Columbus Indiana, yes, Indiana
There are many cities in the US named Columbus. 23 to be exact. But only this one in Indiana has the enviable distinction of being number six on the top list of US cities rich in modern architecture. Right behind Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington D.C. according to the AIA. I had the pleasure of being almost a week in Columbus and spent most of that time exploring the magnitude of its architectural treasures. More than 90 buildings, landscapes, parks, civic amenities and housings. Most designed by titans of modern architecture such as Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Alexander Girard, Robert A. Stern, Harry Weese, Richard Meier, Robert Venturi and Cesar Pelli. How did a small Midwestern town, about 19,000 people in the 1950s become such a magnet for modern architecture?
The spark was ignited by J. Irwin Miller after the WW II. He was a second generation company executive at Cummins Engine Co., the family business. He joined Cummins in 1934, moved up the corporate ladder and from 1951 until 1977 was Chairman. His vision for Columbus after the war was to help build a town that would attract young, talented, dedicated and sophisticated people. He surmised that those people would be concerned with the quality of education their children would receive in the small town. That in turn would be influenced by the level of teachers who would be attracted to Columbus. To make that happen, Irwin’s vision was to design and build schools of high architectural standards. Miller developed a love for architecture while studying at Yale and understood its power to shape and spark social progress. (He also was a civil activist, advocated the Civil Rights Act and had a part in organizing the March to Washington with Martin Luther King.)
In 1954, he established the Cummins Foundation and in 1957 made an offer to Columbus that the foundation would pay the cost of architect’s fees plus 10% of the construction costs of any civic building as long as the architects were chosen from his personal list. This also led to projects by private clients in Columbus resulting in churches, fire stations, banks and others designed by world-renown architects. From 1954 to 1970 an average of two outstanding buildings were erected every year in Columbus.
So it all started with the schools. The first one I visited, the Lillian Schmitt Elementary School, was also the one that launched the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program and was completed in 1957, designed by Harry Weese. The first one of the many in the district. Various architectural styles, many expanded later to accommodate the growing population of the district. Some on the smaller side, while others huge like Columbus East High School. Some interesting and attractive, while others not so. Like South Side Elementary School, designed by Eliot Noyes and completed in 1969. From a distance it looks like a prison or a fortress with jutting parapets, vertical fins, hooded doors and small slot windows. Typical of the modern Brutalism style. Today, Columbus is the seat of Bartholomew County encompassing seven towns with a population of about 83,000 (as of 2019). Columbus makes up the majority of that number with a population of about 48,000. The county is served by the Bartholomew Consolidated School District serving more than 11,000 students with eleven elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools. I visited almost all of them.
Schools, firehouses, health centers, banks, manufacturing centers, office buildings, assembly plants, clubhouses, conference halls, parks, a jail, city hall, memorials, a covered bridge, a library, post office and art installations. To experience the plethora of this architectural richness one must first stop by the Visitors Center on 5th Street. They offer a fantastic guided architectural bus tour of Columbus. Well worth the $25 and the two hours. They also offer the Miller House and Garden Tour, also a must see while in Columbus.
Oh, I almost forgot the highlight of my visit. The four churches. First Christian Church was designed by Eliel Saarinen completed in 1942. North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen, Eliel’s son, completed in 1964. First Baptist Church, Harry Weese architect, completed in 1965. And last but not least, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, designed by Gunnar Brikerts and completed in 1988. I visited all four churches extensively. Spoke with church staff and parishioners. Was invited to join the congregation for a Thanksgiving lunch. Was given the church all to myself and told to lock the door when I was done. The style of the churches was so diverse and amazing. The hospitality was warm and genuine. Absolutely unlike any of the churches that I have visited in the past. If you’re interested in architecture this small Midwestern town is a gem. If you have the time you could spend 2-3 weeks there and find something architecturally interesting every single day.
A note about fairness. The Columbus guide to Art, Architecture Landscapes & Historic Buildings lists almost 100 such attractions. Do all of them reflect outstanding design? No. The generic ‘all glass and steel’ designs can be found in almost any city these days. Some designs are not that interesting or attractive. Columbus has build this reputation on many outstanding designs by pillars of modern architecture. And rightfully so. I am not aware of another small town so rich in modern architecture as Columbus. A small Midwestern town anchored by a global company, Cummins, that has invested deeply in the development and enrichment of its city and people, all started by J. Irwin Miller back in 1950s.
More about the four landmark churches in the blog post here