Americans tend to have a fondness for small towns, idyllic places where life is simpler, easier and friendlier. The reality is that such picturesque small towns have largely disappeared in recent decades, their unique identities dissolved by urban sprawl or foundering economies. By contrast, Columbus, Ind., a town of 44,000 in the heartland of America, has thrived.
Nearly four decades ago, architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote of Columbus: ”There is no other place in which a single philanthropist has placed so much faith in architecture as a means to civic improvement.” The deep pocket he referred to was J. Irwin Miller, a visionary businessman who believed that the places where people work and play are a reflection of their values and can be a source of inspiration. He was definitely onto something, and for more than 50 years, visitors from all over the world have been coming to Columbus to see its amazing collection of buildings by some of the greatest architects of the past century.
There’s the local hospital by Robert A.M. Stern, the library by I.M. Pei, the fire station by Robert Venturi, the First Christian Church by Eliel Saarinen, the Advanced Manufacturing Center by Cesar Pelli; the list goes on. In recent years, sculptures and outdoor art installations by established artists have been added to the local landscape as well.
But the town isn’t just about contemporary architecture. It’s also done an extraordinary job of preserving 19th century buildings, repurposing two of its great mansions into elegant bed-and-breakfasts, as well as turning early downtown storefronts into chic boutiques, trendy galleries, bars and restaurants.
There’s much to take in on a weekend or overnight visit to Columbus and a number of ways to do it, and one of the best places to start is the Visitors Center at the corner of Franklin and Fifth streets downtown. The building itself is a perfect metaphor for the architectural conscience of the community: The original part of the brick structure is an 1864 house that blends seamlessly with a 1995 addition by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kevin Roche. (The prize is akin to the Nobel for architects, awarded annually to an architect whose creations have consistently improved the human condition.)
The Visitors Center offers a number of options for seeing and learning about Columbus’s architectural treasures. There’s a 2-hour guided bus tour that includes many of the town’s signature buildings, outdoor spaces and art installations; several options for seeing the 1957 home of J. Irwin Miller, a masterpiece of modern design; a guided walking tour of downtown and self-guided tours with recorded cell phone commentary or an iPhone app. Visitors can pick up a map and strike out on their own, too, which is a good way to explore downtown, especially paired with one of the guided tours later.
To appreciate the community’s sense of style and love of great spaces, volunteer guide Dody Harvey suggests starting at the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library on Fifth Street, next to the Visitors Center. “If you stand right here,” Harvey says walking to the right front corner of the building, “you can see the towers and spires of downtown.” In fact, any turn of the head will produce a view important to the town’s architectural heritage, but best to start with the library itself.
Another Pritzker Prize winner, Chinese American architect I.M. Pei, designed the brick pavilion completed in 1969. Like so many of the contemporary buildings in Columbus, the inside of the library has few interior walls, which means visitors find themselves standing in large open spaces flooded with natural light. In front of the building, a large plaza, whose focal point is a huge Stonehenge-inspired sculpture, Large Arch, by Henry Moore.
Next to the plaza is the grand, three-story, 1884 Italianate-style mansion where J. Irwin Miller lived as a boy. The stunning two-acre estate, now The Inn at Irwin Gardens, contains a walled, terraced garden based on an estate in Pompeii, with a maze, fountains, statues, wisteria-covered pergolas and a long reflecting pool. It’s easy to see how growing up in such grand surroundings could foster an appreciation for manmade beauty.
As an undergraduate at Yale in the late 1920s and early ’30s, Miller developed an interest in modern design, which influenced a decision several years after college when his hometown church, the Gothic-style Tabernacle Church of Christ, decided it was time for a new building and a new name, First Christian Church. Miller convinced Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen to take on the job. The result was a bold, modern building across the street from the library that features a flat-roofed, box-like main structure that brings light in through glass walls, panels and blocks. A soaring clock tower next to the main building replaced the traditional church spire.
Inside, most of the interior furnishings were designed by Charles Eames (his eponymous chair became an icon of mid-century modern design) and Saarinen’s son, Eero, who would go on to design three of Columbus’s six National Historic Landmarks. Completed in 1942, First Christian Church was hailed as the country’s first contemporary-style church, earning worldwide attention and a spread in Lifemagazine that year. It also set the stage for the town’s future and Miller’s legacy.
In 1947, J. Irwin Miller became president and chairman of the Cummins Engine Company, a manufacturer of diesel engines headquartered in Columbus. The company had been founded in 1918 by Clessie Cummins (the Irwin family chauffeur, a genius mechanic) and financed by Miller’s great-uncle, William G. Irwin. From the time he joined the family firm as a twenty-something, Miller was a force in raising the company’s civic conscience and establishing its tradition of giving to social and community causes. Eventually, Cummins created a foundation to manage its philanthropy. In the late 1950s, the foundation extended its mission to include an architecture program for the town’s public buildings. The deal: The foundation would pay the architect’s fees if the client (usually a combo of public/private investors) would choose from a list of world-class architects compiled by the foundation.
Over the years, journalists have dubbed Columbus a museum of modern architecture. Downtown, with nearly two-dozen major sites, is its largest gallery, within five square blocks of the Visitors Center. Every turn brings a stunning modern building into view: the 1983 Roche-designed Cummins World Headquarters, whose vine-covered exterior gives the impression that Mother Nature has taken over; modern spins on the most utilitarian of public spaces, the post office and city hall; the First Financial Bank by Eero Saarinen, whose glass and steel exterior was a bold concept in 1954; and The Commons, at the corner of Washington and Third streets, a multi-purpose public space that is worth exploring.
The Commons, originally designed by Cesar Pelli in 1974 as a shopping mall, underwent a total transformation in 2011 by the Boston architectural firm of Koetter Kim. Volunteer Harvey says it’s one of her favorite spaces. “Because the walls are clear glass, they dissolve, and you see all the activity outside when you’re inside and visa versa,” she says.
Today it’s the town’s premiere gathering place for people of all ages, with indoor and outdoor dining, a performance space on its second level that can be used for music, drama, exhibitions or banquets and the most enticing indoor playground you’ll ever encounter, one guaranteed to make you wish you were a kid again. Why? It’s main feature: the Luckey Climber, the jungle gym re-imagined by the late sculptor Tom Luckey. Two stories of floating clouds are connected by a series of slides, tunnels and mazes, surrounded by a safety net that is hardly visible. Note: Feel free to unleash your inner child; adults are welcome aboard.
One more feature of The Commons is impossible to miss: a two-story, Rube Goldberg contraption (yes, it moves and makes lots of noise) by Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely aptly named “Chaos.”
Whatever walking route you take around the central district, be on the lookout for some spectacular old, as well as new, edifices. The 1874 Bartholomew County Courthouse across from The Commons stands as an ornate example of the Second Empire French style; the 1895 City Hall was designed by the town’s first architect of note, Charles Sparrell. In fact, Sparrell was responsible for designing many of the town’s Victorian and Romanesque Revival-style public buildings and private homes.
All that walking will definitely call for break and a treat at some point, which means a stop at Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum on Washington. This soda fountain—around since 1900—is straight out of the movies (think Hello Dolly or Meet Me in St. Louis) with long marble counters, high stools, loads of stained and leaded glass and Tiffany lamps. Even the music, provided by a large collection of orchestrions (best described as a huge music box that sounds as if an entire orchestra is inside) will make you think you’ve timed-traveled back to 1900. As for the menu of ice cream creations, get ready for the sundaes and milk shakes of your dreams.
Of course, downtown is only the core of Columbus’s architectural treasures. To fully appreciate and learn about what Columbus has created, sign up for the Visitors Center’s 2-hour guided bus tour to see many of its 70 significant sites and get inside a couple along the way. You’ll immediately pick up on the fact that a sense of design and style permeates every facet of life in Columbus. Nearly a dozen public schools were designed by well-known architects, as well as several fire stations, recreational facilities and parks, a retirement community, a community technical college, and perhaps, most impressive, the Columbus Regional Hospital designed by Robert A. Stern in 1992, where art and beautiful surroundings are considered key to the healing process. The hospital’s lounges and lobbies throughout its several pavilions could easily pass for a fancy hotel or spa.
“I think the hospital is where you really feel the impact of architecture and the importance of how a space can make you feel,” volunteer Dody Harvey says. J. Irwin Miller, who passed away in 2004 at age 95, would definitely second that.