More than 40,000 people make a pilgrimage to Columbus, Indiana, every year to see some of the finest modern architecture in the nation. A visit to this architectural gem of a city is like a treasure hunt, with surprises everywhere you look.
Columbus, 238 miles from Springfield in southern Indiana, began welcoming modern architects in the 1950s to design its schools, churches and other public buildings. Now it boasts of more than 60 public and private buildings designed by prominent architects, making it a must-see for people who enjoy modern architecture.
During your visit, you can find out why the American Institute of Architects ranked this city of 45,000 sixth in the nation for innovative architectural design, behind only Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. Start at the Columbus Area Visitors Center and pick up a guide map of the city’s architectural treasures, or sign up for a guided walking or bus tour. You can also take a free smartphone tour of the city.
Among its treasures 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.
J. Irwin Miller, a philanthropist and social activist, served as the catalyst for transforming Columbus. Miller was the head of a prominent local family that was involved in banking, real estate and the 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, director of the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives and a distinguished professor emeritus of architecture at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. “Mr. Miller was a one-of-a-kind individual, a modern-day Medici, a patron of the arts.” In 1967, Esquire magazine profiled Miller and put this headline on its cover: “This man ought to be the next president of the United States.”
Besides the public architecture available to visitors, the stunning modern house built for Miller and his wife, Xenia, in 1953 should be part of your visit.
When they needed a larger home for their growing family, the Millers commissioned Eero Saarinen to design a home for them. Considered a wonderful example of mid-century modern residences, 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. The geometric patterns of honey locusts, oaks and maples set off the house and create beautiful views for the family and their guests.
Guided tours of the Miller House cost $20 and it’s highly recommended to make reservations in advance, since the size of tour groups is kept to 13.
The best way to enjoy the city’s architectural treasures is to take a guided two-hour tour by bus that takes you inside some of the buildings and describes the story behind many others. That tour costs $20 and also should be booked in advance. You also can take your own tour by walking or driving around the city, using a guide map.
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. A former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and former Midwest correspondent for U. S. News & World Report magazine, she shares writing the monthly Illinois Times Midwestern travel column with Mary Bohlen of Springfield.