Evans Woolen leads a 'Clowes Conversation' 

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Evans Woollen III, characteristically debonair with his signature bowtie and as ever a feisty raconteur, regaled a capacity 'Clowes Conversation' audience Jan. 30 with the story of how a relatively unknown, untested upstart architect landed a plum commission - the design of Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus. Pluck and luck figured into the mix.

Woolen unfolded the 50-year-old story with obvious relish. The audience leaned forward to catch every nuance. "After I came back [to Indianapolis] in 1955 to open my practice, I designed homes," he said. "In 1959, Allen Clowes told me, 'We're going to build a concert hall. Would you like to interview?' I said, "Yes, I would."

Woollen started out by tracing the trajectory of his fortuitous relationship building during his Yale years as a student, during which time he studied with legendary figures - who had, in turn, been mentored by other, sometimes more famous, legends.

Woolen studied with Louis Kahn, renowned for his integration of architecture and city planning and whose teachings Woollen embraced as one cornerstone of his career. (Kahn's mentor was Paul Cret, designer of the internationally lauded 1917 Indianapolis Central Library). He also studied John Johansen, whose embrace of modernism inspired Woolen's work. (Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius mentored Johansen.)

"After the conversation with Allen [Clowes], I realized I needed a partner," Woolen continued. "I got in touch with John Johansen. 'Would you like to join me?' He said, 'Yes, I would.' He was excited about coming to Indianapolis." (His parents had already left their mark on the state: The Indianapolis Museum of Art owns a portrait by John Christen Johansen; Columbus, Ind., has a John Johansen-designed school building.)

But Woollen and Johansen were up against the world-famous Eero Saarinen, who was first to be interviewed. "He was in a hurry," Woolens said. "It was reported he kept looking at his watch. He had a plane to catch. This annoyed Mrs. Clowes."

When Woolen got the commission, he continued to call on his east coast friendships to build a design team that included acoustics master Robert Newman, lighting designer Jean Rosenthal and seating specialist Ben Schlanger. But it wasn't all smooth sailing.

Woollen had to jump through several hoops, including having to compromise on the site. He wanted space around the building to set it apart, even though it was designed to echo existing structures and to "fit in" with the new library also under construction. Some people were irate about the no-center aisle seating and unpainted interior. A gold coat luckily was averted.

Woollen could have filled the allotted hour and more but he had to defer time to fellow presenters, architectural historian Mary Ellen Gadski, and architects Drew White and Tony Costello, who deftly served as moderator. Experience the filmed Conversation in its entirety at cloweshall.org. And visit Clowes to view the exhibit, Evans Woollen: The Art of Architecture, up until Feb. 15.

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

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Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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