Local historic preservation organization ARCH is shining its spotlight on the Arts United Center, a building that many people do not realize is historic and architecturally significant.
As part of ARCH’s Fun & Free lecture series, Miriam Morgan, chief operating officer of Arts United, will speak on the “Preservation and Activation of the Arts United Center.” The lecture, which will take place at the downtown Allen County Public Library on Saturday, March 23, at 11 a.m., puts the spotlight on not only the history of the building but its future as well.
“Every year we leave one slot open in our five-lecture series to address something that isn’t necessarily about ARCH,” said Connie Haas Zuber, executive director of ARCH. “Last year we had a lecture about the Riverfront development, and this year it’s the Arts United Center.
“This is one of the most important historic preservation projects right now because the building is a city treasure. It’s a world renowned treasure. It’s part of our brand in the world, and we need to get the word out about it. That’s why we invited Arts United to take part in the series.”
Working in an architectural jewel
For Morgan, learning about the Arts United Center’s history has been a labor of love but one which she came to almost accidentally.
“When I first came to Arts United, I was a technical director,” Morgan said. “I was working in this building every single day. I’ve always thought lobbies have a particular poetry especially when you’re by yourself, and it’s quiet. Because of my theatrical lighting background, I’m used to thinking about how an experience is affected by the use of light. The same is true of this lobby and the way the natural light affects the way you experience it.
“I was also having monthly experiences where someone would come to the door, desperate to come in to see the building. People who spoke multiple languages. People who said, ‘I was in Chicago and rented a car to drive here just to see this building.’ It was so cool so I had to know why so many people wanted to see it. I headed down to the archives in the basement to see what I could find, but there had been some water damage to a lot of the records and not everything could be saved.”
That led Morgan to do some outside research on the building and its architect Louis Kahn. She found a documentary online — “My Architect” by Kahn’s son Nathaniel — and enough other information to realize why the world so valued this building in which she spent her days.
“I knew we had something super unique here,” Morgan said. “We have the only performing arts theater designed by Kahn in the entire world. He had five major masterpieces in 11 years. Some were completed before his death, some after he had passed. All of those projects influenced this building.”
Her research has taken her to visit other Kahn structures and included a trip to Philadelphia where Kahn’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, houses his archives. Along the way, Morgan learned not only how Kahn designed his buildings, but why.
“Learning about how Kahn thought about civic spaces has been the most fun part for me,” she said. “Going through the archives and seeing other buildings he designed — they all have a similar aesthetic to this building. He didn’t find his language until the later part of his career, but now he’s known for these different pieces that you find here.”
Originally the Arts United Center was to be part of a larger cultural campus through downtown. The vision of some of Fort Wayne’s finest minds and philanthropic natures, the quest for an architect who could realize such a project was undertaken in the 1950s, which put Fort Wayne on the cutting edge of the era.
“At that time, New York City’s Mayor Moses was working with people like John D. Rockefeller to build Lincoln Center,” said Susan Mendenhall, president of Arts United. “In Atlanta, Robert Woodruff, the CEO of Coca-Cola, was working to build the Woodruff Art Center.
“Think about that. While these larger cities are building downtown art centers, Fort Wayne’s amazing leaders, people like Helen Foellinger and John Shoaff, are meeting in the tea room of Wolf & Dessauer to discuss the legal framework for a cultural district downtown.”
In 1955 the Fine Arts Foundation (now Arts United) was formed. Three years later, fundraising for the project began.
The Redevelopment Commission was involved as the area needed to remove 180 buildings which stood on the tract of land where the Arts United Center, the Rosseau Center, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Three Rivers Apartments, and the city parking garage now stand.
While there was some controversy when Parkview Field led to the razing of several establishments, that was not the case in the 1950s.
“There was actually a great deal of support for it because most of those buildings were blighted,” Haas Zuber said.
A search began for the best architect to put the plan into action, one that led to the decision to hire Kahn, regarded as one of the best architects in America. During a particularly fruitful phase of his later career, Kahn created his five masterpieces: Kimbell Art Museum, Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Indian Institute of Management, and the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh.
He also designed the Yale Center for British Art which provided inspiration for his work on Fort Wayne’s performing arts center. Given that broader understanding of the Arts United Center’s importance to the history of architecture, it puts more emphasis on the importance of both maintaining the structure and continuing the original plan for the area.
Downtown Arts Campus
“This building was just one part of a comprehensive plan that included an entire downtown arts campus,” Mendenhall said. “Even though we don’t have all of those Kahn buildings here, his vision has guided our plans for developing this area. The organizations who have offices here in this arts campus served 527,000 people last year. Parkview Field had 420,000 and the zoo somewhere just over 600,000. And those numbers don’t include events like Three Rivers Festival, Taste of the Arts, and the many dance competitions that have events here.
“For a lot of people, it’s hard for them to think of the Arts United Center as a historic building because they remember when it was built,” Mendenhall continued. “But this building is very important, and we want the community to see that a cultural district becomes a destination. What we have here is unique in the nation.”
There are many needs which will be addressed in the upcoming renovation plans. Replacing an old, manual rigging system would provide greater efficiency and safety particularly since those who use the system are often volunteers instead of professionals.
Accessibility issues are also a concern and for the audience as well as for other visitors, including Youtheatre students and performers who have no easy means of reaching the upstairs at this time. Energy-efficient windows, which are currently putting a strain on the structure, should be replaced with lighter (yet still efficient) options.
Morgan also noted that the building is more than an auditorium and home to organizations like the Civic Theatre and Youtheatre. The Rolland Gallery, on the floor above the auditorium, hosts everything from weddings to city announcements like the unveiling of plans for the Riverfront development.
Providing that for Fort Wayne was at the heart of Louis Kahn’s plans for the building, and as Arts United begins its campaign to properly maintain that vision, Mendenhall encourages residents to be part of that mission.
“Right now I would ask people to be an advocate,” she said. “Come to arts and cultural events. Become a partner. Check out new and different things you didn’t expect to find here. Come to Taste of the Arts in August and see what we have going on down here. I really see this as a call to action.”
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