A Room with a View – The Scot Butler House and the Office in the Round

Written by on July 29, 2014 in A Room with a View - 7 Comments
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This edition of A Room with a View is going to be a little bit of a departure from the norm. As I am about to take a little time off from HI to begin a long imagined, finally realized journey– pursuing a Masters in Historic Preservation at Ball State, I’d like to take you to one of the first buildings that meant something to me growing up in Indianapolis.

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The former Board of Church Extension Building or “office in the round” at 110 South Downey Avenue. Photo: courtesy  Irvington Historical Society

My sister and I are first generation Hoosiers, the products of two Jayhawkers who relocated to Indy in the early 70s. My father, who had taken a job in the mailroom of the Missions Building in Irvington, had originally planned for the move to be temporary. But that short-term job turned into a life-long career within the Disciples organization and Indianapolis became home. Taking a position with the Board of Church Extension, he relocated one winding Irvington block north of the Missions Building, to a curious, single story glass-walled circle of a building, mismatched to the surrounding 19th century homes.

As is the case with so many of the buildings we see day today, the so-called “office in the round” at 110 South Downey Avenue displaced a bit of Indianapolis history to come into existence. The land had been owned by  Samuel Shank, the father of the future 19th Indianapolis Mayor, Samuel Lewis Shank. Next, it was owned by Dr. Levi Ritter, for whom Ritter Avenue is named, and whose land was combined with that of Jacob B. Julian and Sylvester Johnson to form Irvington, incorporated in 1873, later to be annexed by Indianapolis in 1902. Daniel M. Bradbury came to own the land at the corner of Julian and Downey Avenues and built a slim Jacobean house of red brick. Completion of the house was stymied by the financial Panic of 1873–referred to as “The Great Depression” until the 1930s–and it sat unfinished until it was purchased a few years later by a father anticipating his son’s return from Heidelberg, Germany.

Scot Butler - photo courtesy of Butler University

Butler College’s seventh president, Scot Butler – photo courtesy of Butler University

Said father was Ovid Butler, a lawyer, publisher, preacher, abolitionist, and founder of Northwestern Christian University, which in 1877, was relocating from its grounds at 13th Street and College Avenue to Irvington, where it would be renamed Butler University in his honor. His son, Scot, had been a student at Northwestern Christian before leaving to fight with the Union Army at age 17. Serving for the duration of the Civil War, Scot returned to his studies in Indianapolis, graduated from Northwestern Christian in 1868, and again with a master’s degree in 1870, before studying abroad in Germany.

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An aerial photograph from 1923. Scot Butler’s home is marked by the arrow, and sits on the wedge of land between Julian and Downey Avenues. Photo: courtesy of Vintage Irvington

He returned home in 1876 to teach Latin at the Irvington college with whom he now shared a name. He, his wife Julia, and their three children moved into the now completed 14 room house at 124 South Downey Avenue, which resembled a taller, red brick version of the near-by Benton House, where the family raised their family and entertained students. After many years as a Latin professor, Scot served for 14 years as president of Butler College (1891-1904 & 1906-1907) and later on the Board of Directors, before his passing in 1931. The Butler family held onto the Irvington homestead long after the University that bore their name relocated to Fairview Park in 1928. The Butlers finally parted ways with the house in 1948, selling to the Irvington Post Number 38 of the American Legion, who dismantled the third story tower and opened the formerly private home into a public meeting space.

In 1956, the United Christian Missionary Society purchased the house from the American Legion to serve as an annex to the nearby Missions Building before ownership was passed to the Board of Church Extension–an organization that, to this day, helps congregations build places of worship– that was looking to move into a building of their own. It was then, in May of 1958, that the old Scot Butler home, by then referred to by some as an “eyesore”, was razed to make way for a unique structure absolutely dissimilar from the one it replaced.

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The “Office in the Round” from a Board of Church Extension postcard.

Designed by staff architects Charles J. Betts, later Indiana’s first state building commissioner, and Rollin V. Mosher, the BCE office was actually three buildings in one. A center hub, housed executive offices, which was surrounded by an open-air courtyard but linked to an outer ring of offices and other essential spaces by three glass corridors, from which a square entrance/boardroom building projected.

Though the “office in the round” was commended by the Indiana Society of Architects in 1959, at least a few within BCE thought the mid-century modern design was impersonal, and represented nothing about their ideals or mission. Despite this architectural disconnect, BCE occupied Irvington’s circle building for nearly 40 years before  relocating downtown in the mid 90s.

The round building is a microcosm of Indianapolis for me. On one hand, it holds tremendous sentimental value, with memories of chasing my younger sister around its darkened, curved hallways while waiting for Dad to wrap up one last bit of work. On the other, as an adult, I realize that those fond childhood memories would not exist were it not for the destruction of a former neighborhood landmark– and I mourn having never been able to walk the halls of Scot Butler’s homestead. In order for something new to be built, more often than not, something old must come down. Most every building you see around town, you realize: something else stood there before it, and each of those buildings were meaningful to someone, no matter how utilitarian or dilapidated.

By no means is this an argument against a developing, vibrant, modern Indianapolis. I am just as big of a fan of contemporary buildings as I am classical. But we have to balance progress with the preservation of our heritage, to keep evidence of where we have been to compliment where we are going.

I hope to learn how to promote that balance in the coming months at Ball State, the opportunity for which is thanks to the two transplanted Jayhawkers, the little sister who likely remembers far more about the circle building than I, and to Tiffany, who let me take a weekly photography assignment and just run with it. 

Thank you all,

Ryan.

Also, thanks to Harold Watkins for providing materials for this article.

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About the Author

Ryan Hamlett, a Fine Arts graduate of Indiana University, turned a teenage fascination with exploring "haunted places" into a love of Urban Exploration or sneaking (not breaking) into abandoned buildings, armed with a camera and flashlight. That passion for photographing urban decay has led him to the Historic Preservation Graduate Program at Ball State University which he'll begin this fall.

7 Comments on "A Room with a View – The Scot Butler House and the Office in the Round"

  1. Jack Boeldt July 29, 2014 at 12:05 pm · Reply

    Your history of this Scot Butler House brings back a lot of memories. That corner of Julian and Downey has been a pivot point for me since I first attended a church service in 1955 at Downey Ave. Christian church, right across from the Scot Butler House/”Office in the Round”. That was the year I started dating my kid’s mother – a member of that church. Hilton U. Brown, at age 99 was seated up front that Sunday. I remember the “Office in the Round” being built, but never knew the details of the house it replaced. We lived about a 5 minute walk from the “Office”, at Ohmer Ave. and Campus Ln. My 3 kids all walked to school PS#57, and due to the advent of busing grade school kids, my youngest attended Lourdes Catholic school to finish the 8th grade. So we passed the “Office” almost daily for decades. Many of the folks that worked at the Missions Building lived in the neighborhood and attended Downey Ave. Christian Church. I think I may have known your father. Thanks for the history.

    • Ryan Hamlett July 29, 2014 at 1:16 pm · Reply

      You may know him still. He’s the president of the Pension Fund for the Disciples organization. And thank you for your comment!

  2. basil berchekas jr July 29, 2014 at 1:44 pm · Reply

    Good luck with going to Ball State for Historic Preservation. With your current background and with Ball State’s blending of Architecture, Urban Planning, and Landscape Architecture with Historic Preservation in one school, we’ll welcome you back with your new found Masters in Historic Preservation soon enough!

    • Tiffany Benedict Berkson July 29, 2014 at 2:03 pm · Reply

      I think I speak for everyone at HI when I say, we are really excited for Ryan’s next chapter. He’s been such an asset to the team and I *hope* he’ll be back soon!

      • basil berchekas jr July 29, 2014 at 2:39 pm · Reply

        WELL PUT, Tiffany BB! Well put! “HI 5″!

  3. Harold "Hal" Watkins July 29, 2014 at 3:47 pm · Reply

    Well done, Ryan. You captured the story well. As one who was on the Board of Church Extension (BCE)
    staff when the historic building was razed and the new BCE structure was erected and later serving as the BCE president, I am grateful to you for this reminder of a place which holds great meaning to our family.

  4. Nancy Watkins July 30, 2014 at 10:06 am · Reply

    Ryan,

    This brought so many memories back to me. Mark & I stopped by every day after school when Dad was in town. I would sit in his office and do my homework until it was time to go home. I loved the adding machines too. Dad also put some us to work stuffing envelopes for a mailing. I believe it was Mark Mitchell, Mark Mosher, and myself that would do the mailings. There are so many more memories but then I would probably have to write a book. Maybe one day. I loved your article and say Hi to your family for me.

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