The lore of unrealized architecture is the fodder of art and design historians’ dreams, evoking as it does the just-missed opportunity of an alternative future, something always more hopeful than what became instead. The allure of this conceit is that it lacks the consequences of reality⎯no engineering, no building permits, no leaky window seals nor exorbitant air conditioning costs down the road. This is a story of a dream realized too late: a project designed in 1952 by the eminent German émigré architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for a fraternity at Indiana University but built for $10 million just last year in 2021.
The fifties were a busy time for Mies in the Midwest, rebuilding his life in exile and establishing an American clientele for his private practice. While serving as the dean of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he designed the master plan for the campus along with nearly two dozen structures ranging from the mundane utility of the boiler plant to the austere clarity of the university’s chapel. He took on many modest private commissions too, including his first skyscraper, the Promontory Apartments in Hyde Park (1949); the Lake Shore Drive apartments (1951); the Farnsworth House in the Plano suburbs (1951); and the galleries at the Arts Club of Chicago (1952), among others.
It was around this time that the Indianapolis businessman Joseph Cantor approached Mies about building a private residence and a drive-in restaurant for one of his local franchises. While engaging with these projects, Cantor and his business partner Harry Berke invited the architect an hour south of the Indiana capital to the flagship campus of Indiana University Bloomington, asking him to design a fraternity house for Pi Lambda Phi, Alpha Theta chapter. None of the three projects were realized in their own time, and the plans for the frat house were passed down through generations of fraternity officers, eventually resting in the Museum of Modern Art’s Mies archives. The plans were not included in MoMA’s 1993 catalogue raisonné of Mies van der Rohe’s American work, effectively burying the project.
When IU alumnus, Pi Lambda Phi brother and philanthropist Sidney Eskenazi heard of the plans and unearthed them, he had the ear of now-former IU president and art enthusiast Michael McRobbie. They sent staff to seek further details at the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Mies associate Daniel Brenner’s papers held the contract, engineering site plan, photos of the original location, and correspondence (mostly about fees).
The blueprints from MoMA delineate an open lounge and dining area next to a rectangular U-shape of twenty compact bedrooms organized around a central courtyard, all lifted on pylons to create an open ground level. As realized by the adapting architects Thomas Phifer and Partners, New York, the boys’ bedrooms are faculty offices and the lounge is a lecture hall. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine the building having been anything but an elegant place for staff to work and host lectures. Certainly, the inherent vice of tossed kegs and projectile vomit would have proved challenging in a glass frat house. College boys learning to live without their mothers picking up for them is nothing anyone wants to gaze upon, even if through pristine, modernist windows.
The most striking aspect of the realized project is its relationship to its surroundings. The building replaced a portion of a parking lot, a sore spot for car-commuting staff who vie for the limited spots. It sits at the bottom of a gradual incline, concealing it somewhat from the higher ground. Across the street, another new concrete and steel structure rises from a construction site, the Ferguson International Center, also designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners. When completed, the Mies will be hemmed in on all sides by larger buildings and landscape. And so, while its inside feels airy and open, it appears cramped from the exterior approach.
Some of Mies’ finest works were posthumous, like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. (1972) and the magnificent IBM Plaza here in Chicago (1973). These projects, however, were pushed through in the years just after the architect’s death and relied on the expertise of staff who worked alongside him. Would Mies have wanted this building to be made half-a-century after his passing and seventy years since it was planned? One would hope that such a forward-thinking architect would have favored more innovative forms instead of raiding the archives for inspiration.
The author is an employee of Indiana University but is not employed by the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture and Design.