Sunday, May 19, 2013

Say good-by to Bloomington Part II: Little City of Stone

One of the surprisingly interesting things about Bloomington, Indiana, is its distinguished public and private architecture. It's reasonable to generalize it as "Midwestern" in style, in the sense that Bloomington's buildings do resemble those of the same eras in other towns along that belt below where the glaciers stopped and the hills start across southern Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky,  though perhaps Bloomington has more examples than most, in large part due to the availability of oolitic limestone. The oldest date to the early nineteenth century, and a few of those survived to the 21st century. The settlers used local materials of course; Southern Indiana was (and, in some circumscribed areas, still is) heavily wooded; local poplar, oak, and hickory, for example, are woods ideal for log construction and for furniture.
The local limestone, found in creek beds, outcrops, and natural quarries, was quickly recognized as a more durable material, and  for that reason and because of the much larger investment of human capital to acquire and work it, was more expensive as well. In the early 1940's, the family of a friend from my early teens (and still today) acquired the oldest known stone home in Bloomington, erected by Daniel Stout in 1828, as recorded in the keystone in the lintel over the original entrance:
The Old Stone House, as it's known, was also the first house in Monroe County to be listed on the National Register of Historical Places:
When my friend's grandparents bought the house it was ramshackle and primitive; to get to the second story one had to climb a ladder through a hole in the ceiling, and cooking was done in the only fireplace, now the civilized centerpiece of the comfortable living room.  By the time I was a regular visitor  they had seamlessly incorporated additional stone blocks from the creek at the bottom of the hill to accommodate a small but modern (by the standards of the time) kitchen and bathroom with running water and an interior stairway between them. That and the installation of modern heating resulted in a fully livable home nonetheless in keeping with the "Federal I" style of the original Stout House.
To read more about the Old Stone House, see Carol Krause, The Inner Life of an Antique House, The Herald-Times, August 6, 2005 (not available online, to my knowledge) and Nancy R. Hiller with photographer Kendall Reeves, A Home of Her Own, Indiana University Press,2011.

Over time, Bloomington became justly renowned for many other limestone edifices. One of the more substantial is the Monroe County Courthouse, in the center of the downtown "Square," as was a typical layout for a municipal center in that part of the world.
The informational sign notes, "Present courthouse completed 1908; designed by Wing and Mahurin of Fort Wayne in Beaux Arts style; built of locally quarried limestone. Features original fish-shaped weather vane from 1826 courthouse, carved classical figures, Ionic and Egyptian columns, stained glass; completely restored 1983-1984. Listed in National Register of Historic Places 1976."

From the flyer, "A Walk through the Monroe County Courthouse" Historic Tour Number 9, Bloomington Indiana. City of Bloomington and Monroe County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2002: '"The Light of the World,' carved in limestone by Hungarian native Albert Molnar, Sr who was locally known through his work at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. The central figure holds the torch of enlightenment and is framed by figures personifying the law and power."

In 1918, Bloomington, as the seat of Monroe County, was the beneficiary of a Carnegie Library.  Although the library's holdings and modernization needs had outgrown the small building (a new limestone structure was built just a couple of blocks away in 1970), it was listed in the Register of Historic Places in 1978 and has served as the home of the Monroe County Historical Society and Museum since the 1980s. I remember exactly how it smelled, the creak of the wood floors, and the precise location of children's books very well:
Monroe County's Carnegie-funded library, by architect Wilson B. Parker of Indianapolis, general contractor George A. Weaver and Son. I believe the interior plans of Carnegie libraries were fairly standardized.
Indiana University also has numerous historic and contemporary limestone buildings of significant design value on its campus:
Woodburn Hall, classrooms and offices, constructed in 1940; Thomas Hart Benton murals within. According to Campus Evolution/Campus History (from the Indiana University Master Plan) the style is, "...a hybrid of Collegiate Gothic and Art Deco...referred to as Moderne." I have been unable to identify the architect.
Showalter Fountain with The Birth of Venus, Richard Laurent, sculptor, 1961, in front of the Indiana University Auditorium,
Eggers & Higgins architects, 1941.
But the buildings that first penetrated my consciousness were the utterly romantic limestone homes along First Street, a few blocks east from its intersection with South Stull Avenue at its origin to the north. These houses were erected in the years between World Wars I and II, reflecting the relative prosperity among some citizens of Bloomington. In recent years when considering where I could retire affordably when the time comes, I mused on the idea of living in one of Bloomington's limestone jewels, of which there are quite a few. I have no idea what they sell for--I suspect they rarely change hands these days--or whether their interiors have been brought up-to-date in the last, say, 25 years. I wouldn't be surprised if they're a little hard to live in, most with a single bath, narrow stairways, and poorly insulated walls, but I'll take one anyway, any day.
For a lively history of Bloomington's private and public architecture (limestone and other) see Bloomington Discovered, Karen S. Craig and Diana H. Hawes, with photoraphs by James Clary, Discovery Press. Bloomington, Indiana 1980.

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