“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,” Ralph Robert “Bob” Knapp once said. “Of course, that’s the idealistic approach.”
Yet Knapp wasn’t an idealist. The son of Ralph Paul Knapp and Leona S. Rohlfer was one of Evansville’s most prominent architects of the Mid-Century Modern style, but he was also part of the Greatest Generation. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy before he even graduated from high school, served as a machine gunner, and was inches away when his own best friend, a navigator, was shot through the eyes and killed during a World War II dogfight. When he returned from the war, Knapp earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois in 1951. By 1960, he was a partner in the Evansville architectural firm of Hironimus-Knapp-Given Associates, sharing offices with fellow architects John Hironimus and Wallace Given. Knapp wore skinny neckties, told people the truth, and was always on the lookout for new, innovative ideas that would inspire him to think differently.
“We were always like, ‘Come on, Dad!’” Kristie Knapp Kirsch laughs, recalling the ways he’d make Kristie and her brother, Keith, wait around on trips outside of Evansville while he snapped photographs of items he thought were contemporary or unusual. “It always drove us crazy as kids.”
The Evansville resident is happy to talk about her father, who died from a heart attack at age 57, and she’ll likely have more to say about him when S. Alan Higgins makes two projects available to the public in January. Higgins, 30, is an architectural historian and serves as the director of architectural and cultural history for Cultural Resource Analysts Inc., which is located in the Old Courthouse. He is the president of the Preservation Alliance of Evansville and also sits on the board of Indiana Modern, Indiana Landmarks’ statewide advisory committee.
Since around March 2011, he has researched and documented, through photography, existing Modern architecture in Evansville built between 1945 and 1975. In all, this Louisvillenative and married father of two has documented more than 250 examples of modern architecture throughout the city, largely because of his own interest in the subject. Now, he is in the final stages of completing the book “Unnoticed Modern: The Mid-Century Architecture of Evansville, Indiana.” His second project, “Vision & Legacy,” will focus on the work of Hironimus-Knapp-Given, a regionally important firm whose work, Higgins says, has been previously unrecognized. Both works, when completed, will be freely available to the public through local and statewide preservation agencies.
The book introduces and explains the concept of Modernism in Evansville and how it evolved from designs of previous decades to become more prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s through architects like Knapp. Individual chapters of the book are dedicated to architecture in five categories. Higgins illustrates these chapters with his own photographs.
Higgins says the “Unnoticed Modern” project is the first systematic look at this period of Evansville’s history. In fact, Evansville is not very well known for its Mid-Century Modern structures — at least when compared to Columbus, Ind., whose best-known home of this period is the Miller House. Designed by Eero Saarinen, the house was commissioned in 1953 by industrialist J. Irwin Miller, one of the co-founders of Cummins, a diesel engine manufacturer.
“The significance of the Mid-Century Modern movement is it represented a shift away from the hand-made organic architecture of the pre-World War II era to that of man-made material and technical innovation,” says Stewart Sebree, director of Indiana Landmarks’ Southwest Field Office in Evansville.
Modern materials, such as plastic, molded plywood, Plexiglas, aluminum, and Lucite, Sebree says, were hallmarks of the movement. The open concept designs married indoor spaces to the outside and changed how people used the designed environment.
“It’s about honesty with the construction materials — natural or synthetic — and a harmony of the building with its natural surroundings,” he adds.
In the post-war era, having a home meant attaining the American dream, Higgins says. That was a cherished concept. “But commissioned homes were sacred,” he says, adding that they weren’t just about utility. “They were designed to be engaged and molded by the client-homeowner, often becoming an extension or outward expression of their belief in the contemporary lifestyle.”
Some architects, notably Frank Lloyd Wright, designed architecture that fit the particulars of the architect rather than the homeowner. But this local brand of modernism was about collaboration and shared vision, Higgins says.
His projects involved extensive archival research and documentation. He reviewed city plats and subdivision plans and collected, scanned, and photographed original architectural drawings, specifications, and renderings.
One chapter of the “Unnoticed Modern” book will present biographies on some of the more prolific architects of the period. Hironimus, Knapp, and Given were tremendous community leaders, Higgins says, yet Knapp is one of the architects of the Mid-Century Modern period that Higgins most admires.
“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 and local community, through which he imprinted his desires for a better city,” Higgins writes in the work titled “Vision & Legacy.”
To understand how design can make a family happy, talk to Lucille “Lucy” Ewer. She’s 85 and still lives at what is referred to as the Iley Browning residence. Knapp designed the 440 Scenic Drive home, which was built in 1955, on Evansville’s East Side. Lucille Ewer and her late husband, Bob, purchased the home in 1974. They have four children.
“Even though we’re in the city, it’s more like being out in the country,” Ewer says about the foxes, hummingbirds, and even the occasional deer she can see from inside the house. “The upstairs has a lot of glass, too, and I like to read up there so I can see down into the backyard.”
Many windows and skylights provide ample light and allow Ewer to see out into the woods. At 3,100 square feet, the structure is large yet informal enough to accommodate holiday gatherings, like the one she will have this Thanksgiving with her children and grandchildren.
Evansville native and trained architect Keith Knapp grew up in the house at 2513 Allens Lane that his father built in 1952. The home has lots of glass, exposed wood beams, roof deck, and stone accent walls.
The home was unique in other ways, too. It was built with radiant heat piping, which was unusual at the time and meant that heat rose from the floor. Also, the exterior of the house was covered with redwood, which is resistant to termites, bugs, and possibly woodpeckers, Keith Knapp says.
That same redwood covers the exterior parts of the interior of the 22 Chandler Ave. home Evansville art collector and philanthropist William Gumberts commissioned in 1969 in Downtown Evansville. Matt Rowe and his partner, Ben Franz, rent this two-story rectangle with six round towers from owner Larry Miller, who resides in an adjacent house.
Rowe says that while Philip Brown proposed the initial design, the project was completed by architects Rupert Condict and Will Fosse.
“They worked with contractor Bob Davies, whose skilled craftsmen made the house a reality,” Rowe says. The exterior as well as parts of the interior are clad in vertical boards of center cut redwood. The wood conforms to the cylindrical curves of the house with no visible nail holes, Rowe says. Each piece is beveled and nailed on the back side. (Robert A. Davies died Oct. 15 at the age of 89.)
Rowe, incidentally, met Higgins through the Preservation Alliance of Evansville; Rowe actually preceded Higgins as president of that organization. He’s also very supportive of Higgins’ projects.
“Modern buildings here are often overlooked and demolished, or remodeled beyond recognition,” Rowe says. “Alan’s survey reminds us of the value of these buildings and of our own history.”
Higgins’ works, “Unnoticed Modern” and “Vision & Legacy,” will be appreciated by both preservation experts and novices. Ewer, for instance, freely admits that she is far from a student of architecture. Yet with her books, her light, her hummingbirds, and the large family that will visit her this Thanksgiving, she knows her Mid-Century Modern style home inside and out.
Besides, she adds, “Higgins is so pleasant to be with and to talk to,” Ewer says. “I think it’s going to be very interesting to read about all these homes. I really do.”
For more information on Alan Higgins’ projects, visit crai-ky.com/unnoticed-modern-the-midcentury-architecture-of-evansville-indiana/.