by Mary C. Galligan
More than 40,000 people make a pilgrimage to Columbus, Ind., every year to see some of the finest modern architecture in the nation. Visiting this architectural gem of a city in southern Indiana is like embarking on a treasure hunt, with eye-catching buildings everywhere you look.
During your visit you’ll discover why the American Institute of Architects ranked this city of 45,000 sixth in the nation for innovative architectural design, behind Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. At the Columbus Area Visitors Center you can explore the city’s architectural gems with a guided bus or walking tour or a do-it-yourself cell phone or bike tour.
Columbus began welcoming modern architects in the early 1950s to design its schools, churches and other public buildings. Now it boasts of more than 70 buildings and pieces of public art by internationally known architects and artists.
Among its wonderful buildings are the public library designed by I.M Pei, the North Christian Church by Eero Saarinen, and Fire Station No. 4 by Robert Venturi. You’ll also enjoy the Robert M. Stewart Bridge, outdoor sculptures such as Henry Moore’s “Large Arch,” and Mill Race Park, which features a covered bridge, outdoor theater and a community center.
During your visit you’ll discover why the American Institute of Architects ranked this city of 45,000 sixth in the nation for innovative architectural design.
J. Irwin Miller, a local philanthropist and social activist, served as the catalyst for transforming Columbus after World War II. Miller was the head of a prominent local family that was involved in banking, real estate and Cummins Engine Company, now Cummins Inc., the world’s leading diesel engine manufacturer. In the 1940s, Miller asked the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen’s father, to design a new church complex for the First Christian Church congregation. The church is still one of the city’s most striking buildings, with its asymmetric 166-foot-tall bell tower.
After World War II Miller offered to pay the architect’s fees for new public schools, provided they used an architect from a list of candidates provided by him. Chicago architect Harry Weese designed the first school, Schmitt Elementary. More schools followed and the process developed into the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program, which expanded its offer to other public buildings in the community.
Known for his support of civic causes, Miller believed that great architecture could attract people to live and work in the community, said Tony Costello, former director of the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives and a distinguished professor emeritus of architecture at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. “Mr. Miller was a one-of-a-kind individual, a modern day Medici, a patron of the arts.”
The architecture projects continue. In 2015 the Hamilton Center designed by Harry Weese & Associates underwent a restoration and modernization and the Cummins LiveWell Center designed by AXIS Architecture and Interiors opened recently in downtown Columbus.
Besides the public architecture available to visitors, also available for tours is the stunning modern house built for Miller and his wife Xenia in 1953.
When they needed a larger home for their growing family, the Millers commissioned Eero Saarinen to design a home for them. The property was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000, one of seven such landmarks in the city. Owned now by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the house opened for tours in 2011.
The 7,000 square-foot house is a jewel, with an open floor plan, glass walls, white marble floors and vibrant colors in every room, from the living room’s sunken conversation pit, the needlepoint chair cushions on the white marble Eames chairs in the dining room, and the splashes of blue that interior designer Alex Girard added to the kitchen. The 13.5 acres of gardens designed by Dan Kiley are a work of art, with geometric patterns of honey locusts, oaks and maples.
A 90-minute guided interior and exterior tour of the Miller House costs $25. It’s highly recommended to make reservations in advance.
The best way to enjoy the city’s architectural treasures is to take a guided two-hour bus tour that comes upon more than 40 significant buildings and takes you inside two of the buildings. That tour costs $25 and also should be booked in advance. Other options are a guided walking tour of downtown Columbus, a self-guided audio tour of downtown landmarks and a bike tour.
Columbus offers a variety of accommodations, restaurants and shops in the downtown area, including the Inn at Irwin House. The house, the ancestral home of J. Irwin Miller, is a magnificent 1910 mansion that is now an upscale bed-and-breakfast. If you don’t stay there you can tour the house and Italianate gardens.
For more information about Columbus and to schedule any tours, go to http://www.columbus.in.us/
Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago.