Columbus, Ind., alive with modern architecture

John Conti
| Saturday, June 23, 2012, 2:38 p.m.

COLUMBUS, IND. — There's no city anywhere quite like Columbus, Ind.

This is an industrial town of 44,000, an hour south of Indianapolis. It's home to Cummins Inc., the maker of diesel engines, which has both factories and offices here.

And it's also home to some 60 landmark buildings designed by many of the most eminent American architects of the 20th century. Six of those buildings — all aggressively modern in design — are already designated as National Historic Landmarks.

How did this happen?

More than 50 years ago, the late J. Irwin Miller, the top Cummins executive at the time, started a program to make his hometown unique by subsidizing architects' fees for any local organization - church, school, public library, etc. - that would hire an architect from a list he prepared that included most of America's best 20th century modernists.

As a result, you have a public library designed by I.M. Pei across the street from a church designed by the great Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen, a fire station by Philadephia's Robert Venturi, an elementary school by New York's Richard Meier, a hospital by Robert A.M. Stern, also of New York, a town hall by Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and the list goes on and on - Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, Harry Weese, Edward Larabee Barnes, and many more, all of whom would definitely be hall-of-famers if there were a Cooperstown for architects.

Miller died in 2004, but Columbus has taken to heart the special identity he gave it. Today, the town routinely uses talented landscape architects for its public parks and open spaces. It has more than a score of significant works of public art, ranging from a massive Henry Moore sculpture to delicate glass designs by Dale Chihuly; and there are even progressive designs for a local bridge and a highway overpass.

Columbus offers a stellar example of how quality architecture can transform a town. To be sure, Cummins is prospering and brings to the town many young engineers and workers. (There's a mini building boom going on right now, with new apartments and parking structures being added to the small downtown.) But the tree-lined main street, its many little shops and restaurants in restored Victorian buildings, and the quality landscapes and modern architecture all around show just how extraordinarily livable and lively a small industrial town can become with planning and foresight.

The town is a tourist attraction for its architecture alone, and it sponsors daily two-hour tours of the most prominent buildings here - tours that will appeal to just about anyone. (Architects or students might want to take several days here, not just the two-hour tour.)

New in the last year are special small tours conducted by the Indianapolis Museum of Art of Miller's mid-century modern house, built by Eero Saarinen. That house - which first opened to the public in May 2011 - is already being compared to Mies Van der Rohe's famous Farnsworth house, near Chicago, or Philip Johnson's "glass house" in Connecticut as an example of spectacular modern design. The house tours sometimes sell out well in advance.

Columbus' recent history and Miller's history as a mid-century patron of architecture began when he and Eero Saarinen were young men. Eero Saarinen was helping his father build the modern First Christian Church on Fifth Street in Columbus around 1940, across the street from the Miller family mansion, and the two became friends. As the younger Saarinen became a world-famous architect in his own right (his best known designs are the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the former TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York, and Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C.), Miller was ascending to leadership in his family-controlled firm. They collaborated first on a bank in Columbus and then on Miller's spectacular house in 1957.

Miller and his wife wanted a house where they could not only raise a young family, but also entertain business associates from around the country and the world. Saarinen responded with an extraordinarily open plan on one floor in glass, white marble, and steel. The house is brightly lit with a grid of long narrow skylights that illuminate the marble walls. Movable glass walls allow the interior space to flow into the formal landscapes outside. Saarinen worked closely with landscape designer Dan Kiley, and among modern houses, this one is nearly unmatched for the integration of building and landscape. Interior designs by Alexander Girard give the inside color and softness.

Eero Saarinen was an architect who eschewed any single style. He seemed to pick his styles based on the needs of the building. So another masterpiece in Columbus, his 1964 North Christian Church, while just as rigorously planned as the house, shares none of its style. Images of this church have become iconic for Columbus as a whole. It appears at first to be one vast, low, pyramidal roof with a 192-foot spire on top. But the building is surrounded by an earthen berm - and more magnificent landscaping by Dan Kiley - that conceals its lower floors until you're almost on top of it. Inside, you enter a softly lit church-in-the-round that creates intimacy for a large congregation.

Slogans promoting small-town tourism tend to be insipid. But not in Columbus. Their slogan rings totally true: "Columbus, Indiana: Unexpected. Unforgettable."

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