An era’s end: ‘Flat Top’ shuts down after 52 years

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The Kentucky Post photographed the massive site near Fourth Street being cleared for the IRS center in the mid-1960s. Notice how the size of the site dwarfs the bulldozer. (Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

1,100 miles away, architect who designed IRS center laments closure 

COVINGTON, Ky. - More than 52 years after it opened, the federal government’s massive tax processing facility will cease operation this weekend, triggering a range of emotions for many thousands of current and former employees and - for architect Gene Bieber - a specific, piercing lament.
 
“You know you’re getting old,” Bieber said, “when they’re tearing down the buildings you designed.”
 
Now 83 and designing buildings 1,100 miles away in Dania Beach, Fla., Bieber was working at a Greater Cincinnati firm run by Carl Bankemper when he said Bankemper pulled him aside and told him to take over the design of the IRS facility that came to be known as “the Flat Top.”
 
“That was my first big project. Basically I was a kid out of college,” Bieber said.
 
The designation set in motion a whirlwind of activity, including flights to Washington to discuss details with federal officials and trips to processing centers around the country - as Bieber recalls - simply “to see how the paper flowed.”
 
More than anything else, that “flow” - the literal pushing of paper - dictated the eventual open-floor layout and flat look of the sprawling one-story facility in Covington, which was to occupy several city blocks between Second and Fourth streets.
 
“Paperwork just flowed (continuously) through those areas,” Bieber said. “A lot of stuff went to different departments on carts - a second floor with elevators wouldn’t work.”
 
In fact, so much paper moved through the facility on a daily basis that not 24 hours after the first 300 employees reported for work on May 15, 1967, officials were quoted in The Kentucky Post newspaper about the pressing need to expand.
 
Eventually the facility encompassed 17 acres, along with a 6-acre parking lot, and employed 2,000 to 4,000 people at its peak, including part-time workers hired during the tax season.

ArchitectsGene Bieber, left, and Carl Bankemper pose with project engineer E.E. Ellerhorst, right, at the laying of the cornerstone for the “Flat Top.”(Photocourtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

 
What’s next
But with paper returns rapidly becoming a thing of the past, the IRS announced in 2016 that the Covington facility was no longer needed. In the three years since that announcement, some of its then-1,800 employees were transferred to other locations in Covington and Florence, while hundreds of others took buy-outs, retired, moved, or were eventually laid off.
 
As for the 23-acre site - currently owned by the General Services Administration, the federal government’s landlord - it’s considered one of the most exciting locations for development in the eastern United States by commercial firms from across the country.
 
Covington City Manager David Johnston said Thursday that the City this week received what he called “terrific” news: Having taken all other steps required by law to offer the site to other potential users, the GSA is ready to begin negotiating a sale to the City. In the months ahead, the GSA and Covington will complete separate appraisals of the land and building’s value, then negotiate a price, Johnston said.
 
In anticipation of securing the property, Covington has been working with Atlanta-based Cooper Carry, a global architecture and design firm, for most of a year to create a conceptual design for the 23 acres after the building is demolished.
 
Johnston said Covington officials are determined to move steadily forward on the project with multiple developers working on separate pieces of what is expected to be a diverse development with office, retail, housing and green spaces.
 
“When finished, this project is going to take Covington to another level,” Johnston said. “It’s exciting and a little scary.”

One of the buildings torn down by Phoenix Manufacturing Co. in 1964.(Photocourtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

 
The beginning
Bieber said he wasn’t surprised by the high-level interest in the site: The IRS complex was a “landmark project” from the beginning, he said.
 
When the federal government selected City to locate the $4.5 million IRS center in 1962, a massive headline in The Kentucky Post and Times Star on Jan. 24 blared the news: “CITY JUBILANT OVER IRS VICTORY/Federal Tax Office to Rise in Covington.”
 
One Post article described the successful collaboration among officials from the City, the state and Kentucky’s federal delegation to win the competition. Another article said that 161 houses, two commercial buildings and two industrial plants would be demolished to make way for the facility, which was designed to handle 12 million returns as one of 10 eventual data centers around the country.
 
Bieber remembers the design taking about nine months or so, with eight architects involved.
 
“There was a lot of planning before you got started,” he said. “And they were constantly changing the floor plans.”
 
Challenges with soil at the site delayed construction, he said, but 23 months later, the Dugan & Meyers construction company finished the job.
 
“The by-word of the center is huge,” a Post article said at its opening, trumpeting its“yellow, green and pink tile” ... “curved mass of fingerlick stone brought from New York” ... “dignified brick-walled lobby” ... interior courtyard, three canteens and 1,000-square-foot medical center.
 
“We could hold a grand ball in here, if it wasn’t for all the little outlets in the floor to trip over,” project engineer E.E. Ellerhorst was quoted as saying.
 
Bieber said the courtyard and open floor plan were definitely impressive, but in his mind he distinctly remembers the “computers the size of refrigerators. There must have been 20 of them. All IBM blue, with tapes going in the front of them.”
 
He said he remains proud of his work on the facility.

Gene Bieber still works as an architect in Dania Beach, Fla. (Photo courtesy of Gene Bieber)

In the years that followed, he worked on many other buildings in Covington, including the former City-County office tower at 303 Court St., the Panorama Apartments senior citizens tower, Latonia Elementary, Glenn O. Swing Elementary, and the Fieldhouse gym and library addition at Holmes High School.
 
While sorry to hear about the IRS facility’s closing, he said he was resigned to its fate: “Any architect who works on a major project feels sad when he hears they’re going to tear it down. Boo hoo hoo,” he said. “But that’s the world we live in - nothing is forever.”

The front page from Jan. 24, 1962.
 
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