The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 23, 2017 1:00 am

Architect's forgotten gem

Museum exhibit on famed designer of Arts United

STEVE WARDEN | For The Journal Gazette

How odd, and also with a sense of tragic irony, that on March 17, 1974, Louis I. Kahn died of a heart attack in a train station.

Kahn's passing came less than a year after the opening of the Fort Wayne Performing Arts Center, which is the only performing arts theater the world-renowed architect designed. Today the familiar brick building at 303 E. Main St., home of the Civic Theatre, carries a new name: the Arts United Center.

Kahn's death at Penn Station in Manhattan is singular in the fact that when the Russian-born architect, whose local work will be featured in a two-phase exhibit beginning Saturday at the neighboring Fort Wayne Museum of Art, was contracted for the project in Fort Wayne, one of his major concerns was the railroad tracks only a few feet north to the rear of the building.

“He had a difficult problem to deal with in terms of building the acoustics within a concert hall near or right next to an active railroad track,” says local architect and historic preservation consultant Craig Leonard.

Prior to the completion, Kahn wrote: “I am building a theater in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and having observed theaters, I am to the conclusion that one must regard the auditorium and the stage as a violin, a sensitive instrument where one should be able to hear, even a whisper, without any amplification. The lobbies and all other adjunct spaces may be compared to the violin case. The violin and its case are completely different.”

Leonard further explains Kahn's theory by adding, “A freestanding theater is a box within a box, and the air space between the two is the acoustical barrier that keeps the outside noise from getting into the theater.”

Beginning Saturday at the art museum, the first portion of the exhibit, titled “On the Pursuit of Perfection: The Legacy Architecture of Louis I. Kahn in Our City,” will display the set of blueprints for his building. The second exhibition – “Becoming Present: Louis I. Kahn and the Arts United Center” – will open July 22, and will delve into the chronological and biographical history of the structure. Both exhibits conclude Oct. 15.

“Most people don't under­stand that's a jewel within the community,” Fort Wayne Museum of Art president and CEO Charles Shepard says of the landmark Arts United Center. “I thought if we could exhibit and emphasize that, I think we could raise awareness to the importance of the building.”

Born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky in 1901, Kahn and his family came to the United States, mostly out of fear that his father would be recalled into the military to participate in the Russo-Japanese War, a war that would later be described as “a mountain of corpses.”

According to a 2003 film documentary, “My Architect,” Kahn's son, Nathaniel, said his father's family could not afford pencils. In order for young Louis to draw and earn little money, he used burnt twigs to make charcoal sticks.

Louis Kahn's interest in architecture took him to the University of Pennsylvania, and from there, Philadelphia, where he would mold his career with various architecture firms. Although Kahn collaborated on several projects throughout most of the 1930s and 1940s, he didn't find fame until the middle stages of his life.

“The guy wasn't active for that long,” Leonard says. “He didn't do his first building until he was 40. It wasn't more than three decades when he was actively doing things. He had a great burst of creativity toward the end of his life.”

It was in the early 1960s when the Fine Arts Foundation agreed that Fort Wayne needed a new and larger home for its growing arts community, even though a few years earlier the Civic Theatre moved into the former Palace Theatre at 126 E. Washington Blvd. The consensus of the 12-member building committee was to build a downtown arts campus, similar to that of New York City's Lincoln Center.

Needed next was an architect.

Leonard was told by an associate who once worked with Kahn that one firm after the other rejected the proposal. “Basically all these architects were finding a diplomatic way to say we're not particularly interested,” he says. “Especially unsaid … out in the boonies where most of the major publications will never hear of it unless we bring it to their attention.

“They finally contacted this unknown – Louis Kahn – who, at the time, was just on the threshold of completing a project, the Richards Medical Center building at the University of Pennsylvania. That was the project that really put him on the map as an architect and starting on his way of becoming a real rock star designer.”

When Kahn was approached, the Fine Arts Foundation committee told him of its grand plan of an arts campus that not only included the theater, but an art museum, a reception center with offices and a lecture hall. Also on the agenda were an art school, a school of ballet and music, a historical museum and a music hall.

Kahn was intrigued. After all, he, too, was an artist – those early days when he sold his sketches drawn by burnt sticks. He was also a musician, earning money by playing piano to accompany silent movies in theaters.

According to Leonard, when Kahn asked the committee about the budget, he was told whatever it would take.

“So he brings (his blueprints) to Fort Wayne, shows it to them, prices it out, and they're like, that's way too much money,” Leonard says. “They sent him back to the drawing board to downsize the project. This goes on, back and forth for 10 years.”

It is that decade of correspondence and meetings – from the early '60s into the '70s – which intrigues Shepard the most, and that will be included in the exhibit.

“They had boxes full of letters and notes and minutes of meetings,” Shepard says. “And when you read through that material – a lot of that is going to be in the second show that comes about a month later – you can see Kahn's disappointment as he shows up for meeting after meeting when the original concept starts getting pared down little by little.

“I can only imagine how that had to feel, because he agreed to do six or seven buildings, and months later you find out you can only do one. That's shocking. … We sort of sliced it building after building, each year. So this thing really got tortured to death. Kahn's disappointment is evident there.” 

The end result came in 1973, and Kahn appearing at the opening of the then Performing Arts Center, with its unique facade.

“That building from Louis Kahn,” says Leonard, “is probably a saga of frustration.”

He is referring, of course, to its “face.”

“People always look at that sort of jack-o'-lantern face on the front of the (Arts United Center) building, and you always wondered if that was sort of Kahn's revenge, still leering at Fort Wayne,” Leonard says.

Shepard says, “I've heard that story. But interestingly enough, when you start digging into Kahn's body of work around the world, what shows up is that he actually put those kind of eyelid openings on quite a few buildings. I think it's a good story, but I don't know if it's right to the point.”

Leonard said he heard Kahn speak on two occasions – an evening at his Ball State University alma mater, and the following day when Kahn arrived in Fort Wayne.

He called Kahn a slight, unassuming man. “But all this poetry would come out. He was very much a mystical visionary when you got him on the subject of architecture. He was a fascinating guy to listen to.”

Leonard recalls the conversation with the man who once worked for Kahn. “He said, 'Yeah, if that (campus) had been built, it would have been one of his greatest works.' ”

If you go

What: Louis I. Kahn exhibits

When: First phase begins Saturday and second phase begins July 22, with both ending Oct. 15

Where: Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 311 E. Main St.

Admission: $8 adults, $6 students and seniors, $20 families


Artistic idea met

Although the original concept of a sprawling downtown arts campus was not built as desired by world-renowned architect Louis I. Kahn, more than 50 years later Fort Wayne does boast a centrally located arts community.

Kahn was contracted in the early 1960s to design a series of arts buildings for an arts campus. However, the plans were eventually reduced and Kahn was restricted financially to complete only the Arts United Center at 303 E. Main St. Since then, the iconic building has gotten neighbors as the idea for an arts campus was fulfilled.

The museum is located next door at 311 E. Main St. Across the way at 300 E. Main St. is the Auer Center for Arts & Culture, which houses the Fort Wayne Ballet, Arlink Art Gallery, FAME, Fort Wayne Trails and the Arts United administrative offices. It also serves as an access to the Parkview Physician's Group ArtsLab Theater, a black box style theater that plays host to avant-garde productions, events and concerts.

A half-block away from the Auer Center is the Community Arts Center at 437 E. Berry St., where Cinema Center is located. The second floor of the building is home of the Fort Wayne Dance Collective.

Also part of the Arts United campus is the History Center, 302 E. Berry St., and the Alexander Rankin House, 818 Lafayette St., home of ARCH, the historical preservation organization.

"These organizations of the arts, when they come together to be a single center - does it mean that something new is born," Kahn said, circa 1962. "I looked for the nature of the combination, and I realized that it does … simply by their being together rather than being apart."

- Steve Warden, The Journal Gazette

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