Monday, July 2, 2018

A Mid-Century Marvel Arrives in Irvington in 1958

On June 17, 1958, officials from the Board of Church Extension, a division of the Disciples of Christ Church, gathered at 110 South Downey Avenue to dedicate the new "office in the round." The division had been responsible for raising money and administering loans to hundreds of communities throughout the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and South Africa who wanted to build churches, Sunday Schools, or complete repairs to existing structures. The Extension had been in Indianapolis since 1928 in the Missions Building at 222 South Downey Avenue. In the mid-1950s, leaders began to look for a new site within Irvington to erect a separate headquarters.

By 1958, there was little land upon which the Board of Church Extension could build upon in Irvington. Therefore, they sought out an existing property that could be torn down. The site needed to be large enough to host an office building and a parking lot. They found that site just a block to the south of the Missions Building with the Scot Butler home and land.  Professor Butler, the son of the founder of Butler University, Ovid Butler, moved into Irvington in 1874. He and his growing family dwelled in the large brick Second Empire residence for decades. In 1943, the large old home became a post for the American Legion. Church officials bought the house and the three acres surrounding it in February of 1958. The historic home was removed and construction began in the spring of 1958.

The Disciples of Christ employed architects whose primary job was to help local congregations build a church that was appropriate for their community. From the 1920s through the 1950s, architects designed structures in the Gothic or Colonial style, but in 1953, the church declared these two styles "artistically archaic." (Lani Olson, Building a Witness, 1983, 59) The design of the new headquarters would give the Disciples a chance to demonstrate a new era in church architecture.

Three architects assisted with the plans for the new headquarters at 110 South Downey Avenue with Charles J. Betts as the leader. Assisting him were Rollin V. Mosher and E. Roger Frey. All three men worked for the Board of  Church Extension as church architects. James Pifer, another employee, supervised the construction.  Costing $200,000, the new structure dazzled and confounded many residents. Designed as a double circular building with an open-air courtyard in the center, the inner and outer walls were to be primarily of glass. Employees could make use of the natural or the florescent lighting in their offices. Desks were designed to fit the radii of the building. Other modern features included an intercom system, an automatic telephone system, piped music, and air-conditioning.

The Disciples held two open houses. Over 400 people streamed through the building at the first open house on December 9, 1958. Betts and his team's new 10,000 square foot structure was unlike any ever erected in Irvington. The Disciples pulled out of the neighborhood in 1995 and the building has hosted various offices and businesses since that time. The structure has largely remained the same although an air-conditioning unit now sits along the limestone wall that faces Downey Avenue.

The Scot Butler Home at 124 South Downey Avenue was demolished by the Disciples of Christ for a new office building in 1958. (image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, June 2, 1958)

Architectural rendering of the new Board of Church Extension office for the Disciples of Christ in 1958 (image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, March 2, 1958)

Dignitaries from the Disciples of Christ gathered on June 17, 1958 to dedicate the cornerstone of the new office building at 110 South Downey Avenue. William T.  Pearcy was at the microphone. The man standing second from the left was Dr. John H. Booth, a past President of the Board of Church Extension. The man is the dark suit was Spencer Austin. At the far right in the photo was likely Charles J. Betts, an architect. (Image courtesy of Mac Fife)

Dr. John H. Booth (left) prepared for his dedicatory address at the Board of Church Extension ceremony on June 17, 1958. The man with the cornerstone in the middle was likely the Reverend Lloyd Channels, chairman of the Board of Directors. At the far right, stood architect Charles J. Betts. (Image courtesy of Mac Fife)

110 South Downey Avenue in 2018

110 South Downey Avenue in 2018

Sources:  "Church Group to Dedicate 'Office in the Round,'" Indianapolis News, June 14, 1958, 5; "Circular Church Unit Office Utilizes Glass for Majority of Wall Surface," Indianapolis Star, March 23, 1959, 20; "Church 'Office in the Round' Dedication to be December 9," Indianapolis Star, November 15, 1958, 10; "'Office in the Round' Planned as Disciples New $200,000 Home," Indianapolis Star, March 2, 1958, 5; Interview with Mac Fife, June 15, 2018.

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