This past October, the Tarkington Park Tennis Shelter was torn down by IndyParks to make way for a modern toilet facility. The shelter wasn't just an outmoded latrine, though the city treated it as such; it had been designed by one of Indianapolis’ great architects, Edward Pierre, who worked from the 1920s through the 1960s.
This destruction might have been prevented if IndyParks had known more about the building’s architectural importance, according to Carol A. Street, the archivist for Architectural Records for Ball State University Libraries. An exhibit of Pierre’s diagrams and designs, “Civic Pride Begins in your Backyard,” open at the Blackline Studio for Architecture through March 2, can be seen as a riposte of sorts to the city, which has historically been all too inclined to ignore its architectural history.
“The Tennis Shelter was a little modernist jewel box,” says Street. “It was a sympathetic building to its environment and it matched all the architecture surrounding it.”
Also objecting to the shelter’s destruction was Vess Ruhtenberg, rock musician and architecture aficionado. His prompt action during that time made the shelter demolition an issue in last fall’s mayoral race.
“When they took down that tennis shelter, I called The Recorder and The Indianapolis Star and all the TV stations, and I just waited at the corner waiting for people to show up to interview me,” says Ruhtenberg, who was on hand at the exhibit’s Friday night opening. “By the next day, I was with Melina Kennedy, basically doing a press conference on the site. I ended up opposing our own mayor, who insisted there’s no such thing as a historic toilet.”
Ruhtenberg — whose grandfather Jan Ruhtenberg was an active modernist architect — lives in a small Westside house that was designed by Pierre.
“It’s a small house, but it’s built like a great mansion or a fortress built to last a hundred years,” he says. “The house was built in 1946, in a neighborhood filled with post-World War II houses. It’s the oldest house in the neighborhood but it looks like the newest.”
In addition to photographs and diagrams of Ruhtenberg’s house and the Tarkington Park Tennis Shelter, other examples of Pierre’s designs on display at the Blackline include an Art Deco-style fire station on Washington Street. But the generous selection included in the exhibit represents only a fraction of Ball State's Pierre & Wright Architectural Records, a collection of drawings, photographs, 3-D models and ephemera from architectural firms run by Pierre and his long-time business partner, George Caleb Wright.
While Pierre incorporated Art Deco and mid-century modern motifs into his work, his work wasn’t defined by either of these styles, according to Craig McCormick, a partner in the Blackline firm.
“He also created historical houses in the Meridian Kessler neighborhood, so he was kind of a chameleon,” says McCormick. “I think it’s also important to stress how engaged he was in the local community. He’s the one who came up with the idea to decorate Monument Circle during Christmas. You see a lot of grand mansions that he designed, but he also was very concerned with creating housing that the average person could afford.”
The exhibition can be viewed through March 2. All photos courtesy of Pierre & Wright Architectural Records, Drawings + Documents Archive, Archives and Special Collections, Ball State University Libraries.