THERE are some among us who take architecture too seriously.
I’m not talking about any local architects. They’d better take architecture seriously.
No, I’m referring to that band of community cheerleaders who see our built environment through rose-tinted spectacles.
For them, our town, with structures designed by Pei, Weese, Pelli, Saarinen and the like, is some kind of Eden and all who live here frolic about in a euphoric state simply because they exist among beautiful buildings.
In the opposite direction is a group of people who consider any design other than a four-sided structure with a sloping roof part of a pinko plot to subvert our culture. Needless to say, this group doesn’t like many of the buildings on the Visitors Center’s architecture tour.
Although both groups live among us, we tend to take them for granted and sometimes forget they’re here.
I was reminded of their existence last week when a writer from New York visited Columbus to do research for an article that will appear in a book about the city’s architecture. He was taken by Visitors Center staffers on a tour to a number of high points in local architecture, one of which was Smith Elementary School.
In providing the background for Smith, veteran tour guide Jan Forbes mentioned the controversy about the building’s design that erupted shortly after it was opened in the late 1960s.
A lot of local residents had expressed their opinions in letters to the editor. They were pretty brutal, due in no small part to the fact that the newspaper at that time allowed letter writers to use pseudonyms.
But there was one letter that seemed to turn the tide of community opinion. It was from a student at Smith Elementary School.
The New York writer asked if there was a copy of the letter on file, but no one recalled when such a note might have appeared in the newspaper. Calls were made to various sources around town, but there was little to go on. Finding it would involve an arduous search through microfilm copies of the paper day by day.
Fortunately, Rhonda Bolner, president of the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, tackled the task and found the letter.
To best appreciate the letter, it’s important to put it in the context of the times. When Smith was opened in 1969, it was regarded as one of the early elements in the architectural program.
Although the architectural fees for public buildings like Smith were paid by the Cummins Foundation, many naysayers argued that the unique designs increased construction costs. Others simply didn’t like the looks of anything they didn’t grow up with.
School spending in those days was really targeted, and the building boom led to the creation of a group called the Bartholomew County Taxpayers Association. Think in terms of such latter-day movements as Back to Basics and Just Say No to The Commons.
The taxpayers group didn’t want to spend tax money on anything, and fancy new school buildings had to be the work of the devil in some of their minds. Some followers expressed their opinions about Smith in letters to the editor.
“Disgusted” wrote in early September 1969:
“I have never in my life seen such a horrible, ridiculous looking ‘thing.’ It looks perfect for a meat packing company; the chutes are ideal for hogs and cows. ... The architect must have had a horrible nightmare before drawing up the design, and our school board must have been asleep to have gone along with it.”
Just to show that he/she was an equal opportunity complainer, “Disgusted” added, “Also the new Southside School isn’t anything to be proud of.”
The wonderful thing about our Letters to the Editor is that they’re open to all comers (with some exceptions). Sure enough, “Disgusted” got a response from “J.A. Intermediate,” a student at Smith.
The letter appears above this column in its original printed form.
Both letters speak to attitudes that have existed in this community for decades. I suspect there were probably a few complaints about Bartholomew County Courthouse when it opened in 1874.
I haven’t heard many complaints about Smith Elementary School in recent years. I imagine everybody has gotten used to it, like so many other buildings that were built around that time.
But the exchange about Smith in 1969 might serve as an object lesson that those who take our architecture too seriously shouldn’t and those who complain about it might want to ease up a little bit.
As for me, well, I wonder whether “Disgusted” and “J.A. Intermediate” think the same way they did in 1969 or if time might have changed their minds.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.