By CONNIE ZEIGLER Contributing editor
In 1969 one of the once-most-respected architects of European modernism moved to Indianapolis to take a job at a local development/architecture firm. The architect was Jan Ruhtenberg, once internationally known protégé of the most famous architect of modern times, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and once a former partner on several projects with one of America’s best-known modernists, Philip Johnson, and this nation’s first instructor of European modernism.
Ruhtenberg’s arrival in the city that was – at that time and, frankly, for many years to come – an architectural backwater could have created a tsunami of design projects, conference keynotes and mentoring opportunities. It would be easy to imagine that Ruhtenberg became the toast of the creative crowd, inspired a generation of young architects to reach higher, even helped change the face of the city in which he spent his last years.
But, as you must have guessed, none of that happened, though it’s hard to say why.
Alexander Gustav “Jan” Ruhtenberg left a teaching position to follow his two sons, Jan-Thiel, the general merchandise manager at H. P. Wasson and Co., and Wessel, a draftsman at the recently formed Multi-Planners, Inc., to Indianapolis. Probably through Wessel’s influence, Multi-Planners, Inc. offered Jan a position as architect and he took it.
His new employers published a flyer not long after Jan accepted the position with them, shortly after the company formed as the architecture arm of Justus Companies, a multi-disciplinary collection of sibling companies that included an engineering group, a building group and a real estate firm. Multi-planners added architectural design to the family.
The company produced a brochure in their first year outlining objectives, announcing a major project, the Lakeview Terrace apartments, and introducing the professional staff. William E. Justus, realtor, developer and builder, was president. William L. Beamen, previously the chief architect for Gene B. Glick, a multi-family housing developer, was vice president; Meredith Shotts was business manager; Rudy Raper, chief draftsman; Wessel Ruhtenberg, design draftsman.
Last on the page, but presumably not least: “A. G. Jan Ruhtenberg, architect.” His brief bio was a full line longer than any of the others. It introduced Jan as: “the only private student accepted by the world-famous German architect, Mies van der Rohe. Mr. Ruhtenberg was a professor at Columbia University after he came to the United States from Europe in 1934. He has also taught architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Denver. For 25 years he practiced architecture at Colorado Springs, Colo. Mr. Ruhtenberg has won many prizes for his designs in competition in Sweden and the United States. He is a member emeritus of the American Institute of Architects. During his long career as an architect Mr. Ruhtenberg has designed churches, schools, hotels and office buildings, as well as private residences and a museum.”
That impressive-sounding list was not in the least hyperbolic.
It didn’t include, but could have: designer of the House of Vistas for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York; designer or co-designer of the seminal Machine Art Show at the Museum of Modern Art; designer of two lines of furniture – one for Wanamaker Department Store, one for Herman Miller; architect to the Swedish royal family; award-winning architect of a residential development in Colorado; designer for Chrysler Corp.’s war work, and much more.
So much more that Jan’s resume, now in the collection held by his grandson, Vess Ruhtenberg, is 11 single-spaced pages long.
But did Indianapolis creatives sit up and take notice when this giant in his field took a position in this town? Nope.
Perhaps by the time Jan Ruhtenberg moved to Indianapolis he was too old to interest the body of working architects in the city. He was already 73 when he moved here, well past the work life of most Americans. But on the other hand, architects as a group tend to hang on and continue contributing, sometimes well into their ninth decade and beyond. William A. Browne Jr., principal of Ratio Architects, says that in this field practitioners are expected to hit their peak performance starting around age 60. Frank Lloyd Wright worked until his death at age 91. Mies Van der Rohe’s last building was completed after his death at age 83. Philip Johnson lingered for 99 years; his last building was completed two years later.
And then there was Jan Ruhtenberg.
While he might once have been considered great, Jan’s career did not follow the path of those greats. He worked quietly and unremarkably at Multi-Planners, Inc., from 1969 until 1973, when he was 76. Then, living alone in an apartment on East 11th Street he filled his remaining days riding the city bus to the end of the bus line. And then riding it back again.
Drinking too much and smoking too much (his grandfather founded a cigarette manufacturing company in his homeland of Riga, Latvia), Jan died on New Year’s Day, 1975. No Indianapolis newspaper mentioned his passing.
Connie Zeigler is the author of a short book about Jan Ruhtenberg, designed and published in 2020 by Commercial Artisan and available at https://www.commercialarticle.com. A historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis, Connie owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.