When Columbus Discovered Modern Architecture

Private philanthropy transforms a small Midwestern town into an architectural marvel.


In most ways, Columbus is a typical Indiana town. It's small (population 39,000), the cost of living is low, there's very little crime, and the leading industries are manufacturing, health care, and construction. But as you emerge from the cornfields that surround Columbus and head into town, things immediately begin to look different.

To the west, Columbus welcomes you along the main highway with an arching 60-foot bridge. To the north is a twisting and fanning bright red triangular suspension bridge. The public library, a square brick building with tall rectangular windows and an open plaza, was designed by the renowned architect I.M. Pei. Noted modernist architect Harry Weese concocted a church and the town's golf course. Even the city's six firehouses look distinctive: The first is a brick and glass art deco station finished in 1941; the latest is a sweeping, modern, glass-and-steel structure completed in 1998.

Columbus, improbably, is one of the most architecturally rich towns in America. The American Institute of Architects ranks it the sixth most architecturally innovative city in the country, after Chicago, New York, Washington, Boston, and San Francisco. GQ calls the burg "an essential destination for the study of contemporary design and planning." Smithsonian says it's "a veritable museum of modern architecture." National Geographic Traveler recently placed Columbus 11th in its list of the top 109 worldwide historic destinations, and the town now has six buildings on the registry of National Historic Landmarks.

None of this is due to strict zoning laws or preservationism. Little Columbus became an architectural magnet because J. Irwin Miller, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist, decided 50 years ago to use his fortune to make his hometown a visually interesting place to live. Miller began with the church he attended, then moved on to public buildings, private businesses, and residences.

Miller, who died in 2004, was the longtime chairman of the Cummins Engine Company, one of the world's leading manufacturers of diesel engines. He first developed an interest in architecture after taking some classes on the subject as an undergraduate at Yale. In 1942 Miller and his family commissioned a new church for their congregation from the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. The result, the First Church of Christ, was one of the first modernist churches in the country. Its design included a simple rectangular tabernacle lined with a grid of reflective windows (in which Saarinen included a cross) and a matching freestanding bell tower. Some religious leaders criticized the nontraditional approach, but the church won praise from architecture critics around the world. It's now the centerpiece of the town's architectural tour.

In 1954 Miller decided to do something similar for local public schools, whose boring design he blamed for stifling kids' creativity. So he made a bargain with the city: The Cummins Engine Foundation would foot the architect's bill (though not the construction costs) for any new school building, as long as the city selected from a list of architects compiled by the foundation. The bargain soon expanded to other public buildings, and by the 1960s Columbus had become a world-renowned magnet for privately financed modernist design. Even the county jail is art: The Cleveland architect Don M. Hisaka designed a round jail with a recreation area capped by a mesh dome. Some of the locals objected to letting convicts live in such an interesting building, until they were assured the place would look pleasant only from the outside.

Soon Miller was making similar deals with private developers. Cesar Pelli, designer of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, created the town shopping mall, featuring a tinted glass panel exterior, arching skylights, and room inside for a sculpture collection. Eero Saarinen (son of Eliel) devised the 1954 Irwin Union Bank and Trust as a statement against the imposing, neoclassical architectural style of most banks of the time. The minimalist glass-and-steel structure sits at a downtown intersection, where glass walls allow both natural light and pedestrian sightlines to penetrate the building.

Columbus officials embrace and encourage the town's architectural heritage, but they aren't overly protective of it, as some boutique communities can be. The town still has plenty of strip malls, fast food franchises, and big-box stores, often right alongside its specially commissioned buildings. Some structures designed by Cummins Engine Foundation architects have even been torn down to make way for new development (including the aforementioned mall and a newspaper building). "We really don't have an area that is designated for architectural viewing," says Columbus Mayor Fred Armstrong.

That approach results in plenty of inconspicuous surprises: sculptures, mundane businesses with sleek facades, the occasional artistic trash receptacle. "We have your typical small-town zoning laws," Armstrong says, "but there's no effort to restrict development for the purpose of architecture. When private companies or churches build, there's an incentive for them to fit in the scheme of the community, to be part of the tradition. They embrace that and recognize that it's an important economic development tool."

Miller understood that too. His aspiration to make Columbus a showcase was driven in part by his love of architecture but also by a desire to make the city a more appropriate setting for a large, international corporation. He needed to give executive talent reasons to settle in a sleepy Midwestern town flanked by farmland and the Hoosier National Forrest.

Despite its architectural reputation, Columbus has never become a heartland bohemia or even a major tourist attraction. Most of southern Indiana's cultural life lies to the west in Bloomington, home of Indiana University. And tourists tend to skip over Columbus in favor of nearby Nashville, an arts-and-crafts town known for its antique stores and autumn foliage. But Columbus continues to put up interesting buildings. "We have a new senior center, bus terminal, and commons area going up," Armstrong says. "And the foundation has helped us find architects for all of those."

Senior Editor Radley Balko (rbalko@reason.com) is an Indiana native.