When Evans Woollen submitted a proposal in 1974 to design a new Federal Building for Indianapolis, he succeeded in convincing the General Services Administration (GSA), which had planned to build an office tower much like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago, that a horizontal building would be a better fit. Woollen, an Indianapolis native who had earned his degree from Yale under thesis advisor Louis Kahn, was particularly interested in ensuring that the new building did not rise taller than the neighboring World War Memorial. Woollen’s design would fill an entire block and serve to both frame and complete the adjacent War Memorial Plaza and American Legion Mall. North of the Mall is the Indianapolis Public Library, for which Woollen would later build a modern addition.
Paying homage to the ziggurat-shaped top of the War Memorial, Woollen designed an inverted ziggurat-shaped building. Budget constraints and an aesthetic interest in concrete construction inspired Woollen to choose that medium in his design. Located just south of the northern boundary of Indianapolis’s original Mile Square plat, on a block that had previously housed several structures, the Federal Building was part of an urban renewal project. It was Woollen’s second concrete building in Indianapolis (he had designed the earlier Barton Tower in the 1960s), and its geometric shapes and stark lines made it unique in the city at the time.
The building is six stories tall, with a recessed first floor and cantilevered upper stories, supported by concrete pylons, that step further out with each rising story. According to Woollen, the design was inspired by Eero Saarinen’s American Embassy (1960) in London, but it also resembles Kallman and McKinnell’s Boston City Hall (1968). The building design expresses some of the tenets of Brutalism in its simple geometric forms, massive size, play of light and shadow, and horizontality. Windows are recessed in horizontal lines on each story but are irregular in placement, which was meant to maximize daylight on the interior. The building differed somewhat from other Brutalist designs in that Woollen tinted the concrete to match the limestone of the nearby World War Memorial and the Scottish Rite Cathedral west of the Mall.
Woollen decided early in the design process to have the ground-level recessed story painted with a mural. The GSA’s Art in Architecture program sought an artist to create the right work, but ultimately it was Woollen himself who found the artist. In 1974, he brought Milton Glaser, a young graphic artist from New York City (today most famous for his “I heart NY” design), to Indianapolis to see the building under construction and to view the plans. Glaser came up with the idea to wrap the entire first story with a band of 35 bright colors, an unexpected swath of color that would serve to soften the otherwise stark building. Glaser designed his mural, called Color Fuses, to be illuminated with a system of rising and fading lighting. The initial lighting system for the mural did not work properly and in the conservation-minded 1970s, the federal government turned off the lights to cut back on energy use. Within a few decades the mural faded and became a muted version of its original brightness.
By a special act of Congress in 1980, the building was named the Minton-Capehart Federal Building in honor of Sherman Minton, U. S. Senator from Indiana and Associate Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, and Homer Capehart, also a U. S. Senator from Indiana. In 2012, Federal Recovery Act funds were used to upgrade the building to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver standards. These funds were also used to restore the mural to its original vibrant colors and to install a lighting system that worked as Glaser had originally planned. That same year, the GSA produced a documentary film about the mural’s restoration.
Diebold, Paul C. “Federal Buildings.” In Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
General Services Administration. “Art in Architecture: Milton Glaser Color Fuses.” Film. Washington, D. C.: U. S. General Services Administration, 2012.
Robinson and Associates, Inc. “Growth, Efficiency and Modernism: GSA Buildings of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.” Washington, D. C.: U. S. General Services Administration, 2003.
Woollen, Evans. Interview by Connie Zeigler, November 28, 2012.
Zeigler, Connie. “I Heart the Federal Building.” Urban Times, November 2009.