In just a few blocks in Columbus, Indiana, you will encounter modernist architecture by the likes of Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei, and works by sculptor Henry Moore and glass artist Dale Chihuly. This improbable collection of more than 70 notable buildings and public art installations in a small city of some 45,000 is due to the generosity and vision of one J. Irwin Miller, an industrialist who grew a family business into the Fortune 200 engine maker Cummins.
What became known as the “Columbus Architecture Program” has its roots in the mid-1950s when Miller grew exasperated with an unimaginative school building that had recently been erected. If Miller were to continue running a major company in a small Midwestern city, he vowed to make sure that the best architects of the day would help transform it into a place where people would want to live and work.
Today, Columbus is a must-see spot for architecture and design pilgrims from around the world, a mecca named by the American Institute of Architects as one of the most important cities for innovation in the field.
Guided bus and walking tours, which take about two hours, detail the story downtown, the area where many of the sites are lined up. You can also take a selfguided audio walking tour, which costs about $10, or download a free mobile app.
Most visitors start where the story really began, though — at Miller’s Mad Men-on steroids home on the outskirts of town. Opened to the public by the Indianapolis Museum of Art as a house museum in 2011, the property was designed in 1953 by Eero Saarinen, the Finnish architect best known for the St. Louis Gateway Arch. Guided tours of the home and grounds take 90 minutes and cost $25.
The home’s flat roof, overhanging eaves, wide terraces and generous use of glass allow it to meld seamlessly with the rigorously minimalist and geometric gardens of landscape architect Dan Kiley. Inside, interior designer Alexander Girard’s bold use of textiles bring warmth, texture and color to the cool expanses of marble and plaster.
A sunken conversation pit, whose ample built-in seating acts as its own enclosure, greets you soon upon entering. Be sure to peruse the 50-foot storage wall of lacquered wood and glass on the other side of the living room. It showcases items from the owners’ travels and an array of art glass pieces. To cement the whole Mad Men aura, if you ask nicely, a curator will open one of its drawers and pull out an original carousel slide projector.
Eero Saarinen shows up again downtown, where his 1952 design for the Irwin Union Bank and Trust Company firmly announces his modernist principles with a sharp departure from the standard Greek temple-like construction of such institutions. Nearby, there’s a commission from Eero’s father, Eliel, whom Miller approached when the First Christian Church embarked on a new building project. The resulting limestone edifice from 1942 is a very early example of contemporary church-building and sits just a few blocks from Hotel Indigo Columbus Architectural Center.
Other modernist buildings of note include a trio from the early 1970s: the office for the local newspaper, The Republic, a glass rectangle by Skidmore, Owings &
Merrill; the Cleo Rodgers Memorial Library, a horizontal red brick construction by I.M. Pei that’s bolstered by a monumental Henry Moore sculpture; and the glazed tile and Cor-Ten steel Post Office, designed by Roche Dinkeloo.
There are more buildings to admire, but whether you’re seeing just the greatest hits or delving deeper, you’re sure to conclude your visit by saying, “Columbus, Indiana — who knew?”