Source: The Wall Street Journal
Rediscovering plans for a nearly unknown, never-realized Ludwig Mies van der Rohe building seems improbable. “It’s like finding a Rembrandt in a desk drawer,” says one of the architect’s biographers, Edward Windhorst.
Mies, the late architect behind modernist structures like New York’s Seagram Building and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, is among the most studied and revered designers of all time. Yet it’s only now that a never-built Mies design from 1952 that was intended as a fraternity house on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus has finally been completed.
“I had never heard of the project,” says Mies’s grandson and former associate, Dirk Lohan, a Chicago-based architect, now 83. “And I thought I knew everything.” Architect Thomas Phifer worked with the university on what is now called the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design Mies van der Rohe Building. “The building has this heroic nature,” Phifer says of the glass-walled two-story structure.
Sidney Eskenazi, a member of the Alpha Theta chapter of Pi Lambda Phi—the fraternity that originally commissioned the building and then ran out of money to build it—and his wife, Lois Eskenazi, who also graduated from Indiana University, donated $20 million to the institution, of which some $10 million went to completing the Mies design. It was all nudged along by the former president of the university, Michael McRobbie, who was a stalwart supporter of the project until his retirement this June.
Eskenazi recalls the genesis of the project in the ’50s. The fraternity house was falling apart, he says. “You could hear the rats running in the walls.”
Though some of the details are lost to history, two Indianapolis businessmen, Joseph Cantor and Harry Berke, had hired Mies to design a drive-in restaurant that was never built. They were connected to the university and the fraternity, and they suggested the architect take on the new Pi Lambda Phi house project.
Eskenazi remembers one of the alumni advisers announcing to the fraternity brothers, “I’ve retained Mies van der Rohe to build a [fraternity] house.” Eskenazi had never heard of him. “I was a kid,” he says, adding, “Who knew from architects?”
In the early phases of the design, according to university research, Mies himself was personally involved, visiting Bloomington in September 1950. Later, he asked his staff to share images of the Farnsworth House and his apartment building masterpieces on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, all three completed in 1951, as aesthetic reference points.
But the fraternity couldn’t afford the project. By 1953, Mies was addressing the impasse in a letter. “We have made an earnest effort to find a solution to the fraternity problem,” he wrote. “We are willing to work at a cost basis. That is $5.00 per hour. I will not bill you for my personal work.”
Despite what sounds now like a sweetheart deal, the project petered out by 1957, and a set of the drawings was passed from “one fraternity president to another,” says Eskenazi. In 2013, Eskenazi, who had made a fortune in real estate with his company, Sandor Development, and was already a patron of the university, mentioned the story of the fraternity house while chatting with McRobbie.
“I saw his ears perk up,” Eskenazi says. “ ‘Who do you say designed this house?’ ” McRobbie was smitten with the idea and quickly started to pursue it, but not only for the prestige of having a building by a famous architect on his campus. For him it was part of beefing up the university’s design credentials.
“It had long been believed that one of the disciplines missing from the university was architecture,” says McRobbie, who worked to shore that up with the 2018 establishment of the university’s J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program (making it one of the Eskenazi School’s three master’s degree offerings; there are also six undergraduate programs).
Some sleuthing was required to find a set of the original blueprints, including contacting the Mies archive at the Museum of Modern Art. A former fraternity member had donated them to MoMA in 1996, well after many of the Mies studies and biographies had been written. Helpful supplemental material was found in the archives of the architect’s associate Daniel Brenner at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Lohan and Mies’s three other grandchildren, who hold the copyrights to Mies’s work, had to grant permission for the Eskenazi School building. Lohan authenticated the design after reviewing plans and research. (Lohan studied with his grandfather at the Illinois Institute of Technology—where Mies taught, designed a master plan for the campus and built 20 structures; he then worked in Mies’s office for years.)
The two-story, 10,000-square-foot building is an elegant horizontal pavilion on white-painted steel beams, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls on the second level and terrazzo floors throughout. The structure is strikingly similar to another Mies masterpiece.
“It’s like the Farnsworth House on steroids,” says Lohan, referring to the Mies–designed home outside of Chicago, created for Dr. Edith Farnsworth in 1951. This was in “the glory period of Mies in America,” says Windhorst, referring to the years 1946 to 1953. The Eskenazi School building is about seven times the size of the home, regarded as a midcentury-design high point. The minimalist chic and transparent walls of the Farnsworth House make the idea of a frat-house version of the building hard to imagine.
With the approval of Lohan, the university chose Phifer—whose firm Thomas Phifer and Partners is known for his work on ethereal cultural projects like the Glenstone Museum, in Potomac, Maryland—to make it happen. McRobbie was already working with Phifer on another building on campus, an international center now under construction. “He has a deep understanding of Miesian principles, and the right sensibility,” says McRobbie.
Phifer says their quest was to preserve the great architect’s unique vocabulary and spirit, while also updating the building as quietly as possible. The simplicity of a Mies building is both its greatest strength and its greatest challenge. As Phifer says, “Every detail matters, because there aren’t that many details.”
“There is no hiding anything with drywall, there’s no covering it with siding. This is the building, the steel and glass,” says Adam Thies, the associate vice president for capital planning at Indiana University and one of the shepherds of the project. “We couldn’t be off by more than an eighth of an inch.”
Maintaining the original proportions of the steel beams was “a huge challenge,” says Phifer, given the need for space for modern mechanicals like ducts; the original building relied on radiant heat and natural ventilation. The first floor is mostly limestone-clad lobby space, as in the original scheme, and it is decorated with four of Mies’s Barcelona chairs and his Barcelona table. But Phifer had to reconfigure part of the floor to make room for an elevator, a set of fire stairs and a mechanicals room. The second floor, once intended to house the common room and bedrooms of the fraternity, became a classroom and offices.
Like the other masterworks by Mies from this period, the building succeeds or fails based on the delicacy of the window walls, separated by thin mullions. Originally, they were single panes of glass, but Phifer made them double-paned; the small air space between them provides insulation.
“In fact, the window frames help hold up the building,” says Phifer, a classic example of modernism’s melding of form and function. “The whole building works as one. He didn’t build a structure and then fill in the windows.”
Solving the mystery of the once-lost design meant channeling the master architect’s spirit, says Phifer. “In a way, we were searching for Mies here.”