Ludwig Mies van der Rohe has been dead for more than half a century. Yet on the campus of the Indiana University (IU), the German-born architect—whose works are among modernism’s most outstanding landmarks, including New York’s Seagram Building and Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive Apartments—is coming back to life, thanks to a combination of some unusual circumstances and one very dedicated group of collaborators.
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“It was designed to be a fraternity house,” says architect Thomas Phifer, of New York-based firm Phifer and Partners. The unlikely story of the modernist frat house—and of how Phifer became involved with it—begins in 1945, when two Indiana businessmen reached out to Mies (then only recently arrived in the US) to design a bowling alley. That idea never moved past the planning stage, but when the businessmen—both IU alumni and former Pi Lamda Phi brothers—learned that their former campus home had been condemned by the local fire marshal, they turned again to the architect to build a new one .
Seven years later, in 1952, Mies had a design plan. Yet, just as work was set to begin in Bloomington, Indiana, bureaucratic difficulties brought construction to a halt. The delay dragged on for over a decade, and, when the designer died in 1969, the project fell into near total obscurity. “Mies’s grandson had worked with him, and he told us he had never heard of it,” says Adam Thies, IU’s vice president of capital planning and the school’s manager on the project.
Only happenstance led to the project’s resurrection: Sidney Eskenazi, also an IU graduate and erstwhile Pi Lambda Phi member, found the original schematics and presented them to the University president in 2013. After mulling the proposal for another few years, the administration decided to press forward, repurposing the building into a learning and event space for the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture Design, so named for the patron who stepped forward with the plans as well as a $20 million grant to help build it.
As it happened, Phifer’s office was already under contract with IU for the nearby Ferguson International Building. “We could have done a search, but we already had them right there,” Thies says. The choice seems a natural one for reasons other than convenience: Known for elegant and exacting work such as the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland, and the Federal Building in Salt Lake City, Phifer has long practiced a brand of highly refined modern design that clearly echoes that of Mies himself. Stepping into the shoes of a bygone legend might have intimidated some, but Phifer relished the opportunity. “I just loved it,” the architect says. “It was a chance to get inside his head from him.”