By Design

Over the past half-century the small town of Columbus, Indiana, has turned itself into a showplace of modern architecture

The Robert N. Stewart Bridge
The Robert N. Stewart Bridge Wikimedia Commons

Columbus, Indiana, has all the hallmarks of a picturesque Midwestern town—an imposing city hall, a library on a stately public square and pretty churches scattered around neighborhoods of neat bungalows and restored Victorians. But a closer look reveals that Columbus, nestled amid corn and soybean fields halfway between Indianapolis and Louisville, is a veritable museum of modern architecture.

The library, a low-slung brick-and-glass rectangle fronted by a 20-foot Henry Moore sculpture, is by I. M. Pei, the architect of the Louvre's stunning glass pyramid and the National Gallery of Art's East Wing. Columbus' city hall, a sleek triangular edifice around a circular court, was created by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm currently working on New York City's Freedom Tower. And the churches were designed by, among others, Eero Saarinen, architect of Kennedy International Airport's iconic TWA Terminal, and Harry Weese, praised for his vaulted open stations in the Washington, D.C. subway system.

With more than 60 notable buildings and monuments, Columbus (pop. 39,000) is the nation's sixth most architecturally significant city, behind Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C., according to the American Institute of Architects. Columbus, says Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, is a "small-town architectural mecca."

It was Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero) who first brought clean, geometric modernism to Columbus, in 1942, with his design for First Christian Church, a sober, boxy structure with a monumental free-standing bell tower. Saarinen had been lured to Columbus by J. Irwin Miller, owner of the Cummins Engine Company, a diesel-engine manufacturer and the town's largest employer for 60 years. Miller, who died in 2004 at age 95, was a fan of modern architecture and knew many of the profession's leading lights. (Eero Saarinen designed Miller's sprawling flat-top marble-and-glass house, built in 1957 and today one of Columbus' six National Historic Landmarks.)

In 1957, Miller, concerned about the uninspiring school buildings thrown up to meet the postwar baby boom, struck a deal with city officials, agreeing to pay the architect's fee if the city would commission first-rate designers he favored. The plan was so successful for public schools that Miller went on to defray the design costs for fire stations, public housing, hospitals and other community buildings. By the 1970s, great architecture had become part of Columbus' civic DNA; banks, apartment buildings and other private projects also hired top designers. Says Will Miller, Irwin Miller's son and a bank chairman: "The oft-quoted phrase around here comes from Winston Churchill, that 'we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.'"

Many architects were young and unknown when they came to town. In 1967, the year Robert Venturi designed Fire Station 4, an unassuming brick building embellished with an oversize "4," he had landed only a few commissions. Today he is renowned for, among other things, the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London and the use of bold signage.

The first hint of Columbus' distinctiveness can be seen at the town's exit off Highway 65, where an enormous red double arch, built in 1997, straddles the overpass. From the corner of Washington and 5th streets downtown, you can see Eero Saarinen's light-filled Irwin Union Bank headquarters, his father’s First Christian Church, Pei’s library, and the Commons, a dark glass-paneled shopping mall and community center by Cesar Pelli, designer of one of the world's tallest skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Three miles away is Clifty Creek Elementary, built in 1982 by Richard Meier, whose majestic marble-and-glass J. Paul Getty Center opened on a Los Angeles hilltop in 1997. The school is characteristically minimalist with plenty of open spaces. And like the Getty complex, the school sits on a rise and provides sweeping views.

In downtown Columbus, the telephone switching station looks playful with its heating and air conditioning units encased in giant crayon-colored pipes. It is the work of Paul Kennon, whose son Kevin recently designed a local community college building.

"I grew up imbued with the mythology of Columbus," says Kevin Kennon.

"Columbus is very much a part of the American spirit of adventure and experimentation," says Robert W. Duffy, architecture critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It represents "the ambition we as a nation had to express optimism in our buildings."

Despite losing some foot traffic to strip malls on its outskirts, Columbus remains vibrant, drawing 100,000 tourists a year. "Columbus has made architecture a bulwark against those forces," says Kamin.

But not everyone in town is in love with high-end architecture. After the school board proposed to spend $115 million in 2000 on schools designed by prominent firms, some residents rejected the plan for several reasons, among them expensive architecture. A scaled-back plan for the schools finally passed late last year, but Columbus' architecture skirmishes are likely to continue. "About every 25 years, people get excited and get on the civic bandwagon," says former mayor Bob Stewart. "Then they get complacent."

Lynn Bigley, a Columbus native who leads tours of the city, remains a supporter. "When I look back I can see we got real value for the architecture," she says. "We have a theme in the community. It ties us together."

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