Rust Never Sleeps
By Robyn Davis Sekula
Louisville Magazine | November 2004
Louisville historian Tom Owen's walking tours of downtown always include a stop at the American Life building, a 1973 structure designed by “Iess-is-more” architectural legend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The austere, 128,000-square-foot building at 471 W. Main St. is composed of sheets of Cor-Ten steel, intended by the architect to rust over time to achieve a red-brown patina.
Owen, a University of Louisville archivist and metro councilman, tells his audiences that the rust is supposed to be beautiful, conjuring up a lengthy imaginary conversation between the architect and then-client Dinwiddie Lampton. As president of American Life and Accident Insurance Co. of Kentucky, Lampton commissioned the building in 1969, just a few months before Mies van der Rohe's death.
So imagine Owen's surprise when he discovered the building had been painted. “It sure took the wind out of my sails to walk up and see it painted,” Owen recently complained. “Do I think it looks better for the time being? Yeah. Has it ruined my rap? Yeah.”
For the record, that's not exactly paint that's been applied to the building. It’s a coating called Sher-Cryl, marketed by Sherwin-Williams to help stop rust in industrial settings. Nana Lampton, chairman and CEO of Hardscuffle Inc., the holding company of the family's insurance company, says she undertook the drastic measure to even out what had become a streaky, unattractive patina. Lampton was fresh from Wellesley College, where she studied Mies van der Rohe, when she suggested her father call the famed architect at his Chicago office and ask him to design a new building.
He sketched out the building as one of his last works before he died, Lampton says. An associate drew out the full architectural plans and watched the building come to fruition. The building has six stories above ground and three below. As Lampton understood then, the building would indeed rust, but she was told the rusting would stop after seven years. But it has continued the entire time the building has existed, she says, and repeated window washings over three decades have streaked the facade. Lampton felt the building's appearance needed some improvement, and the rusting had to, at the least, be stabilized.
To decide what to do with the building, Lampton called an expert on Cor-Ten steel, Stan Lore, who is now 92 and lives in Pittsburgh. Lore marketed and sold Cor-Ten for U. S. Steel Corp., and may know more about it than anyone else alive, according to John Armstrong, public-affairs manager for U.S. Steel. The steel giant's headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh, a 60-story office tower, was constructed of Cor-Ten steel in 1962. “It's beautiful,” Armstrong says of its rusty finish.
Lampton says Lore was “charming,” and very helpful. “He came and did an assessment and he suggested a chemical coating that would even out the rust,”she says. “This was a great solution that was used on the Civic Center in Chicago.”
Only a month after applying the coating, the American Life building hosted several sessions of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's national conference in late September. The “painting” of the building had preservationists building.
Scott Kremer, president of Studio Kremer Architects Inc. in Louisville, says he heard about the coating of the building but didn't believe it until he saw it during the conference. “It brought tears to my eyes,” Kremer says. “I think that is absolutely hideous. In its natural state it was a beautiful building. Part of it has been lost by denying the material its natural state.”
Lampton says she hasn't heard much criticism like Kremer's. “Only praise, really,” she says. “People believe that it dresses the building up. We had to do something. We couldn't get rid of the streaks. We couldn't get tenants for the building.”
- Robyn Davis Sekula