These days, when a company finds itself in need of more space than its current building affords, it moves to a bigger one, expands the one it has, or does a full teardown-and-rebuild. But considering only these options shows a certain failure of imagination, as underscored by the video above: a brief summary of how the Indiana Bell Telephone Company added a second building alongside its Indianapolis headquarters — but only after hoisting up the latter and pivoting it 90 degrees on its side. “This was no small task,” says the video’s narrator, “as the eight-story, steel-frame-and-brick building measured about 100 by 135 feet, and weighed 11,000 tons.”
But between October 20th and November 14th, 1930, the company did indeed manage to turn and shift the entire structure as planned, “and the move caused no service outages, and all 600 workers within the building still reported to work every day.”
This necessitated lengthening and making flexible all its utility cables and pipes, then lifting it a quarter-inch with jacks and placing it on rollers. “Every six strokes of the jacks would shift the building three-eighths of an inch, moving it fifteen inches per hour.” As for Indiana Bell’s employees, they entered and left their slowly pivoting workplace “using a movable passenger walkway that moved with the building.” To Kurt Vonnegut Jr., then eight years old, all this must have been an impressive sight indeed.
The young novelist-to-be must have seen it not just because he was born and raised in Indianapolis, a fact he referenced throughout his life, but because his father was the project’s lead architect. Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. followed in the footsteps of his own father Bernard Vonnegut, designer of Das Deutsche Haus, today known as the Athenaeum, which the National Register of Historic Places designates as “the best preserved and most elaborate building associated with the German American community of Indianapolis.” This German legacy would prove rather more complicated for the most famous Vonnegut of them all, imprisoned in Dresden as he was during World War II. The darkness of his experience manifests in his work, not least his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five; but so, one imagines, does the near-fantastical practicality of 1930s Indianapolis.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.