Not Too Big to Fail

Not Too Big to Fail

Deborah Berke’s Irwin Union bank branch, completed in 2006 in Columbus, Indiana.
Chris Floyd

The town of Columbus, Indiana, with its rich history and commitment to modernist design, has lost one of its most important architectural patrons, the Irwin Union Bank and Trust Company.

The banking institution failed last September, its assets seized and sold to First Financial Bank of Cincinnati, Ohio. Among those assets are a handful of branches and corporate offices throughout Indiana designed by Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, Harry Weese, Paul Kennon, Fisher & Spillman, Deborah Berke, and Carlos Jimenez. This is an inventory of serious architecture spanning half a century, starting with the Saarinen branch that transformed retail banking in 1954.

The first major commission for the bank was a branch designed by Eero Saarinen. It is currently listed on the Register of National Historic Places.
National Register/flickr

It is unlikely that First Federal will commission new branches on the level of significance that Irwin Union had. “It took us all by surprise,” Jimenez, who heard the news from Berke, told AN. “We always expected it to be there. It seems like a place with strong Midwestern values.”

The Saarinen building is a National Historic Landmark, but the fate of the other branch buildings lies with First Financial. With a change in corporate ownership comes rebranding, and with rebranding comes new signage—at a minimum. The question is whether or not unfaithful alterations or worse, demolition, will occur. In a statement, First Financial acknowledged the significance of their buildings in Indiana: “We work with state architectural experts and government agencies, including the State Historic Preservation Office and the Department of Natural Resources, to understand and comply with preservation policies.”

Carlos Jimenez’s Semour, Indiana, branch, built in 2001.
Paul Hester/Hester+Hardaway

But many of the branches are contemporary structures, not historic. Jimenez, who designed a prototype branch first built in 2001 in Seymour, Indiana and a consolidated mortgage banking headquarters in Indianapolis, is concerned about maintaining architectural integrity. “Normally, there’s a sense of loyalty when you design a home or apartment— a sense of continuity—but with a corporate shakeup, you start to wonder,” he said. “Will they change the location of signage, alter the landscape, or reposition the approach?”

Despite concerns regarding preservation, another strong advocate for architecture and design remains in Columbus. The Cummins Foundation, the charitable arm of the engine manufacturing company headquartered in town, continues to pay the architectural fees for local public facilities, including schools and firehouses. The Miller family controlled Irwin Union and still controls Cummins. (They also commissioned Saarinen’s renowned Miller House and Garden, whose future is also in limbo.)

Jimenez’s headquarters for Irwin Mortgage, completed in 2003.
Paul Hester/Hester+Hardaway

Tracy Souza, president of the foundation, said that while they do not have a preservationist mission, they are engaged in the development of numerous projects. The engine company itself broke ground in the fall on an advanced manufacturing facility designed by Cesar Pelli. Pelli is no stranger to Columbus or the vulnerability of design, as his downtown mall, constructed in 1973, was recently split in half, re-skinned, and redeveloped.

Jimenez remains concerned for the old Irwin Union branches. “Architecture has mortality to it,” he said. Only time will tell if First Financial will breathe long life into its buildings, remaining faithful to the spirit of its new community.