Preservation, Road Trips

The Pyramids, an Indianapolis landmark on the Michigan Road

The Pyramids

They’re an improbable sight as you drive the Michigan Road in northwest Indianapolis, these three towers of concrete and glass reflecting the sun. Impossible to miss as you drive by, The Pyramids are a true Indianapolis landmark.

In the mid 1960s, Indianapolis-based College Life Insurance Company of America had grown so much it needed a new headquarters. Anticipating strong ongoing growth, they wanted to be able to build onto their headquarters as needed.

They gave these requirements to well-known architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, who responded with this innovative semi-pyramidal design.

Under construction, Nov. 1970. Photo found at lostindiana.net

Each pyramid rises eleven stories, with an L-shaped concrete core facing the north and west, supporting each floor. The south and east faces are covered in reflective glass. The concrete sections contain elevators, restrooms, and limited office space. The floors themselves are open and airy, well lit through two wide walls of windows. To maintain the open feeling, low, open workstations were installed rather than subdividing the space into offices. It was open plan before open plan was cool.

pyramid_bw

Shortly after completion. Notice how the glass panes were originally smaller and more numerous. Photo found at f—yeahbrutalism.tumblr.com

The buildings are interconnected, with walkways at the second floor and underground.

These first three pyramids were completed in 1972. Plans called for six more, to create a three-by-three array. But plans changed. I hear that the coming of computerization played a role: as College Life increasingly stored records on computer, the company needed less space to store documents, and therefore didn’t need more pyramids as soon as expected. But what probably played the largest role in only three being built was that College Life merged with another insurance company and moved its headquarters out of state. The merged company is known by another name today.

Since then, The Pyramids have been leased to other corporate tenants. For a year or so in about 2000, I worked in Pyramid 2 (the middle one) on the second floor. I was excited by the prospect of working in these landmark buildings and was initially thrilled that the team that I led would get what I thought were prized workstations in the corner created by the two glass walls. We all thought it would be fabulous to directly enjoy all that light. But thanks to all that glass, those workstations were freezing cold all winter and boiling hot all summer. The climate-control system along the outer wall roared in futility most of the year trying to keep up, and we couldn’t concentrate for all the noise. Shortly we abandoned those workstations and moved inward. And none of us enjoyed the humidity and dank odor inside the concrete core. Here’s hoping the building’s owner has solved these quality-of-life problems since then.

Yet The Pyramids remain an arresting sight from the Michigan Road, an architectural marvel you need to see when you visit the city.

The Pyramids

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37 thoughts on “The Pyramids, an Indianapolis landmark on the Michigan Road

  1. Bill Bussell says:

    You hit a real key when you wrote College Life merged, and now under a different name. Great picture on your part from the perfect angle. I suspect they rent space in there to just about anyone these day. I went to a time-share event with my young daughter a few years ago in a Pyramid to back her up. I knew what to expect, and they did not like us much when we left. It opened my daughter’s eyes. I have a feeling, but no statistical proof, that Indianapolis wad headquarters to many life insurance companies in the past. I would see them in old Northside mansions, and dowtown buildings. Different names, but no more. I guess I should look at publications from Best Insurance because I don’t see Yellow Pages any longer. Another disappearing business are the many big printing companies. Most have disappeared.

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    • I think there were lots of smaller insurance companies around the nation back in the day. Every business has to be big now, and they do it through merger.

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  2. hmunro says:

    What an arresting sight that must be from the road! And how privileged you are to have actually worked inside one of those buildings. Although the experience sounds rather uncomfortable and disappointing, at least it allayed your curiosity about “what’s it like inside” — and this reader’s curiosity, too. Great post!

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  3. Andy Umbo says:

    I have a business associate in one of the buildings…don’t forget to mention that the inside bottom floor is decorated with pictures and Tut and other “Egyptiana”, I loved them more when I saw that…

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  4. I have seen these on visits to Indy and wondered about them. Thanks for letting me know what they are. I was surprised a while back to find that the open plan for office space goes back to at least the 1930’s. The original State Farm headquarters in downtown Bloomington IL used the idea. I don’t have any pictures hardy, however on the outside at least it is a lovely building.

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    • I’m in open plan at work right now and I’m not wild about it. But I have noise-canceling headphones, so when it gets noisy in here at least I have some refuge.

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  5. Steve Miller says:

    Couple other thoughts about these buildings and their practicality, or lack thereof. The first years after they were built, they lost LOTS of windows. Wind whistling by would just suck ’em out. And now that the windows stay in, drivers in the office park find themselves blinded on sunny mid-days.

    But the buildings are a striking design, even though current tenants are allowed to put up large signs advertising their names on the west and north sides of the buildings.

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    • I’ve heard about the window loss. I also heard that the original windows were so reflective that the sun would blind pilots flying nearby. I’ve personally been blinded by the current windows while driving through. I worked in The Quads (now Parkstone) across the street from the Pyramids for most of five years and just learned when to approach from the west rather than the south.

      I wish the tenant logos hadn’t gone up on the buildings; it spoils the purity of the design. But it’s the trend today.

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  6. Christopher Smith says:

    They sort of remind me of the sort of architecture from the film “Logan’s Run”
    it’s a nice photo with great reflections.

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  7. I graduated from North Central High in 84 and went to work for a company called AFR on the upper floor of the first pyramid. It did indeed have on open floor plan. The office walls were only about 9 feet tall, with a few feet of open space to the ceiling. ITT was in the building too. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my future father in law worked in the same building. I might’ve shared an elevator with him. The security office was in the concrete section on the first floor at that time.

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  8. As I was finishing law school, a friend got a non-legal job with a small company that had space there. In the mid 80s, the place had a vibe as high-end buildings. I don’t get the feeling that is true anymore. The HVAC is a mess with all the glass, as you learned. I think that their “form over function” design has sent them down into the realm of class B (if not C) office space much sooner than normal.
    And yes, Indianapolis was home to a ton of small insurance companies. My first law firm was in a building at 36th and Meridian that had been built by Sun Life Insurance in the 50s.

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  9. Heather Terrell says:

    I work in the building directly to the south and they are quite a sight on a nice day with the lake right there. Very pretty.

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  10. Bruce Jennings says:

    They also had to replace the original windows. The way they were made and designed to reflect some of the sun caused problems. In early mornings the sun beams were actually reflecting so bad that they would actually blind pilots trying to land in Cincinnati. So the FAA made them use another type of glass.

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  11. Kathy Conflenti says:

    I had the priveledge as a child to watch the fireworks downtown on July 4th from the roof top shortly after it was built. My god father, Bob Ehmer had something to do with its construction. The whole experience etched firmly in my mind.

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  12. Marcia Durham says:

    Worked there during the 70’s and when they had lots of problems with leakage and cracked glass.I worked there for 16 years for College Life Insurance. I hope that somehow the pyramids are maintained because the design is a landmark. There was to be more built around the first ones, but they had so many problems with the first 3 that idea was cancelled.

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    • Marcia, thanks for the first-hand experience report! Given my experience there in about 2000, I’m not surprised to hear of the challenges those buildings had in the ’70s.

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  13. Nancy B says:

    I worked in Building #1 in 1975-1976. I recall that during construction the windows in one building were installed backwards, you could see in but you couldn’t see out. Oops! #YouHadOneJob

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