“This year, the Eiteljorg Museum celebrates its 30th anniversary. It was June of 1989 when Indianapolis celebrated the opening of a major new museum that has since become an icon of our city’s architectural landscape. It is fascinating to look at this building thirty years later and note how well it has stood the test of time. To create this dramatic piece of architecture, Harrison Eiteljorg took a young architect named Jonathan Hess to visit his beloved American Southwest. Hess borrowed the form, color, and texture of this region’s architecture – the pueblos, the ancient dwellings and the Spanish Territorial style — and merged what he observed and experienced into a single, strikingly beautiful building. I believe that Jonathan’s vision to abstract and synthesize these ancient forms into a unified modern building is the reason the Eiteljorg Museum is as handsome and compelling today as it was when it was created. And, that is why I believe the building will continue to be appealing for years to come.”

– John Vanausdall, President + CEO of the Eiteljorg

Where it all began 

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art opened their mahogany doors for the first time thirty years ago today – with a mission to educate, inspire and champion a growing understanding of Western art. The design that would become home to one of the finest collections of contemporary Native American art in the world, pays homage to the art, history, and culture of the Native American people.  

The story begins with a man named Harrison Eiteljorg, whose vision and generosity were the very foundation of the enduring institution. While out west on coal business, he was taken aback by the stark and impressive beauty of the landscape and enchanted by the simplicity of life on the mesa. His fascination manifested in a growing collection of American Indian art. Mr. Eiteljorg sought a museum design that would complement his collection…something “warm, inviting, and in the Southwestern style”. We embarked on a Chautauqua of the Southwest to ensure the culture that had captured him those years ago would inform the design of the project. 

Behind the design 

Upon approach of the museum, you’ll notice the façade of veined pink Minnesota dolomite and German sandstone. These materials were hand-chosen to capture the essence, texture, and color palette of the Southwest. Take a few steps forward, and you’ll be met by George Carlson’s The Greeting, a bronze sculpture of a Blackfoot Indian with arms open wide to receive those visiting. This sculpture, like the building, is seemingly abstract – yet offers up understanding upon a closer look 

Visitors enter through massive carved mahogany doors, to be greeted by earthen flooring that emulates the well-trodden paths of Taos, wide spaces, high ceilings, and a large open stairway leading to the exhibitions on the second floor. It is in this space that the design leans into the Native American cardinal directions. Traditionally, we recognize north, south, east, and west, but in the western Americas there are six or sometimes seven directions – adding center, above, and below to the directional compass.  

To emphasize the addition of ‘below’, the museum sits atop a circular foundation. Although not visible to the passerby, this foundation draws a parallel to the ‘kiva’ that is commonplace in Pueblo Indian architecture – a revered underground chamber typically utilized for religious ceremonies and tribal decision making. The notion of the kiva was included to figuratively and physically elevate the building as civic and cultural buildings present a more formal and formidable façade. 

As for ‘above’, it was originally thought to hang a spun copper dish decorated with a starry night sky in the foyer overhead. However, that dream could only be realized in a 4-foot format – far too small for the desired effect. These smaller fixtures were utilized in another space in the building, on the underside of the entry as you meander up through the wood canopy. So, back to the drawing board for an adequate fixture in the foyer…a woven basket expression was drummed up, but no one jumped at the opportunity to weave metal. We then collaborated with engineers and designers to come up with the notion of a copper chainmail fixture,…individual squares pop-riveted together. When asked ‘what color do you want?’ I reached into my pocket, pushed a pocketful of coins around in my hand to find a beautifully patinaed 1968 Denver penny. I taped that penny to the back of a business card and shipped it off as a sample for the light fixture. And so, the final form of the copper basket was achieved 

Closing remarks 

My thesis advisor in college, Jack Baker, spoke of architecture as setting the stage for the performance of life…you enter, you perform (or observe a performance), you leave. Architecture and design can inhibit or open the door to functional performance in a space. We, as a firm, are thrilled to have been a part of setting the stage for such an enduring performance. That’s when you know you’ve done it right; architecture at its best, fades into the back…it sets the stage and goes away. 

Here’s to thirty years of success – made possible by a collector who brought the West to the Midwest,  a community of companies and individuals who support cultural organizations, steadfast donors, wonderful staff and leadership, and the timely groundbreaking of White River State Park.

Congratulations, and thank you to the Eiteljorg and its patrons for allowing us the privilege of maintaining our relationship over the last three decades. 


Jonathan Hess