Unnoticed Modern: Discovering Lost Legacies of Midcentury Architecture in Evansville, Indiana

By Alan Higgins, M.S.

Evansville, Indiana – nestled in southwestern Indiana at its juncture with Illinois and Kentucky – is certainly not a place that comes to mind when thinking about modern architecture. Guarded in tradition and a conservative aesthetic, Evansville can be likened to many communities throughout the country in that more recent architectural narratives have been overshadowed or simply neglected or forgotten, depreciated against more traditional concepts. Put simply, modern architecture has gone unnoticed in Evansville.

Image (left): Cover for forthcoming book, Unnoticed Modern: The Midcentury Architecture of Evansville.

 

 

To be fair, Evansville can be considered a “typical” town in that it was never truly consumed by the modernism of midcentury. With a swelling population that jumped approximately 30% between 1940 and 1950, and averaging roughly 130,000 persons between 1950 and 1980, Evansville was certainly characterized by the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in the construction of homes, businesses, and community goods designed to serve a new generation. Yet, for the most part, such endeavors emerged with the vernacular regularity to be expected at midcentury, reflected in the large swaths of ranch houses, rectilinear strip malls, and simplified boxes. Added to this is a recognized absence of commissions by nationally-recognized firms or by Indiana-based architects of thus recognized significance, such work being limited to one 1970s residential commission by Indianapolis-based modernist Avriel Shull; three works by the Indianapolis-based firm of McGuire and Shook; and two downtown bank buildings by the prolific Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America. The effect of all this is that Evansville was never really “put on the map” for its architecture.

Yet, amidst it all, there’s a forgotten and presently unnoticed legacy of local modernism, which appeared in pockets of noteworthy expression during the period. To be certain, the idea of a forgotten or unnoticed legacy of local modernism is not exclusive to Evansville, but is something that many small-to-medium-sized communities throughout the country face. The unfortunate side of this is that, while it’s great for a community to be able to boast the work of a recognized master, the stories and importance of local modernisms are often lost or marginalized when they should be equally – or more so – celebrated. From the earth-hugging profiles of modernist residential design to the inspiring angles of ecclesiastical design, these places are “of the community” in which they are located. That is, they weren’t drawn at the hand of outside architects but were crafted by an influential pool of, in this case, Evansville-based architects from the ideas, desires, and needs of the local citizenry to provide places to live, work, and play. Rooted in emerging principles in design, and, more importantly, the local context, the local architectural dialogue resulted in a rich and varied tapestry of design cast amidst the physical fabric of years past, forming the backdrop of everyday life at midcentury.

Image (right): Cover for forthcoming book, Vision & Legacy: The Work of Hironimus-Knapp-Given Associates.

Recognizing this lost legacy in Evansville, the project Unnoticed Modern: The Midcentury Architecture of Evansville was begun in 2012 to engage Evansville’s local brand of modernism. Not designed to be an academic exercise, the project concept is directed at public education with the goal of raising awareness of and stimulating conversation about Evansville’s more recent architectural narrative, which, like that of preceding years, contributes to the city’s rich continuum of history, continuity of place, and community identity. In addition to ongoing presentations, articles, photography exhibits, and other programming, the project will result in two freely available books: Unnoticed Modern: The Midcentury Architecture of Evansville, which looks at domestic, commercial, ecclesiastical, and community-based architecture throughout the city,  and Vision & Legacy: The Work of Hironimus-Knapp-Given Associates, a retrospective on the prominent Evansville-based firm .

Image (left): Bob Knapp in his self-designed home, 1952. Courtesy of Kristie Knapp Kirsch.

A product of research, documentation, and engagement, the project has also been one of discovery – particularly of the lost legacy of architect Ralph Robert (Bob) Knapp, who, with partners John Hironimus and Wally Given, promoted contemporary design throughout Evansville and the tri-state region. Unapologetically true to his times, Knapp was — perhaps like no other in Evansville—a modernist in all facets of his life, from his skinny neck ties to the clean lines of his residential designs. His affinity for the contemporary was matched only by his frankness, openness, and good humor, through which he built relationships and inspired others in the shared vision of Evansville’s future. Convicted by an unshakable belief in both his work and his community, Knapp embraced life, his profession, and the City of Evansville, taking leadership in both the professional (he was the first president of the Evansville district of the Indiana Society of Architects, an affiliate of the AIA) and local community, imprinting his desires for a better city.

A native of Evansville, Knapp was born in 1925 to Ralph Paul and Leona Knapp; his father was an industrial designer and draftsman in the architectural department of the Evansville Planing Mill Company. Much of his early childhood split between Evansville and Chicago, Knapp returned to Evansville in 1941, enrolling at Bosse High School and taking courses at the Mechanic Arts School. Although graduated in 1943, Knapp never had the opportunity to attend his own graduation. Swept up in the war effort, he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of seventeen, and was ordered to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago. Stationed on multiple vessels during his tenure, Knapp, a second class aviation ordnanceman, notably served as a turret gunner with Torpedo Squadron No. 80, attached to the U.S.S. Ticonderoga in the Pacific, with which he completed more than twenty combat missions.[1]
 
Released from the Navy in May 1946, Knapp formalized his education, enrolling in the Architecture program of the School of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Knapp also bolstered his education with practical experience, spending summer breaks from 1947 to 1950 as a draftsman in the employ of Evansville architect Ralph Legeman. Graduated in January 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in Architecture, Knapp returned to his hometown of Evansville permanently, and went to work full-time for Legeman, in his office starting February 1951.

Image (right): Architectural sketch of Washington Square Mall, 1963. Courtesy of VPS Architecture.

While Knapp designed for all property types – from the roadside architecture of local icons such as the Dubl-“R”-Drive-In in Evansville and the Clover Leaf Motel at Kentucky Dam to Indiana’s first enclosed shopping mall, Washington Square Mall (now much altered) – he was first and foremost interested in residential design, through which he quickly rose to prominence. At the helm of a new breed of local architecture, Knapp embraced a contemporary architecture that had previously been absent from Evansville. With private commissions quickly amassing, Knapp left Legeman’s office in September 1952, following which he established his own practice. During the course of his private practice, Knapp is noted as having designed upwards of 50 residences throughout the tri-state region, primarily for noted business and community leaders, which often became the scene of gatherings by Evansville’s socialites; unfortunately, only about half of these remain. In addition to private commissions, Knapp also served as board member and lead architect for Modern Homes of Evansville, Inc., established in 1952, which offered a contemporary alternative to traditional tract housing.

Image (right): Knapp’s design for the 1950 Indianapolis Home Show. Jenner, Harriet. “Local Home Designer R.R. Knapp To Build Home,” Evansville Press, July 5, 1951.

 

Knapp’s first realized residential work was that of his own home. In 1951, Knapp and his young bride, Norma, purchased a wooded lot on the outskirts of Evansville and, employing a modified version of a competition piece design he had submitted for the 1950 Indianapolis Home Show Exhibition, began construction on their house. Adapting the nearly-transparent post-and-beam framework of his competition design to the local landscape, Knapp cast his house in vertical redwood siding and incorporated wide expanses of full-height plate glass windows juxtaposed against sensual appeals of wood and stone. On the interior, features such as burlap-clad walls, a stone fireplace resting on tubular steel supports, and interior planters set off the H-shaped form of the house. Completed in mid-1952, the house represented a stark departure from the traditional architecture of Evansville and was, more explicitly than any other design in the city, the articulation of contemporary trends in architecture.

Image (left): Bob Knapp’s self-designed home (1952). Courtesy of Kristie Knapp Kirsch.

 

 

 

 

Image (left): Bob Knapp’s wife, Norma, in their kitchen (1952). Courtesy of Kristie Knapp Kirsch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image (left): Knapp House (1952). Photo by Alan Higgins, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image (left): Knapp House (1952), living room (carpet over original polished concrete slab). Photo by Alan Higgins, 2013.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image (left): Knapp House (1952), hallway with original cork floors, burlap-clad walls, and light fixtures. Photo by Alan Higgins, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a combination of both his talent and his approach that propelled Knapp’s residential career in the 1950s, following the completion of his own home. A firm believer in modernism, Knapp was outspoken about his design: “Look at it this way. When a client comes into our office the only buildings he knows are the ones he has seen. Why give him something that has been done two hundred times before when you can design for him something that he has never seen that is better?[2]Yet, through it all he was tempered by his intimate approach to client interaction, so focused that the architect’s vision appropriately reflected the needs and desires of the client: “The more you understand about your clients the better the plan you can design. You need to know… how your clients live and their little idiosyncracies. [sic] You could easily study your clients for three months, go to parties with them, spend a weekend in their home if possible, before you draw that first line on paper. Of course that’s the idealistic approach.”[3]
 
Talent and approach recognized, clients from throughout the region flocked to Knapp throughout the early-to-mid-1950s in the shared vision of a contemporary residential architecture, which frequently captured the attention of the local press. Redwood siding and Tennessee crab orchard stone were favorite materials, and colorful geometric panels commonly adorned elevations, punctuating the earthen structural and cladding materials. Knapp’s housing varied widely in composition, from linear post-and-beam frameworks, to Wrightian-inspired forms that melded into the landscape, to dramatically articulated, glass-filled shapes that provided open views to surrounding landscapes. Through such work, Knapp brought modernism to the guarded residential landscape of Evansville (Photos 11-15).
 
Image (left): William Bulger House (1956). Photo by Alan Higgins, 2013.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Image (left): Roy Corbell House (1956). Courtesy of VPS Architecture.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Image (left): J.R. Andrews House (1955). Courtesy of VPS Architecture.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
Image (left): Iley B. Browning, Jr. House (1954). Photo by Alan Higgins, 2013.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Image (left): Iley B. Browning, Jr. House (1954). Note the geometric panels, which are common features of Knapp’s residential work. Photo by Alan Higgins, 2013.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
An artist of multiple talents, Knapp engaged design beyond architecture, particularly into the 1970s. His work included, among other things, custom fountains and sculptures designed for and installed along the Evansville’s serpentine Main Street walkway, crafted by Knapp in 1972. At a more personal level, his artistry led him to a passion for crafting intricate jewelry and artwork out of horseshoe nails, which he intended to continue pursuing following his retirement from the architectural profession. However, Knapp never made it to retirement. Bothered by health problems but committed to his profession, Knapp continued designing until his passing in August 1982, at just 57 years of age. Through it all, though, he remained committed to modernism, a passion memorialized in his obituary: “Mr. Knapp believed in modern architecture, and objected to imitating old forms of architecture with modern, available materials. One example was in the early 60s, when a Baptist group wanted to put a traditional painting of a river behind the baptistry [sic]. He called it artificial, and elaborated on the idea to let the water flow through the baptistry [sic] in a clear pool outside—the result: a real waterfall.”[4]
 
Image (right): Eastern Heights Baptist Church (1962), now demolished. From “New Design for Church,” Evansville Press, November 26, 1962.
 
 

Alan Higgins is the Director of Architectural and Cultural History for Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc. (CRA), which has a branch office in Evansville, Indiana. Formerly the president of the Recent Past Preservation Network, Alan presently sits on the Indiana Modern committee of Indiana Landmarks, the statewide non-profit preservation organization, is the president of the Preservation Alliance of Evansville, and a recent appointee to the Evansville Historic Preservation Commission. When finished, both Unnoticed Modern: The Midcentury Architecture of Evansville and Vision & Legacy: The Work of Hironimus-Knapp-Given Associates will be freely available at the CRA website, and other outlets, or by contacting Alan at sahiggins[AT]crai-ky.com.


[1] Notice of Separation from U.S. Naval Service, Ralph Robert Knapp, File No. 291-92-21. May 20, 1946. Papers in possession of Keith Knapp, AIA.
[2] Blackburn, Thomas E., “Young Men in a Hurry,” Evansville Press, 25 September, 1961.
[3] Jenner, Harriet, “Local Home Designer R.R. Knapp To Build Home,” Evansville Press, 5 July 1951.
[4] “Designer of Walkway, Ralph Robert Knapp,” Evansville Press, 18 August 1982.

 

 

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