Source: Chicago Tribune
My passion for architecture was kindled in a distinctly Chicago way: fire.
In 1970, 99 years after the Great Fire incinerated most of downtown Chicago, a Christmas Eve blaze destroyed the editorial and business offices of the now-defunct newspaper, The Daily Register, that my father, Arthur Kamin, edited in the Jersey Shore town of Red Bank. I was 13 at the time.
With building a replacement a top priority, our family spent much of the next year touring state-of-the-art newspaper offices and printing plants, as they were known in those days. The one that made the biggest impression on my father (and me) was The Republic in Columbus, Ind., a dazzling Miesian pavilion designed by Myron Goldsmith, a partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, that opened in 1971.
All these years later, seeing the world through the lens of the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, it’s clear that the single-story Republic building is everything the 36-story Tribune Tower is not: clean-lined, not encrusted in ornament; sweepingly horizontal rather than strikingly vertical; invitingly transparent, not intimidatingly opaque.
Passing pedestrians could stand on the sidewalk and look through The Republic’s metal-and-glass pavilion and witness the flow of the newspaper’s production process, from the writing and editing of the news to the printing press that produced it. The visual star of the show was a Goss printing press painted a vibrant yellow. As it churned out newspapers, it became a piece of kinetic sculpture.
Modernism is often accused of being cool and incomprehensible to the man or woman on the street. Yet at The Republic, it spoke with resonant clarity and conviction, powerfully symbolizing the transparency of the free press. Goldsmith’s delicate brand of modernism, so different from the muscular structural expressionism associated with Chicago, was perfectly suited to its small-town setting. So deeply was the building ingrained in the life of the town that when the printing press was removed in 1998, to be replaced by a larger one that could only be housed in a new facility, the public took notice.
“Alarm bells went off. We fielded dozens of inquiries from people sure that the newspaper had gone out of business. The Republic still appeared each day, but something was missing — the piece of art that created it,” the newspaper’s retired associate editor Harry McCawley wrote in 2016.
All this is prelude to a significant piece of architectural news: The Republic, which faced an uncertain future after its namesake newspaper moved out in 2016 and the building was sold to the holding company of a local hospital, is getting a new lease on life.
Next fall, Indiana University announced Monday, the building will house the university’s new master of architecture program, serving as an outpost of the flagship Bloomington campus 36 miles to the west. But this will be no ordinary outpost.
Columbus, a small-town architectural mecca, boasts buildings by such renowned architects as Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Chicago’s Harry Weese. This concentration of architectural riches all but ensures that the school’s learning spaces will extend far beyond the former newspaper building at 333 Second St.
“We just fit right into the building like a glove,” Peg Faimon, dean of the university’s School of Art, Architecture + Design, said in a telephone interview Thursday. “It needs very little alteration for us to have fantastic studio space.”
In addition to the airy, high-ceilinged studios, which will be visible to passersby on Second Street, there will be conference space, classrooms, offices, a wood shop, a metal shop and a “community kind of auditorium space,” Faimon said. Twenty-one students have signed up, she added. The building is a short walk from the university’s Center for Art + Design Columbus, a seven-year-old teaching facility.
Fittingly, the master’s program will be named for J. Irwin Miller, the late chairman of the Cummins Engine Co., who did more than anyone to put the southern Indiana town, now home to about 46,000 people and located 45 miles south of Indianapolis, on the world architectural map.
In 1957, frustrated by the design of schools being built to accommodate the baby boom, Miller proposed a deal to the local school board: Cummins' foundation would pay the architect's fee if the board would pick from a list of top-quality designers whom Miller favored. The plan worked so well that developers of privately owned buildings, including The Republic, commissioned their own top architects. As a result, Columbus is regularly ranked as one of the nation’s, and even the world’s, top cities for architecture lovers.
The reuse of The Republic, one of several Columbus buildings that are National Historic Landmarks, marks the latest chapter in this rich history of innovation. Yet its significance extends far beyond Columbus, and not just because it breathes new life into a major work of mid-20th-century modernism. At a time when many newspapers, including the Tribune, are leaving their historic homes, it reminds us that some of the great newspaper buildings of the past were in small towns as well as big cities and that they set their aesthetic gaze forward, not backward, to express the essential role that journalism plays in a democracy.
Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.