Twilight of the Poplars

The enigmatic past of the IU office building that will soon be no more
The Poplars Building was built as a private women’s dorm in 1964. (Photo: Mike Leonard)

As Indiana University moves to shutter the doors of the Poplars Building and prepare for its demolition, one thing about the nondescript and flawed building will live on in IU and Bloomington history.

Elvis Presley slept here. You can almost envision the historic site sign along East 7th Street now.

The university has been quietly emptying the building over the past year, moving numerous offices and departments into other spaces in university buildings. The pace has quickened in recent weeks, inviting comparisons to the evacuations of Vietnam and Afghanistan. When are the helicopters going to land on the roof?

“We might be out by the end of the month or the end of November,” says Tom Morrison, vice president of capital planning and facilities. “We do intend to demolish it, probably starting before the end of the calendar year. We haven’t bid that yet but that’s coming up soon.

“Rest assured we’re not going to implode it.”

The thousands of people who lived or worked in the enigmatic structure since it opened in 1964 might welcome the ‘bang, not a whimper’ demise.

Advetisement for the Poplars, 1964. (Courtesy: IU Archives)

The 8 story, 150,000 sq. ft. structure a block from the official IU boundaries was built to be a luxury women’s dormitory operating under an agreement with IU, which compels first-year students to live in university housing (with some exceptions). “Basically the idea was to attract students who didn’t want to join a sorority but wanted more amenities than were available on campus,” recalls J. Terry Clapacs, vice president emeritus and former chief administrative officer at IU.

“It had a nice indoor swimming pool and very fine dining facilities.”

The Poplars swimming pool, which was filled in in the seventies. (Courtesy: IU Archives)

And, oddly enough, the project was largely funded by the Teamsters union, which Clapacs described as the equity partner in the venture.

The massive rectangular structure with the modernist folded plate metal front roof was derided as being designed by Bland & Boring Architecture Inc. by the Bloomington Then and Now website as “actually quite unappealing.”

Despite sporting a recreational indoor pool that was rare at the time, the building failed to attract students as a women’s residence hall and failed again as a sorority. Bloomington Then and Now described the living quarters as “plain, lifeless, cold and boring” and quoted one sorority member saying “it was as if someone had designed the building without much thought at all.”

The building was converted to a hotel in 1967. (Courtesy: IU Archives)

The Poplars had morphed into a would-be research and conference center by the time Elvis performed the first of his two Bloomington performances in June, 1974.

Bloomington had no premium hotels at that point, making the Poplars an obvious choice for the king and his entourage. Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, actually flew into Bloomington with a small entourage to personally inspect the musical venue – the 2-year-old basketball arena, Assembly Hall, and the proposed quarters at the Poplars. He gave his approval.

Elvis made no comments about the arena, which quickly took on a bad reputation for poor sight lines and acoustics. But opening act, comedian Jackie Kahane, did offer a colorful description of the Poplars for his Bloomington audience. “The Poplars hotel is laid out like a golf course,” he said. “Every room is a hole.”

Elvis stayed at the Poplars the night before the show but left the building, and Bloomington, after his performance. His entourage stayed that night, however, taking up the entire eighth floor of the hotel. Adoring fans learned the Presley people were there and assumed Elvis was, too, and they crowded the alley behind the Poplars.

“There was a fairly large crowd that gathered outside in the alley and they were just going wild, yelling for Elvis, yelling for souvenirs,” hotel business manager Daryl Brawthen remembers. “Finally some of his troupe got into his rooms and just started throwing things out the windows – all the Poplars towels, wash rags, pillow cases and sheets. A lot of people thought they got a hold of something special.”

In reality, the room where Elvis slept had already been remade.

IU had purchased the building in 1972 and rebranded it as a Research and Conference Center but gave up on the concept in the late ‘70s because it still was not successful as a hotel and the university faced its own problems with a shortage of building space.

The newly created School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) was housed in the Poplars until its own building could be completed on 10th Street. Then, Clapacs says, the university decided that the building could be repurposed to provide much-needed office space.

The pool was filled in and the space became the home to the campus Human Resources department. “Most of the units in there have been university administrative offices (covering all IU campuses), like the Controller’s office (which includes functions including payroll), international affairs, institutional reporting,” says Morrison. “It really has been quite an array.”

“We really were lucky it became available when it did,” remembers Clapacs. “We certainly couldn’t have built space at that time, and it was a good deal in terms of dollars per square foot.”

For most of its lifetime, the Poplars was essentially full, with nearly 400 workers coming and going daily. A parking garage was added in 1980 and it will remain.

The building itself always drew mixed reviews from its users. It didn’t have the limestone charm of most IU buildings and the long hallways and minimal, no-frills design had its critics.

Others appreciated the large windows that provided warm views of the campus and nearby neighborhood. It was ideally situated to be close to the core of the IU campus as well as Kirkwood Avenue and downtown Bloomington.

For many, the building is memorable because of the offices, work groups and departments ensconced there – the people who made it “good special” or a “special kind of hell.” Like any building, people remember the people they worked with more than the structure around them more than the building they were in.

But as the years went by, the building infrastructure deteriorated and even those valued windows had their downside – you could push on many and get an inch or two of daylight outside of the frame.

Because the building had been a hotel, bathrooms were plentiful and many employees worked in mini-suites that consisted of an office, a bathroom, and another office on the other side. While convenient, the odors from bathrooms were not always appreciated when they infiltrated people’s working space.

“Sometimes buildings like this don’t transition well to different things,” says Morrison. “It was built to be a hotel.”

“It wasn’t a very efficient building,” he went on. “It was costing us roughly a million dollars a year to operate it. And there was a lot of wasted space.”

Morrison says the university typically looks at severely aging buildings and does an analysis of how much it would cost to completely renovate it as opposed to building a new building. “This was one of the few in my career that clearly was going to cost more to renovate than to build something new. And remember, we didn’t build it to our standards. It was built privately and to different standards.”

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, IU envisioned razing the building and building a new one, probably with retail at street level and mixed use residential above it. “Think of a university apartment building,” Morrison explains.

With the pandemic altering a great many things, including the university’s need for additional housing, those plans have scrapped or at least put on hold for now. “We’ll let the experts decide how best to demolish it, but I imagine it will be a bit of a drawn-out process,” he says. “But we plan to take it all the way down and it will be a green space until we see how things shake out.”

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that there could be a historical information sign out front as well. Elvis slept there. 🐝