Saturday, May 11, 2013

Say good-bye to Bloomington, Part I: One Family's Era

Both of my parents were professors at Indiana University when I was born and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, locale of the original, and now main, IU campus. My father came to Bloomington in 1943, indirectly from Budapest, Hungary; my mother, who met my father at a Summer Institute of Linguistics at the University of Michigan, came in 1947, indirectly from Puerto Rico, and they were unceremoniously married (in Indianapolis) on September 10, 1947. When my parents divorced 26 years later, my mother  left her post to assume a professorship at the University of Puerto Rico. My father continued in his position until he died at the age of 81, but we were estranged from about the time my mother moved to Puerto Rico. In any case, I had left Bloomington for college at the University of Chicago in 1968, and rarely looked back.
Bloomington was a wonderful place to grow up in the 1950's and 60's, although it didn't always seem like it at the time. The populace constituted 28,163 souls in 1950, slowly increasing to 31,357 in 1960. The 1970 census count was 43,262, and in 2010, 80,405. Although now a much more crowded and sophisticated place, that the population has less than doubled in size in the last 40 years is remarkable compared to a lot of other places with such a high quality of life.
To us, it seemed in many ways provincial in those 25-some post-War years, often frustrating my mother, who, for example, was a sophisticated cook and couldn't find ingredients in the local groceries (owned by  families, in those days; I know, I went to school with their kids). If you needed medical care more exotic than an uncomplicated birth (mine was in 1950) or a tonsillectomy (mine was in 1954), you had to go to IU's medical school in Indianapolis, an hour's drive away. Likewise for a fancy dinner, though Bloomington got its first Chinese restaurant, then a special thing, sometime in the mid-1960s. It was a small town with a big university.
Most of the reasons for the good quality of life today, such as a variety of quality employment opportunities and clean air, date from those old days. In addition to the University, which employs  faculty and a sizable matrix of support staff, Bloomington is surrounded by farmland where corn, soy, alfalfa hay, and livestock are raised. These days people even manage, more or less successfully, to grow wine grapes.  Farming has always been hard and chancy work, but quarrying and carving the high quality oolitic limestone in southern Indiana provided a steady, if also hard and a perhaps not completely safe or healthy living for many. Of great importance was the early presence of major "smokeless" industries, including the family-owned Sarkis Tarzian Enterprises - electronics manufacturing and television and radio broadcasting - and RCA Television, where the first color TVs were made. 

Thinking that, if all goes well, within a year or so from now we will retire and leave the Mid West for the Great West, I decided to spend a long April weekend in Bloomington, revisiting my old haunts and several people that were lastingly important to my early years who are still there. I started by documenting the three homes I lived in before fledging.
The first of these was a small, dark, one-bedroom apartment in East University Apartments, adjacent to the south end of the campus along 1st Street, then and now a main thoroughfare. Note the limestone exterior! I remember several things about our life in that little apartment, including that the boys at the fraternity house next door kept an enormous gentle St. Bernard dog for a mascot; that there was a local Dairy Queen prototype across scary, busy 1st Street—I can still taste the cold, sweet soft-serve vanilla encased in its hard but yielding chocolate shell; and that the neighbor underneath us was a grumpy old fart who took umbrage at my toddling noises. In spring, we plucked dark purple violets that wilted before we could get them home to water. And finally, most soothingly, my bedroom—yes, I got the bedroom, my parents slept on the couch—had Venetian blinds with big slats my mother left slightly opened so the streetlamps outside would do nightlight duty. The headlights of passing cars made fascinating, and happily soporific, light and dark stripes that exploded diagonally, with a visual Doppler effect, up and across the wall to the ceiling before they vanished, only to recur with the next passing auto.
Here is what it looked like in the summer of 1951; the be-bonneted model in the foreground, of course, is yours truly:
The awnings were certainly a nice touch.

We moved to a comparatively grandiose two-bedroom third floor apartment at 812 South Stull just before I started kindergarten at Elm Heights Elementary School. Stull is a short one-block street with modest homes that T-bones into Maxwell Lane which, behind a single row of houses, forms the northern border of Bryan Park. If you have seen the lovely movie Breaking Away, you know exactly what Stull looked like (except it had our boxy, utilitarian three-story apartment house smack in the middle). The red-haired, freckly building manager, Mrs. Pless, lived there, and was the object of much teasing naughtiness. I found plenty of companions among the other children in the building and up and down the street, and we spent happy hours, besides those aimed at irritating Mrs. Pless, playing in the bushes and in the alley, where we occasionally got lucky and found a discarded girlie magazine or a half used but still smokable cigarette butt.
I, second from right, celebrated my 8th birthday posing with my friends on the front steps of 812 S. Stull.
The entryway hasn't changed in 55 years.

Looking back, it is clear that each of my family's moves coincided exactly with my progress through school. My parents became restless again as I neared 6th grade, at the time, the highest in the school. Ultimately unable to find an existing house that would accommodate us and my father's wish for a large home library, they decided to build. They selected a corner lot at 1104 Covenanter Drive, within walking distance to Binford Junior High, and on the school bus route to Bloomington Senior High. This was a new neighborhood for us, with nice houses, all custom-built and representing many styles from Colonial-traditional to contemporary, and filled with kids around my age. Ronald W. Sterkel, at the time professor of art at Indiana University, served as architect; Al Robertson was the contractor. Their names have gone down in history as the Japanese- and California-Mid-century Modern-inspired house was so significantly different from anything else in Bloomington at the time, and ever since, that it has been written up in the local newspaper at least twice (see Lois Schenk, Home of the Week: One for the Books, The Sunday Herald Times, May 21, 1967, and especially, Carrol Krause, After 50 years, still avant-garde., January 28, 2012). The house cost $40,000 to build.
Time and additional investment have greatly improved the look, and function, of the house, which finally passed out of the family's possession just about a year ago:
This is the only photograph ever taken of my parents smiling at each other. It is dated October 23, 1961. It's likely I took it, and that it was my bedroom behind them, one of only two in the original build; my father didn't like house guests, so the absence of a third bedroom nicely obviated that possibility: 
The house did, however, have an outsized study with floors reinforced to withstand the weight of library stacks filled with his books. Note that there was no desk space provided for my mother, also a professor. I believe my father's successor family (he remarried shortly after divorcing my mother) either added another bedroom, or, after he died in 2001, finally converted that study into a bedroom. The books were willed to the University of Tartu, Estonia. (I missed that part of his life story and have no idea how that particular inspiration came to him.)
This is the front of the house in September 1962; my mother eventually improved the landscaping so it didn't remain quite so terribly stark and raw for long. But the exterior was still unattractive by local taste. It had symmetrical windowless limestone gray brick fa├žades flanking dual entry-ways (how much more confusing can a home entry be than to have two front doors, separated by a series of tall narrow windows and a couple of artsy-colored panels?). The one on the right was meant to serve front-door duty, as it lead to a coat closet and to the living area down a hall, and the one on the left was to function as the back door, as it led more directly to the kitchen and utility room. Delivery men and first-time visitors had no clue which was which.
Between the two doors was a fern-filled patio screened from onlookers by, of all things, decorative cinder blocks. The roof was flat as a pancake (and consequently suffered leaks each winter as the autumnal rain turned into expanding ice with no place to go; this is what happens when an artist, as the imaginative and creative as Ron Sterkel was, and not a trained architect draws your plans and lays out your specs). The neighbors thought it looked like a barn, though certainly it more resembled an aviation hanger than some kind of loftless barn. Although not faced with highly prized limestone, the color of the bricks was carefully chosen to suggest it at first glance. Inside the house was more attractive and well designed for entertaining. My parents were famous for the parties they hosted there.

The last time I was in the house was probably 1973. My father and, in particular, his new wife, no longer welcomed me. I cared not, as I was busy with my own young adulthood. But I confess, when I learned his widow had sold the house and left town to be near her grandchildren, I felt the pang of the end of an important, 69-year era--my natal family's--in Bloomington history.


  1. Very interesting to read the story of your childhood residences. And that you go back to revisit the sites.

    In NZ to the Maori people this is considered an important thing to do and is called returning to your 'turanga waewae' which means your roots, or a literal translation means your 'toe hold on Mother earth'. If you were born there it means that your afterbirth was also buried there.

    I too go back occasionally to visit the farm I grew up on and which was sold in 1962 when I was 17. The same family still own it. It is my turangawaewae.

    1. The Maori are right on the button, this was an emotionally rewarding and a very interesting retrospective for me.

      My long blogging hiatus was due to a combination of writer's block and general busy-ness :-) but I hope to post a couple more installments about my adventures in southern Indiana over the next couple of weeks.

      Thanks for coming back to check on me :-)

  2. Indeed. A most interesting family history. I enjoyed reading it. Although Barb and I both grew up in St. Paul our local "metropolis" is Rochester, Minnesota. We lived in a rural area close by to that city. I think the development of Rochester is very mindful of Bloominton. Home of the Mayo Clinic and a major IBM facility is has doubled in size since we've lived nearby. Now over 100,000 people intends to double that thru MayosDMC program. Destination Medical Center will enable it to "compete" with Cleveland Clinic et all The state will fund enhanced infrastructure and Mayo will spend and leverage billion in private to make it all happen. An interesting time here....
    Glad to see you back posting. :)