Rediscovering a Mid-Century Masterpiece

As night begins to fall, interior lighting at Christian Theological Seminary draws attention to a second story and the rhythmic placement of faculty office windows.

by Joe Whitman & Steve Mannheimer

You may have driven past it without noticing the low-slung, clean-lined building along 42nd Street between Butler University and Michigan Road. The structure is simple and geometric, subdued in a dark sand color that blends into the wooded surroundings. In a row of more ornately styled architectural neighbors, Christian Theological Seminary is perfectly modest.

CTS occupies a 37-acre campus in an area incorporated as Shooters Hill and once filled with large estates. Two of the original homes still exist: a large Colonial Revival used by the seminary for special events and occasional guest accommodations, and a 12,000-square-foot Tudor that serves as the CTS Counseling Center. Such historical richness provides the ideal counterpoint to the seminary’s singularly minimal architectural statement that references both ancient cloisters and future religious aspirations. Serenely expressed in stone, glass, and light, the building’s innovative design satisfied both school administrators and J. Irwin Miller (1909–2004), chairman of Cummins Inc. in Columbus, lay leader of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and enthusiastic patron of modern architecture. His support was instrumental in guiding seminary leadership to focus its architectural aspirations toward modernism, the 20th-century style that sought purity in simple lines, plain materials, and the open flow of vision through acres of glass, wedding the inner to the outer sense of space.

Eero Saarinen (1910–1961)—the Finnish American master of contemporary architecture who designed the St. Louis Arch and the distinctive “atomic age” control tower at Dulles International Airport as well as Miller’s Columbus home (now owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art)—was originally chosen to design the seminary. Before a contract was signed, Saarinen realized he could not give the project the priority needed to meet the school’s desired schedule. He recommended a group of young architects gaining attention for their skilled and sensitive explorations of modernist design. Edward Larrabee Barnes (1915–2004), an architect with a maturing vision and an impressive pedigree, studied under modernist legends Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, but most of his major commissions still awaited him. In December 1960, his selection as lead architect of CTS was a leap of faith. By the fall of 1961, Barnes had developed a campus flow plan and, over the next two years, refined a structural composition he described as “pre-Gothic,” in part because of its lack of ornamentation. The designs were compelling, and the CTS board was able to raise additional construction funds to supplement the initial $2 million votes of confidence from the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation and the Christian Foundation.

Ground was broken and construction began on March 10, 1964. CTS faculty, staff, and students moved in February 1966 from their traditional surroundings on the Butler campus to what remains today one of the nation’s purest distillations of the mid-century-modern aesthetic. Two additions would follow, both designed by Barnes: the library in 1977, and Sweeney Chapel in 1987, which visually punctuates the CTS complex on the northeast end with its three-story vertical rise topped by a 90-foot bell tower.

Today, the seminary encompasses approximately 150,000 square feet of floor space on two above-grade levels and multiple below-grade gathering spaces, some excavated from the hillside and offering floor-to-ceiling views of the White River and the old tow path below. But the real magic of this mid-century masterpiece remains to be discovered—not in its scale but in the details of its design.

Joe Whitman, APR, is the former director of communications at CTS. Steve Mannheimer, M.F.A., is professor of media arts and science at IU in Indianapolis and a former art and architecture critic for the Indianapolis Star.


Photo © Richard Spahr.