July 19, 2018

Avriel Shull: The Fearless Designer Who Quietly Built an Architectural Legacy

Even architecture experts might not know the name Avriel Shull, an Indiana native whose legacy throughout the Midwest—though it didn’t garner the same international command of fellow Midcentury Modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright—is still unparalleled today.

Shull’s career as a designer and builder in Carmel, Indiana, peaked between the 1950s and 1970s, when she completed designs for single-family homes and entire neighborhoods without a formal architectural degree. Needless to say, she was a pioneer in both her industry and her era, defying professional and social constraints to pursue a career she loved.

Connie Zeigler is the foremost historian on Shull’s life and work, and she has spent over a decade researching and documenting the designer’s contributions to the field. In 2010, Zeigler nominated one of Shull’s first neighborhoods, Christie’s Thornhurst Addition, to the National Register for Historic Places, and is currently working on a second. Together, we discussed Shull’s lasting influence as an early innovator in design.

Drawing of a Shull house at 8060 Springmill Road in Indianapolis.

photo by: Connie Zeigler

A drawing of a Shull home at 8060 Springmill Road, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Early on, Avriel Shull attended college and art school in Indiana, though she never received a degree from either. Despite this lack of formal training, she still went on to launch her own architectural design and construction firm. What does this say about her commitment to design?

I think it shows that she was very committed to good design, but it’s also just emblematic of her life in general. She was artistic, she was talented, and [she was] really a Renaissance woman. She would do everything she could. She would sew her own clothes, including her own wedding gown and all the bridesmaids’ dresses. For a while, she became a wedding planner back in the 1950s, when I doubt that was even an occupation—at least not in Indiana. She could apparently cook like a gourmet [chef].

So she did all of those traditional women’s crafts and then also picked up the traditional male one of designing and helping to build houses. I think it was just a continuum for her—it was all art, it was all design, it was just what she was interested in.

How did Shull’s style capture people’s attention? Did it have to do with her unconventional approach to architecture, or her gender as a builder?

I think that is a complicated answer, probably. I’m sure it was all those things you mentioned, plus a great deal of personal flare. But her homes are well-designed. There is kind of an argument nowadays—now that she’s become more well-known—that a lot of it looks the same. Some of it is maybe not what we would think of today as the very best of Midcentury Modern design.

I think her houses work, though; they are attractive. On the interior, they are very well-designed. I [feel that] she designed with a woman of the 1950s in mind—a lot of built-in storage, open plans, easy to take care of. She was a woman who designed for women, so she became popular.

Photo of a Shull home in Ladywood Estates.

photo by: Connie Zeigler

A modern photo of a Shull home designed for Ladywood Estates in Indianapolis, Indiana.

What do you think her experience was like as a woman in the design field?

She did have problems with credibility, particularly in the male-dominated architecture world of small-town Indiana, or even a relatively bigger city like Indianapolis. She did address that. There were times when she could not sign her own plans, for instance. She had to have an architect sign the plans.

There was a moment when she was designing a building [in the town of Carmel] for her father, and there was an article in the newspaper about her doing this. Someone reported her to the [Indiana] state board of architecture saying she wasn’t a registered architect. She came back with a very strong statement at the board meeting basically saying that she was a better designer, she was more talented, and that she had been doing this work longer than any other so-called architect.

I know she faced that kind of a discrimination barrier. I’ve spoken with male architects of her era, some of whom will say they think people gave her a hard time, or that people didn’t give her the credit they should have. I assume by “people” they meant other male architects.

And I would have to say that I encounter it as a proxy for her, still to this day. I feel that people, especially male architects, will disregard Avriel Shull by saying, “Everything looks alike,” or, “She’s not a great designer.” I’ve just written a second National Register nomination for another one of her additions, so clearly…people in central Indiana are not the only ones who think that she is a good designer. In her lifetime, she really just powered through [those barriers], and the proof is in the pudding because she kept getting more and more jobs.

Avriel Shull designs on a small scale.

photo by: September Shull Sneath

Shull creating a model for the first house she would build in 1953, "The Golden Unicorn."

Were there any male or female contemporaries at the time who admired or supported Shull’s work?

She was extremely lucky in that her husband, reporter Richard K. Shull (one of the first syndicated columnists in the nation) was an incredible supporter of hers. She had a great supporter in her family. She also happened to be very good friends with another remarkable woman who was a crime reporter for one of the Indianapolis newspapers at the time, Donna Mikels Shea. [Shea] was also a woman doing what women don’t normally do. Shull had a comrade-in-arms, in a way, in that triangle of people.

One of 21 homes designed in Shull's Thornhurst Historic District.

photo by: Connie Zeigler

One of the 21 houses Shull designed at Thornhurst Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Do many people in Carmel or Indianapolis recognize Shull-designed homes? Does that include younger generations of home-buyers?

Yes, they sure do. Especially now, once you have an entire addition on the National Register, it creates a bit of a buzz. Her stuff is pretty well-known. Luckily, she often left plans with the owners or buyers of the homes, and those were handed down from buyer to buyer. The Midcentury market here is pretty popular, especially among younger people, so her houses are in good hands. Luckily, she was closely known around Carmel even before the National Register nomination, and [her name] has been more widely distributed since then. Her houses are primarily sold because of her name; that’s always in the description of the property.

Why is sense of place important in the context of the neighborhoods Shull developed and influenced?

One reason it matters is because it’s probably surprising to know that there was great Midcentury design in the middle of the country, and not just on the coasts. She was clearly influenced by California contemporary design like the Eichler homes, even using some of the same elements, but there was always a spin on that in her own aesthetic. She brought her own craftswomanship to her own work, as well, through hand-painted murals or tiles that she made. She was very closely associated to this place, specifically. Her husband very briefly took a job in New York to work for one of the major newspapers there and she refused move. He ultimately came back [to Indiana], so she was centered in her place, for sure.

“I always think of Avriel Shull as a real ‘50s or ‘40s-era dame, in the manner of a Bette Davis-type person—bold and brassy and get-the-job-done. ”

Connie Zeigler

Is there anything important or unique about Shull or her work that you think readers should know?

I always think of Avriel Shull as a real ‘50s or ‘40s-era dame, in the manner of a Bette Davis-type person—bold and brassy and get-the-job-done. To me that sums up Avriel, plus she had the kind of personality where she was just going to push through and make things happen. She also happened to look like a movie star, sort of like a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking Maureen O’Hara. She was a really remarkable person. I think all of this probably [didn’t make her] the most attentive 1950s stay-at-home mom. She was busy. Her family did not have a standard, Leave It to Beaver home life. She really pushed those boundaries in every way.

Learn more about Connie Zeigler’s work in historic research and preservation by visiting her website.

Abigail Bashor was an Editorial Intern at the National Trust, with a focus on women’s history. She believes that every person and place has its own story waiting to be told, and is excited to help uncover these fascinating perspectives.

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