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Will Cooler Heads Prevail?

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Architect Harry Cooler's work has reached landmark status in an unfortunate way -- when one of his houses was placed on this year's Indiana Landmarks 10 Most Endangered List.

Cooler is an unsung hero of modern architecture in Indianapolis. But he is known to those who appreciate modernism and to those who live in his thoughtfully designed homes. Currently a Harry Cooler house is for sale for more than a half million dollars in a Northside Indianapolis neighborhood.

What does Cooler say about having one of his houses reach that high water mark? "Well, that's interesting to hear." A laconic understatement that is typical Cooler.

Harry Cooler used glass to eliminate the divide between outside and inside at this house on 79th Street. - CONNIE ZEIGLER
  • Connie Zeigler
  • Harry Cooler used glass to eliminate the divide between outside and inside at this house on 79th Street.

He wasn't aware that the house at 5 West 79th Street, built in 1956 for Dr. Paul Lurie, was for sale for $549,900. But he "hope[s] they get what they're asking. That was a good house that fit nicely on the site." Indeed it does, with mostly glass walls overlooking the meander of Williams Creek and a wooded bluff at the rear.

Cooler is far more interested in what's happening with the other house, the one on Fry Road near Greenwood, the house that is threatened by neglect. "It's a shame. It's fixable. I'm hoping [Indiana] Landmarks can save it and I want to be involved in its restoration." That statement is somewhat remarkable considering he's in his late 80s, but then again, he didn't retire until he was 74.

Born in Indianapolis in 1925, Cooler served in World War II and then entered the University of Illinois' School of Architecture in 1946. The school had an interesting studio approach. Cooler and his fellow students met and were critiqued by visiting architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson and Richard Neutra -- shining lights of U.S. modernism.

Cooler graduated and started his career in Indianapolis in the office of Edward D. James. It was James who encouraged him to start his own practice, which he eventually did in 1955.

In his own firm, in addition to designing commercial buildings, schools and churches, Cooler struck a chord of residential modernism throughout the then-new suburbs of Indianapolis, Carmel and Greenwood. From modest to magnificent, Cooler's designs were sited to take advantage of their surroundings while offering his clients the floor plans best suited to their particular needs.

Harry Cooler designed this octagonal house at 8531 Springview Drive in 1961.  A pilot friend once told the architect that it was a landmark he looked for as he flew over the city. - CONNIE ZEIGLER
  • Connie Zeigler
  • Harry Cooler designed this octagonal house at 8531 Springview Drive in 1961. A pilot friend once told the architect that it was a landmark he looked for as he flew over the city.

Today, whether clad in redwood, stucco or brick, Cooler's designs hold up well and still make a smart modern statement. Some are rectilinear in plan, others are stacked cubes. One is an octagon. Rooflines range from flat to hipped to gabled -- each house is unique. The collection is tied together only by Cooler's stylish thread of modernism.

Becoming concerned about his legacy, Cooler recently compiled a book about his work, "Contemporary Houses of the Mid-20th Century in the State of Indiana." In it, he states that he designed more than 35 homes in Indiana. Of these, about 20 were contemporary/modern in design. And of those, three have been demolished, six (including the one on the Endangered List) are in what he terms  as "in disrepair" and only 11 are in good shape and still retain his original design. Those 11 were photographed for the book and included along with some typically terse text by Cooler.

The house on W. 79th Street made the cut. The one on Fry Road didn't; it is in terrible shape and he didn't want to show it. But if Cooler has his way, he'll get to design the restoration plans for that house. Maybe he'll include it in a revised edition of his book. After he retires -- again.

Read more about Harry's Cooler's Mill House on Indiana Landmarks 10 Most Endangered List.

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