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Column: Original design hints at what could have been

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One of my favorite ads running on television these days features an architect from ancient Egypt and his assistant standing in front of the newly constructed pyramids while looking over a set of building plans.

The architect wears a pained expression as the camera focuses on the papers the two are studying. The original plans show buildings shaped in the form of squares.

I came to a greater appreciation of that ad when Rhonda Bolner of the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives shared a story about a recent discovery she made while studying the design process for Schmitt Elementary School on 27th Street.

Schmitt is one of the icons of Columbus architecture. Designed in the 1950s by famed Chicago architect Harry Weese, its distinctive array of classrooms topped by individual peaked roofs sets it apart from traditional schoolhouses of the period.

That’s the way it looks today. Weese actually had something quite different in mind when he exhibited his “final” plans to the Columbus Community School Board in April 1956.

The main difference was in the roof line. Instead of peaked roofs, Weese had covered the classrooms with a series of curved ones dominated by a huge dome at the center of the structure. The dome was to be for a large multipurpose room.

Obviously Schmitt would have looked a lot different had those plans gone through. But five weeks later on May 21, 1956, Weese had a different set of designs that he unveiled to the public at a meeting of the Columbus Rotary Club. In the later concept the dome over the multipurpose room had become pyramid-shaped, an appearance that was echoed in the classroom roofs.

In Columbus such changes have often come about through public reaction. A lot of architects retreated to the drawing boards after being told by local folks that their plans were “just not Columbus.”

There is no record that anyone in Columbus told Weese that his dome and curved roofs were not acceptable. He did, however, receive a warning from an engineer who told him that the acoustics developed under a domed roof would be awful.

Obviously, he listened to the engineer; and in looking at the plan for the curved roof and domed multipurpose room, I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t many people in the city who are unhappy with his decision.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that original designs often are changed, sometimes after the building is completed.

One of the most noteworthy changes concerned the granddaddy of Columbus’ contemporary architecture — First Christian Church. When it was opened in 1942, the building was mirrored in a large reflecting pool alongside it. The pool was short-lived when it became a magnet for mosquitoes and some cautious folks voiced concerns about small children falling in and drowning.

When I.M. Pei put forth his original concept for Bartholomew County Public Library, he envisioned a sculpture of some kind becoming a centerpiece of the plaza in front of the building. At the time, the notion of Henry Moore’s “Large Arch” had not come forth. Instead, Pei placed a statue of a man on horseback in the initial design.

The concept for The Commons began originally as an enclosed shopping center, which in the late 1960s and early ’70s was a pretty radical idea for Columbus of and by itself. As the process picked up steam, architect Cesar Pelli convinced the building’s patron, J. Irwin Miller, that a Commons area or community gathering place would serve as an additional draw. Miller agreed.

Pelli didn’t stop there. As a centerpiece of the new civic mall, he suggested in a letter to Xenia Miller (J. Irwin Miller’s wife) that what the facility needed was “a very large toy — a fun, friendly super clock machine.” What The Commons got, of course, was Jean Tinguely’s “Chaos,” which I don’t think can be described as a super clock.

Actually Pelli toyed with even more dramatic ideas. In another letter to Xenia Miller he alluded to earlier plans to include an ice skating rink in the civic mall/shopping center. That idea was scaled back, according to Pelli, because “we were not able to isolate a space large enough for this activity.”

Instead he suggested that it might still be possible to create a skating rink during cold weather by flooding an outdoor sunken area in the “Courthouse Plaza” but warned that it would be so small as to be limited to use by only little children. The Commons, of course, never did have a skating rink.

I’d say that people in Columbus are happy with the finished plans of most of our buildings. On the other hand, it’s kind of fun to think about what might have happened had some of those discarded designs actually been incorporated into the final products.

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