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Columbus, Indiana - The Athens of the Prairie

By Edited Oct 10, 2015 2 2
The Commons, Columbus, IN

Columbus, Indiana is a small midwestern city, population 44,000. In summer, the kids play outside until the streetlights come on, and you can hear mothers yelling to them to come home for dinner amid the sounds of lawnmowers and the smells of grilling. This town is like a thousand other midwestern towns, with one vast exception; about 50,000 people from all around the globe come to visit every year. So what is the allure? Columbus is the sixth most architecturally innovative city in the US, behind such behemoths as Chicago, Boston, New York City, San Francisco and Washington D.C. But how did this happen? What brought such acclaimed architects as Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei to design buildings for this city that sprang up from cornfields? One man; J. Irwin Miller.


J. Irwin Miller

J. Irwin Miller's Vision

Joseph Irwin Miller (May 26, 1909-August 19, 2004) was an industrialist best known for his role as CEO of Cummins Engine Company, founded in 1919 by Hugh Miller and Clessie Lyle Cummins and made famous for embracing the ideas and improving on the technology of Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine. J. Irwin Miller became CEO of Cummins in 1934 and under his leadership, the company grew as a force in the global economy.

Miller became interested in architecture during his studies at Yale University, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa and earned his business degree. He earned his MBA at Balliol College, Oxford, where he also studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics. His world travels had exposed him to the culture and beauty of many cities and he wanted to bring some of that influence to his hometown.

Early in his chairmanship of CEC, Miller instituted a policy with the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation. Miller and Cummins would pay the architect's fee if BCSC would select an architect from a list compiled by Miller to design the school. This incentive proved to be so popular that Miller began to approach other businesspeople in the community and asked them to allow their headquarters or offices be designed by world-famous architects.

First Christian Church - Eliel Saarinen, seen through Large Arch - Henry Moore

First Christian Church, Sculpture

North Christian Church - Eero and Eliel Saarinen

NCC - Saarinen

A Modernist Mecca

The list of architects who have contributed to the landscape of Columbus reads as a veritable Who's Who of 20th century designers. Eero Saarinen, Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, Kevin Roche, Cesar Pelli, John Carl Warnecke, Robert Venturi, Romaldo Giurgola, Gunnar Birkerts and Myron Goldsmith are just a few of the icons who have contributed their vision to this place. The buildings are just a start; sculptors such as Henry Moore, Jean Tinguely and Dale Chihuly have also left their mark, with their works gracing various locales around town.

Irwin Union Bank - Eero Saarinen

Irwin Union Bank - Eero Saarinen

All-American City

Columbus became an All-American City in 1994. This designation is given to cities whose citizens work together to identify and tackle community-wide problems. The city has a nationally recognized Parks and Recreation Department, as well as a youth sports' complex that rivals that of larger cities. The Columbus Philharmonic, Columbus Children's Choir and Columbus City Band are all groups that are known nationally for their collective excellence. Also recognized by such chefs as Emeril Lagasse, Columbus is a foodie destination, with many gourmet restaurants situated beside mom and pop diners, and Zaharakos (locally known as 'the Greeks'), a soda shop still using the original soda fountain from its opening in 1895; visitors delight in trying the house specialty, a Gom Sandwich, which is a sloppy joe-like concoction that is a unique Columbus delicacy.


Bartholomew Cty Public Library - IM Pei


Columbus - Different By Design

When visiting Columbus, a trip to the Visitor's Center is a must. Hop on the architectural tour bus, where the knowledgable guides will take you through the city, telling the stories behind some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. The Commons is a downtown attraction housing restaurants, a branch of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and a huge state-of-the-art indoor playground that will delight children of all ages. KidsCommons is a children's museum unlike any other. Climb the rock wall, get flushed down the giant "toilet slide", and come away with your own original works of art in the Artist's Garett. Also, visit Crump Theatre, the oldest operating theater in the state of Indiana. A marvel of art deco design, the theater has hosted opera singers, vaudeville actors and was also a speakeasy during the days of prohibition.

Columbus is a truly unique city, and one that I am proud to call my hometown. Hope to see y'all soon!

Columbus East High - Romaldo Giurgola



Jun 13, 2012 1:27pm
Told ya I'd read it. Next time I'm through there I'll do more than stop at the Waffle house off I-65. Moore's arch is amazing. Good stuff to find! A thumb.
Jun 13, 2012 1:34pm
If you love the Arch you'll love Chaos at the Commons downtown. It's absolutely amazing. Jean Tinguely calls it his "greatest achievement". Pretty cool.

Thanks for reading!
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