An architectural treasure in smalltown Indiana

On our way recently by car to Chicago, through West Virginia and Kentucky, our destination was the little town of Columbus in southern Indiana, on the flat farmland between Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky.

Now, I usually stay away from the word “unique.” It is overused and few things are really unique. But the town of Columbus, Indiana is unique. With only 44,000 inhabitants it has become an architectural treasure. Six of Columbus’ modernist buildings have been declared National Historic Landmarks and little Columbus ranks sixth in America after the big cities of Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington DC as a premier architectural destination.

It all started when the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church opened during World War II. A bank and the stunning North Christian Church by his son Eero Saarinen followed, by then thanks to local engine maker Cummins Inc. and the vision of its CEO J. Irwin Miller and his new Cummins Foundation. Miller, born and raised in Columbus, clearly valued good architecture and good art and saw its importance to the quality of life of his home town, for his Foundation offered to pay the architects’ fees, first for the schools and then for any new public building in town.

Many a leading architect heard the call: I.M. Pei, Gunnar Birkerts, Robert Venturi, Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche, Richard Meier, Robert Stern. Their work, office buildings, schools, fire stations, can be found all over town.

The Commons, designed in 2011 by Koetter Kim & Associates, with its gigantic climbing tree, is what must be one of the great indoor children’s playgrounds in any downtown.

The global headquarters of Cummins Inc. was designed by Kevin Roche and houses an engine museum with a stunning garden, created by landscape architect Jack Curtis. J. Irwin Miller lived until he died in in 2004 in a home designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957, with Alexander Girard’s interior design and Dan Kiley as landscape architect — all legends in American architecture.

Columbus is also the scene of great public art. Outside Pei’s library stands Henry Moore’s “Large Arch,” in front of The Commons is Bernar Venet’s red “2 Arcs de 212.5°,” in front of the splendid modern offices of the local newspaper The Republic, designed by Myron Goldsmith is “Birds of Fire” by Ted Sitting Crow Garner, and Dale Chihuly’s magnificent “Yellow Neon Chandelier and Persians” hangs in the Visitor Center.

It just goes on and on. Go there! There is nothing like it in all America.

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