents in any city sometimes can begin to overlook structures or landscapes they see daily.

“I think they can become invisible,” Gilson said. “And that can be one reason to do an exhibit like this — to pull those things back out and back into people’s consciousness.”

We built this city (hall)

What: Exhibit of, “Columbus City Hall: Center For Civic Inspiration,” highlighting the 1981 structure’s history, design, symbolism and other elements.

When: Through June 27. Opening reception at City Hall, 123 Washington St. in Columbus, featuring a conversation between Bartholomew County Historian and Republic columnist Harry McCawley and former Columbus Mayor Nancy Ann Brown, whose administration was the first to work in the building.

Other related programs:

  • 6 p.m. May 14 at City Hall with ex-Columbus leader Carolyn Lickerman about working with architect Charles Bassett and leading the art selection committee.
  • 6 p.m. June 11 at City Hall with Brian Lee, design partner with Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill that designed the structure.
  • A City Hall model-building project for Bartholomew County youth. Information: bit.ly/1EGHVxf

Where: Exhibit is at IU Center for Art + Design, Third and Jackson streets in downtown Columbus.

Admission: Free.

Information: 812-375-7580.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.