News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 7, 2012

FLASHPOINT: No mistake about Statesman Towers


---- — Invoking his first impression as a “really, really, ugly” epitaph for the Statesman Towers, I was surprised to hear Dan Bradley, delivering his fall address to ISU, utilize aesthetics to condemn the structures, or spin his personal critique amongst more objective factors. A more fitting eulogy would be that the modern style towers are no longer in an optimum location for housing, which is their highest and best use.

Terre Haute has known that the two towers would be razed since December 2001 when the college Board of Trustees approved its recommendation. Factors beyond aesthetics included floor plates uniquely tailored to housing — too small to be efficiently adapted to office floors or other academic use. Designed in 1966 when energy costs were not yet important to clients, energy upgrades could be accomplished, but the original use and height of the structures apparently no longer fits new campus planning directions.

History will remember The Statesman Towers as the brainchild of ISU’s most productive and award-winning campus planning team, Alan Rankin and Ewing Miller. Make no mistake, the combined vision of this former ISU president and nationally acclaimed architect, as a team, crowned ISU planning and campus architecture during ISU’s most expansive building era, with at least a dozen of their projects still standing proud.

Architecture, just like art and sculpture, is often designed to break tradition and demand comment. ISU’s dorm tower projects are among our best Midwestern examples of a controversial national “architectonic” movement in architecture called “Brutalism”, a style of brutally expressive modernism. Expressing the innovative slip-core concrete structure and the plasticity of the pre-cast skin, the Statesman Towers won awards for innovation and design concept.

The Statesman Towers, originally designed as male dorms, have facades with bolder masculine modeling, while the Sycamore Towers, first designed for just women, sport a more feminine architectonic pre-cast skin — in the words of its designers “with softer and more flowing plasticity.” The Cunningham Library, of the same period, is also outstanding for its horizontal one-story architectonic design and adaptive “form follows function” layout. The epitome of a pragmatic approach to planning and design.   

Together, this group of buildings served ISU’s wishes and specific client needs. The Board of Trustees wanted buildings that would bring attention to the Wabash Valley and ISU specifically opted for high-rise structures. ISU and our community were thrilled with the resulting visual impact and statement of prominence. In the words of Ewing H. Miller II, AIA, the architecture was: “handsomely expressive of an era … with a spirit to it that transcends the sort of mundane box with a series of holes.”

Inside the box, this same design team won awards for listening to what both administrators and students wanted. Furnishings were loose and students could finally arrange their own rooms. From programming to move-in the project took three years and just before opening, the housing was allowed to be co-ed.

For some curious reason ISU’s new president felt that the demolition of the Statesman Towers should be included in his 2012 annual address. It is not new news, important news, or newsworthy of a feature editorial. I suspect that Dan was not just exploring how to elicit applause with the simple intonation of his voice, but he was also testing the word “demolish” in front of a large public gathering — posturing for the role that he may ultimately be remembered: demolishing five historic buildings on the 500 Block of Wabash. Sadly, other sites exist which would not demolish outstanding National Register facades.

Historic buildings on Wabash, The National Road, do not deserve demolition, regardless of anyone’s first impressions or any current collegiate needs. They were built to last, in an era when architecture and art were truly synonymous. Unlike the Statesman Towers, the historic buildings on Wabash have not outlived their original purpose or location. Instead, they are highly adaptable to new energy retrofit and will be highly desirable if outfitted as unique storefront retail with upper floor lofts.  

Downtown’s classic architecture, its authentic streetscape fabric from The Gilded Age, is what always has, and still can physically and subconsciously distinguish our city’s prominence and regional stature to both visitors and stakeholders. The obvious revitalization potential of the 500 Block should easily trump any total redevelopment notions, and future ISU presidents would never have to speak in public about regrets.

— Ben Orman AIA

Terre Haute