In the early 1950s, the design of the Irwin Union Bank building at Washington and Fifth streets was nothing short of revolutionary.
The Eero Saarinen project, a one-story structure with glass walls, clashed with the prevailing attitude that banks needed imposing brick walls and iron bars in front of teller windows to project power and security.
The late J.I. Miller, president of Irwin Union at the time, was looking for something dramatically different.
“We wanted to change — insofar as architecture could change it — people’s concept of banking, which we thought was on the whole unfavorable,” Miller said, according to the National Historic Landmark nomination.
The building was named a Landmark in 2000 because of its “highly innovative design (and because it) was possibly the first financial institution in the United States with glass walls and an open plan, ... and influencing the future of bank design.”
Saarinen and Miller wanted an open layout that invited and welcomed customers, said Alex White, director of architecture and workplace planning at Cummins Inc., which acquired the property in 2010.
Miller also wanted a floor on which farmers would not feel uncomfortable if they trudged on it with muddy boots, White said.
Along with landscape architecture from Dan Kiley, especially the portion west of the bank building, the property was conceived as an “urban park,” White said.
Cummins will retain and even enhance that concept as it revamps the building for its purposes. One recent morning, work crews were moving some of the original furniture out of the bank building and into the atrium, added in 1973 by the company of Saarinen disciple Kevin Roche. The high-pitched whining of saws echoed through the building as Smith, in a hard hat, pointed out some of the structure’s architecturally significant features.
The building has 12 bays of floor-to-ceiling windows on each side and a wide roof overhang. The flatness of its roof is interrupted by nine shallow domes, which, according to the Landmark nomination, “add exterior sculptural form, or mass, to the otherwise minimalist, thin roof plane.”
On the interior, the domes carve round, concave openings in the ceiling. Beneath the center of each dome, stainless steel bowls, suspended by cables, shine the light upward so that it is reflected by the curvature of the domes. When illuminated, the domes appear to be awash in soft light and resemble inverted pools of light, giving the building an ethereal quality.
The building’s wide-open interior is another hallmark of modernism, White said. Even the free-standing offices in the main bank building appear as a “sculpted element” because their wired glass ceiling is below the domed ceiling, giving visitors a view of the whole space.
Cummins has christened the structure the Irwin Office Building, or IOB.
“Our intent is to preserve as much of the original architecture as possible,” White said.
The whole property will house the Cummins Emission Solutions business, although the bank building will have no permanent occupants.
White said the former bank will have classic furniture pieces, some designed by Saarinen, and will be used for informal meetings, as a work cafe and for special occasions during which guests will be able to walk through an additional entrance on the west side directly into the Dan Kiley-designed park.
In the former bank’s basement, the seven-foot diameter circular vault door stood ajar and unattended as if it had just been cleared by a daring heist. Nearby, workers swept the floor around blocks of stone. Others stood on ladders to replace light fixtures. Here and there, crews collected piles of wire.
White said Cummins will have a reception area for the Emission Solutions group in the atrium, though it poses some acoustic challenges. As if to illustrate his point, two workers pushed a piece of furniture through the atrium, the rumbling reverberating off the floor, ceiling and walls.
On the ground floor of the building north of the former bank, Cummins employees already typed on laptops and talked via headsets.
As in its Corporate Office Building next door and in its offices adjacent to the Commons, Cummins has implemented in its latest property the Collaborative Workplace concept.
Dominated by clean, bright and open spaces, the spaces have lockers but no assigned desks. Because of improved mobility through laptops and cellphones, employees can sit at any unoccupied desk and use any vacant meeting area. Lockers are assigned and can be personalized. Some feature photos of smiling children. Others are adorned with plush dogs and the occasional GI Joe action figure.
Changing work space
The open office concept is addressing the way work has changed, White said.
People are getting work done in a variety of places, he said, so the company is designing a variety of places for them to get their work done.
The company is striving for balance, providing enough traditional offices and meeting areas as needed, but it wants to move away from a one-type-fits-all work space.
The building’s basement, down a hall stacked with folding chairs and tables, houses another Collaborative Workspace pilot, its bright, white interior contrasting starkly from the colorful art that adorns the walls. White said the art is part of the property’s original collection, including Eastern European textiles collected by Alexander Girard.
White said Girard appreciated the juxtaposition of traditional and native art with the modern, as is reflected by the pillows of the conversation pit in the Miller Home, another Landmark on which Saarinen and Girard combined their efforts.
White said Cummins has more than 50 pieces of art in storage and is working with the Indianapolis Museum of Art to conserve and curate the collection.
White said the Collaborative Workspace has resulted in higher utilization of space. The former Irwin Union property used to house about 300 people. Cummins will be able to accommodate about 525 employees.
That higher occupancy also is reducing Cummins’ expenses: In January, Cummins will begin moving another 700 employees into the new portion of the Commons office building, which the company is leasing. White said that the Collaborative Workspace there is saving the company about $2 million per year.
Irwin Office Building
What: Cummins Inc. Irwin Office Building, formerly the Irwin Union Bank building.
Architect: Eero Saarinen.
Built: 1954. (Addition by Roche, Dinkeloo & Associates from 1973).
Owned by: Cummins Inc., which bought the property in 2010 from First Financial Bancorp, which had acquired it after Irwin Union Bank failed in 2007.
Current use: Office space for Cummins Emission Solutions. Parts remain under construction. At full capacity will house 525 employees.
Value: The bank, at 500 Washington St., and nearby properties are assessed at nearly $3 million.
The Irwin Union Bank, now owned by Cummins, boasts a storied history.
- Was one of Columbus’ seven National Historic Landmarks, in part because it was possibly the first financial institution in the U.S. with glass walls and an open plan, and because it influenced the future of bank design.
- The bank was Saarinen’s first building in Columbus. He would build two more: the Miller House and North Christian Church, both also National Historic Landmarks. His father, Eliel, had designed First Christian Church a decade earlier.