Circle Centre Mall Quilt Project, Larry Gindhart and Carol Tharp-Perrin

For years, people in Indianapolis watched as the heart of the city’s downtown was methodically demolished so that Circle Centre Mall could rise up in its place. Once the mall was built, most people — even those not inclined to shop at malls — were pleased with the result the city’s downtown had a new, undeniable gleam. The mall’s architecture did not have a monolithic look, projecting instead a surprisingly multifaceted sense of style.

Seen, that is, from street level.

Since the mall was only four stories high it was, for all its horizontal spread, one of the lowest buildings in downtown Indianapolis. This meant that, for most people working at the heart of our city, the dominant view was of a rooftop. A humongous rooftop to be sure, but a rooftop nonetheless. People working in surrounding office buildings, staying in nearby hotels or flying over the city on their way into Indianapolis International Airport looked out upon a kind of perpetual February — a massive stretch of gray.

“It became visually obvious.” says Carol Tharp-Perrin who, with her partner, Larry Gindhart, directed the Circle Centre Mall roof mural project, “that people were going to be looking at a roof.” The question was: Could they turn this eyesore into an asset?

As with a alot of good ideas, no one involved in the project seems to remember exactly who first decided to put a mural on the roof of the Circle Centre Mall. What is clear, though, is that it was a constellation of players the Simon Property Group, the City of Indianapolis and IUPUI’s Herron School of Fine Art chief among them — with a willingness to say yes that succeeded in helping Indianapolis create its largest work of public art.

“If anyone would reflect upon what Circle Centre has done since 1995 when we opened, you would see that the arts has been and continues to be a big part of our program,” asserts David Lee, manager of Circle Centre. “Just as we want to partner with the Convention and Visitors’ Association or partner with the Colts or the Pacers, we also want to partner with the arts.” The mural, according to Lee, promised to be a major addition to the mall’s visual footprint. “If we can accent that with this unique roof mural, then it really says something about Indianapolis and about our support for the arts in general.”

Once the mall’s owners — the Simon Properties Group — the city and Herron determined that art offered the best solution for the mall’s rooftop problem, a competition was held to solicit an effective design.

Beth Line’s concept of transforming the roof into a kind of graphic quilt was simple, ingenious and demonstrative of a Midwestern sense of place. A student of Herron, Line’s design “was excellent,” says Tharp-Perrin, “because it had a certain flexibility which enabled us to make changes as we dealt with problems that came up.”

Administrators at Herron contacted Tharp-Perrin to direct the project- thanks to her extensive experience in creating and coordinating public mural projects.

The Circle Centre Quilt would take the better part of five years to complete. A significant part of the process involved preparation. The roof is the size of five and a half football fields and is exposed 365 days a year to four robustly defined seasons. “It’s like painting a prairie,” says Tharp-Perrin.

Finding the right materials to stand up to the elements plus the accumulation of dirt and grime that go with being in the middle of a busy urban area was crucial. ARchitects from Browning, Day, Mullins, Dierdorf assisted, as did Blackmore and Buckner Roofing and Everyday Paint and Wallpaper. Together they found a triple-layered roofing treatment combining fiber mesh with acrylic sealant and paint.

“It’s beautiful,” claims Tharp-Perrin, “because the beauty and the function are bonded together… If it’s maintained well it has the potential to save the city and the merchants millions of dollars.”

Successive classes of art students from Herron made their way up to the roof to do the actual painting during those periods when it wasn’t too cold or too hot or too wet to be up there. Since winter made painting impossible, there was a window of opportunity every spring, summer, and fall. But heat was also a problem, During summer months, the crew usually started work around 4 p.m. and finished at 9 p.m.

Just months after its completion, the quilt is already figuring in city videos and photo shoots. Office workers and hotel guests no longer gaze out on a blanket of gray. Once the restoration is completed on the Circle monument, anyone who cares to trek up to the top will find something colorful to look at.

But apart from turning an eyesore into something more appealing, public art projects like this one create an important bond for our community. “When you share a piece of your city together, it gives you a certain kind of identity,” says Tharp-Perrin.

As he thinks about Circle Centre’s new work of art, David Lee observes, “The arts add intrinsic value to a community that you can’t put a dollar value on until it’s gone… I think it plays a role in the ultimate bottom line of every business.”

As to the quilt itself, Lee is equal parts satisfied manager and enthusiastic citizen. “It’s a wonderful project. It’s one of a kind. It’s unique to our city and we should be proud of it. Anyone who has the opportunity to see it… would be astonished.