The former Board of Church Extension Building or “office in the round” at 110 South Downey Avenue. Photo: courtesy Irvington Historical Society
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
Also, thanks to Harold Watkins for providing materials for this article.