Columbus, Indiana’s Stunning Architecture

North Christian Church (Photo Courtesy of Visit Columbus)
North Christian Church (1964) by Eero Saarinen. (Photo by Rhonda Bolner/Visit Columbus)

Filled with beautiful buildings and public art, Columbus is a gem in the Hoosier Heartland

By Susan McKee

Public art, modernist architecture, and an ice cream parlor open for more than a century are just three reasons to visit Columbus, Indiana.

Conversation Plinth in Columbus, Indiana. Susan McKee photo
Conversation Plinth in Columbus, Indiana. (Susan McKee photo)
J. Irwin Miller inspired the town with great architecture.
J. Irwin Miller inspired the town with great architecture.

Exhibit Columbus, on view through November 26, 2017, is the inaugural edition of what’s expected to be a biannual celebration. Eighteen site-responsive installations placed downtown and beyond connect with and comment on the small Hoosier community’s design legacy.

A design legacy? Columbus is a city of only 45,000, yet The American Institute of Architects ranked it sixth in the nation for architectural innovation and design – right behind Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

The visitor’s map lists over 75 buildings and pieces of public art by internationally-noted architects and artists.

J. Irwin Miller, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Cummins Inc. from 1934 until his retirement in 1977, was trying to attract top talent to his company early in his tenure, and, well, there had to be something special about this sleepy Midwestern town to lure engineers and other specialists from larger cities.

What about traffic-stopping architecture? The first building constructed under the Cummins architecture program was a public school for the town’s growing population.

Playhouse, Between the Threads, and Theoretical Foyer (Photo by Susan McKee)
Left to right: Playhouse, Between the Threads and Theoretical Foyer (Susan McKee photos)

If the school system picked an architect from a list of five provided by the foundation, Miller said, then the Cummins Foundation would pay that architect’s fees. Done and done. Schmitt Elementary designed by Harry Weese opened in 1957.

”Columbus, Ind., and J. Irwin Miller are almost holy words in architectural circles,” The New York Times‘s architecture critic Paul Goldberger, now with The New Yorker, wrote in 1976.

”There is no other place in which a single philanthropist has placed so much faith in architecture as a means to civic improvement.”

Columbus hasn’t looked back. Since then, some of the world’s finest architects have made the town a living museum of modern architecture, with works by I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Robert Venturi, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, and Deborah Berke.

During a media event, a reporter strikes a pose on the patio outside the Miller house living room. (Susan McKee photo)

To build on that design legacy, Exhibit Columbus was launched in 2016 with new public art and symposia.

The Miller Prize

Wiikiaami at First Christian Church by studio:indigenous
Wiikiaami at First Christian Church by studio:indigenous (another Miller prize winner) as workers put finishing touches on the installation. (Susan McKee photo)

This year, five installations were the result of a juried competition for the Miller Prize: “proposals were judged on their formal/spatial relationships to the site, ability to activate the space, innovation in the use of materials and potential to stimulate a dialogue with the context of the site”.

So much effete gobbledygook, right? Well, in Columbus you can see and touch the results.

My favorite is Conversation Plinth in front of the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, designed by IKD. It uses discs of Indiana hardwood to circle around the iconic Henry Moore sculpture titled “Large Arch”, and up to a viewing platform.

I was there the day before the exhibit opened, and construction was still finishing up — yet there were people clambering up and down the cross-laminated timber stairs. There’s no doubt that this will be the most photographed of the Miller Prize winners along Fifth Street.

Miller House (Photo by Susan McKee)
Dining room at Miller House. (Susan McKee photo)

Other installations “in dialogue” with their locations for Exhibit Columbus include Playhouse — filling an alleyway next to Kidscommons Children’s Museum; Between the Threads at the historic post office, and Theoretical Foyer — a “carpet” of colored bricks at the corner of Seventh and Washington streets.

The cornerstone of Columbus tourism is its architecture tour. Starting at the Visitors Center, 506 Fifth Street, Columbus — across the street from Eliel Saarinen’s 1942 First Christian Church, the narrated bus tour drives by more than forty significant structures and works of art, and provides the opportunity to see the interiors of two buildings.

Of course, you can pick up a map and drive yourself, but you’ll miss the information provided by the docents, who know everything about each building by the “starchitects”.

A separate tour takes visitors to the Miller House and Garden, a far-flung outpost of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. J. Irwin Miller and his wife, Xenia, commissioned their home in 1953. It combines the architecture of Eero Saarinen, interior design by Alexander Girard, and landscaping by Dan Kiley.

Zaharako's, an old fashioned ice cream shop in Columbus Indiana.
Zaharako’s, an old fashioned ice cream shop in Columbus Indiana. (Susan McKee photo)

The dining room includes a permanent round table encircled with Eero Saarinen tulip chairs and their iconic pedestal bases.

Mrs. Miller had Alexander Girard design needlepoint cushions for the chairs — each one incorporating the initials of one of the seven family members (the Millers had five children). They were hand-stitched by members of Mrs. Miller’s book club.

If the interior walls seem a bit bare, that’s because the entire art collection was sold at auction when the Millers died. Ben Wever, the site manager of the Miller House and Garden, says the collection brought $220 million.

Have a Sundae!

And, then there’s ice cream. In the heart of the walkable streets of Columbus’ compact downtown is Zaharako’s. Take a break from all that modernist design and dig into an old fashioned ice cream sundae (complete with a cherry on top), a milkshake or a dish of plain vanilla ice cream. Or indulge in my personal favorite: a root beer float.

Zaharako's (Photo by Susan McKee)
A root beer float at Zaharako’s (Susan McKee photo)

For a sneak peek at the architecture of the town, check out “Columbus“. The indie film, now in national release, premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and collected top honors at the Valletta Film Festival on Malta.

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Susan McKee
Susan McKee is an independent scholar and freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel. She travels widely and to amazing places--this year, one of her destinations was Chad. She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.