In Louisville, Kentucky, a newly restored office building reveals its Miesian bloodlines
J. Michael Welton -- Interior Design, 5/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
The American Life building in 1974.
An early office interior with 1937 steel desks.
The library, with its Florence Knoll walnut-topped table.
The lobby's Ludwig Mies van der Rohe seating and tables and custom reception desk, designed by Potter & Associates Architects's Daniel Spitler and fabricated by sculptor Tom Butsch in stainless steel and granite.
The site in Riverfront Plaza by Doxiadis Associates.
The renovated IT department's maple-trimmed workstations.
The same space in 1973.
|New York famously owes the Seagram Building to Phyllis Lambert, who persuaded her father, Samuel Bronfman, to hire Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1954. In 1969 in Louisville, Kentucky, 26-year-old Nana Lampton did the persuading. And her father, American Life and Accident Insurance Company of Kentucky president and COO Dinwiddie Lampton, Jr., ultimately hired the Bauhaus master to design a six-story building that turned out to be one of his last.
The elder Lampton had been talking to local and national architects about building a new headquarters for his company. But none inspired him. That's when his daughter, who'd studied Mies at Wellesley College, turned to her father and said, "Just call him up."
The 82-year-old architect accepted the commission over the phone with a single sentence. "I would like to build a sculpture in the plaza," he said, referring to Riverfront Plaza, which his friend Constantinos A. Doxiadis, the landscape architect, had recently completed. A flurry of preliminary site plans and sketches followed—only to be interrupted two months later by Mies's death. His partner Bruno Conterato was the one who went on to develop working drawings and execute the original vision, commuting from Chicago over a four-year period.
There were contextual challenges at the outset: Harrison & Abramovitz had already begun work on a 40-story office tower across the street. So Mies conceived of his "sculpture" as sitting in a "nest of towers," Lamp- ton says. Just like the Seagram Building, American Life is set back in a raised plaza; 80-foot-wide granite steps descend to the street.
For the "sculpture" itself, Lampton continues, Mies and Conterato had come up with a single concept: "The air supports the cube." Again in the Seagram Building mode, the glassed-in lobby is recessed 15 feet from structural columns. At four per elevation, they define three bays with 42-foot spandrels and minimize the need for interior columns on all six levels.
Granite dominates the lobby. A series of 1,700-pound slabs of Texas granite clads the core that houses elevators and mechanicals. The granite's fractured crystals and rough surface contrast with the brightly polished treatment of the same stone on the floor.
The interiors of this little-known gem hold special meaning to Lampton—as the woman who helped make them possible and is now overseeing their renewal in her role as American Life's chairman and CEO. "Every day," she says, "the materials speak to me."
When Turner Construction Co. completed the building for Conterato in 1973, Rick Merritt was 9 years old. Today, he's the senior project manager handling the renovation. "Nana's vision was to return the building to the state it deserves, back to class A office space," he says. Over the past two years, that's involved working with Potter & Associates Architects to replace the HVAC system, lighting, and wiring throughout the building.
The lobby received minimal updates. Turner Construction asked Rosa Mosaic & Tile Company to match the Texas granite, but—finding the original quarry closed—the company substituted a North Carolina equivalent. The new stone now forms the front and sides of a reception desk designed by Potter & Associates and fabricated by Louisville sculptor Tom Butsch. Mies's black leather-covered Barcelona chairs and daybeds furnish the glass pavilion, a visual pun composed by Lampton.
On the fifth floor, home to American Life's own offices, renovations are also complete. (Remaining floors will be renovated once leases are signed.) Thanks to the lack of interior columns, vistas sweep from the Ohio River to downtown Louisville.
In the meeting area, a Mies sofa in pumpkin-colored leather faces a Charles Pfister love seat upholstered in moss-green velvet. In the adjacent library, Florence Knoll's large oval walnut- topped table is placed right by the full-height windows. Walls painted cream and carpet the color of hops characterize the office area, where maple-trimmed workstations with pearly taupe panel fabric have replaced steel desks from 1937.
Every seat on the fifth floor yields an uncanny feeling of floating above the city, with water and traffic running past. "I've been here 40 years now," Lampton says. "I look out over the river, and I can see the storms coming—and the sunsets."
"I don't know what kind of building would be there without Nana Lampton," says architect Rowland Miller, an observer of the Louisville scene. "What Mies did was spiritual. It reminds you of a Greek temple, but it's still engaged with the street."
Lampton remembers one of her earliest conversations with Turner Construction: "I said I wanted the building to last 300 years, and people laughed at the time. It was such an alien concept."