Pagoda and Visitor's Center
The Sunset Park Pagoda and Evansville Visitor's Center, located at 401 SE Riverside Dr., has had an eventful existence. This Japanese-styled structure, built in 1912 and opened in 1913, endured through prosperous times, survived natural disaster in 1937, and weathered abuse and neglect until its renovation in 1995.
The Pagoda is an undeniably Japanese design, from the telltale silhouette of the roof, to the fact that its weight is supported by columns (instead of walls).
Also, the Pagoda's intended function likens it to the purpose of domestic Japanese designs: to create a space where a person can observe nature from as many places on the interior as possible, while at the same time shelter the family or group from the occasional tempests of nature.
The Pagoda, designed by architect Harry E. Boyle, is predominantly made of reinforced concrete, a strong but relatively new building material for 1912, and its pillars, foundation, and roof supports easily survived the 1937 flood because of this fact.
The façade of the Evansville Pagoda presents a style that instantly makes the viewer think Japanese. The main reason is the roof, which is covered in terra cotta-colored and half-pipe shaped tiles, and the sides of which slope away in a gentle curve to the point of the eaves, which extend well beyond the outer walls of the building. This roof shape is a pleasing and relaxing one to the Japanese, whom it reminds of the slopes of Mount Fuji or the branches of the common matsu pine tree. Below the roof lie the six thick concrete pillars interspersed with large glass windows to the sides and the entrance in the center. Above the entrance on the roof is a glass and metal tower (the elevator cage) topped by its own typically Japanese tiled roof, which reaches a point at its apex. Directly to the right but separate from the elevator cage sits a covered area which consists of a roof (slightly lower in height than the elevator's roof) supported by four pillars arranged at corners of a square. Likewise, the entire building's floor plan is rectangular; six columns by four columns, and the upper roof's outermost pillars correspond with the ground floor's two central ones on that side. The entire roof of the main floor serves as a patio with benches, and the separate roof on stilts is merely the section of the roof in the shade where the old bands once played. Atop this secondary roof sits a tall decorative brass finial that on the Pagoda's original incarnation doubled as a flagpole.
As one approaches the building from its parking lot, there is the option to walk straight on the short paved path to the glass double doors of the Visitor's Center, or to walk to the left on a downward sloping path to the glass doors of the Evansville Convention and Visitor's Bureau in the basement. Along this path there is a small but wonderfully tiered and landscaped garden complete with ponds and waterfalls (wonderful, at least, from spring through the fall when the landscape plants are visible).
Inside the main floor there are a few more regularly spaced pillars to support the concrete ceiling, and the concrete support beams have been left uncovered. In this lobby area there is the Visitor's Center desk to the left, the elevator running down through the center, and various small maritime exhibits of interest arranged around the enclosed staircase to the right. All around the main floor there are floor-to-ceiling windows in the spaces between columns with benches arranged facing outward. On the opposite side of the elevator and corresponding with the entrance there is another set of double glass doors that open onto a patio area with a few round metal picnic tables with umbrellas. Beyond that lies the levee, which has a paved walkway along its ridgeline that runs as far as the waterworks plant on the left and to the main riverfront district on the right.
In addition to its present use, the Pagoda serves as a cultural and historical landmark. When it was built in the early 20th century, America was fascinated by all things Eastern; and since that fascination really only appeared in furniture or fashion, the choice to erect a building in such a style was unusual to say the least, but definitely made it one of the most unique structures in the region then and even now. Its preservation links us to a period in our own country's past, and further links us to the heritage and traditions of nations on the other side of the globe. Likewise, its survival through one of the worst natural disasters ever in this part of the continent mirrors our own perseverance through that same adversity.