The 500 block Massachusetts Avenue now has all the conveniences of modern city life: elegant apartment buildings, a bougie taco shop, and an escape room. The architect Evans Woolen couldn’t see this coming when he was standing on the balcony of Barton Tower with a resident of the new social housing project in the late 1960s. Down the street, the building was surrounded by green spaces that the seniors living there could enjoy. All of these recreational spaces are now gone, and no doubt many wish that the old building itself would also go away. The raw concrete look has never been adorable.
But if critics could look past the dingy facade now, they might appreciate the architectural pedigree of the Barton Tower – something that is in short supply in Indy. Woolen, who would become Hoosier’s most respected public space architect, was designed by Barton 13 years after his graduation from Yale. He had brought home modernist ideas that were considered special in the city, but for admirers this was a double-edged sword – when the world’s leading modernists experimented with raw concrete, so did wool. The style was called Brutalism, and hardly anyone thought it was nice to look at.
That’s not the only reason Woolen chose concrete for the Barton Tower – it was cheap and public housing was on a tight budget. Woolen was based on the great French architect Le Corbusier, who had designed a state-subsidized building in the same style. It’s called Unité d’Habitation and it’s an icon today, and the bright colors it splashed on the walls of sunken balconies are still there. Woolen did the same with a section of Barton Tower that once spanned East Street. It’s gone now, along with that significant piece of architectural DNA.
“He was ready to stick his neck out whenever the opportunity arose to try,” says architect Larry O’Conner.
Woollen received awards along with the respect of the architectural community – in part for the courage of his conviction to make Indy a better place through architecture and town planning. “He was ready to stick his neck out whenever the opportunity arose to try,” says architect Larry O’Conner, who worked on Barton Tower and became a lifelong partner in Woollen’s company, which operated there for 56 years .
Shortly after Barton’s opening, public housing collapsed around the world due to poor conditions. The city never had to light a stick of dynamite at the Barton Tower. But the new development, which is crowding Barton on all sides, is diminishing the design of wool, according to O’Conner. Visually, it signals a lack of respect for the building. “I almost wish the tower wasn’t there,” says O’Conner. Something like that would not have happened on Woollen’s watch.