Monday, June 11, 2018

Columbus, Indiana

Covered bridge in Mill Race Park

Mental Health bridge

Eliel Saarinen First Christian Church, 1942

Henry Moore Arch, 1971

City Hall, 1981

Inn at Irwin Gardens, 1910 renovation, childhood home of J. Irwin Miller

Eero Saarinen Irwin Conference Center, 1954

Eero Saarinen Miller House, 1957

Eero Saarinen North Christian Church, 1964

Gunnar Birkerts St. Peter's Lutheran Church, 1988

Just returned from a few days in Columbus, Indiana, the small town with all the major architectural artworks scattered around the town (close to 100), home of seven national historic landmarks, adding a touch of the sublime into the hearts of middle America.  

Not sure many of the school kids are aware that their schools have been designed by major international architects, but it’s a curious aspect of growing up here. 

It’s certainly one of the friendliest places on earth, with a communal spirit of volunteerism, as it’s local volunteers who become the tour guides, literally experts on their own history, willingly sharing it with each and every new wave of tourists who come inquisitively to see and learn. 

The small-town atmosphere is quite inviting, as there’s a certain charm to simply being nice, not engaging in political discourse, but this spirit of helpfulness, taking an interest in your well-being, is a major aspect of this community.

It’s hard not to love that.  

Each day we were there was sunny and delightful, while it was muggy and oppressively hot just before and rainy afterwards. 

So in just a few days, one gets an idealized view, where I’m sure this town has all the racial disparity of other towns, with all the focus on some of the millionaires who brought the architects into this town, who appreciated an elevated spirit that would be passed on to each new generation. 

Starting in the 1950’s, a foundation backed by J. Irwin Miller, president of diesel engine manufacturer Cummins Engine Company, agreed to pay the architectural fees for public buildings such as schools, provided that the community chose from architects on his approved list, where he and his company, along with many other citizens and firms, hired top architects for private commissions.

These folks lived in well-stocked mansions with servant’s quarters, where the social divide between wealth and servitude was supposedly invisible, not even worth thinking about, as the wealthy exist in their own social class.  In the Irwin Gardens home, a hallway was designed exclusively for servants to travel in, unseen by those in the larger sitting room, who preferred not being interrupted.   

Like so many other towns, mansions are clearly visible in exclusive neighborhoods, while smaller homes were more representative of the local populace, a blue collar town where more than 30% work in a single factory, the Cummins Engine Company, a Fortune 500 company.  Blacks comprise just 2% of the population.  This is a town where you’re not going to find a Trader Joe’s, or any other gourmet food stores, independent cinemas, or high end boutiques.  The malls here are near vacant and run down, on the verge of extinction. 

In Columbus, they spend significantly more than the median Indiana communities, with a tax base that is the biggest while its tax rates are just about the lowest, understanding that the best way to keep their tax bills low is to keep general prosperity high, which requires a longstanding commitment to excellence. 

Other than Bloomington (home of the University of Indiana) and Lafayette (home to Purdue University), Columbus has far higher college degree attainment than all of the other cities in the state at just under 30%.  Given the importance of educational attainment as a predictor of civic commitment, that’s what separates this town from other small towns.

There’s a plethora of churches, some amazingly designed by world class architects, where the interiors are simply astounding.  We viewed them empty, with no parishioners, and no sermons being delivered, where the symmetry and artistic design on display was stunning. 

One of these churches is on the endangered list, the North Christian Church, as the upkeep is more than any income brought in by a dwindling flock, where it’s on the verge of shutting down. 

These architects can conceive visual clarity, but have little common sense when it comes to actually living in the designed space, much like many of the Frank Lloyd Wright houses, which look spectacular, but are nearly impossible to live in, as they’re not designed for modern convenience.

One of the more populated churches devised an air flow system that kept the interior comfortable, while others with surrounding windows and concrete slabs for a roof were stifling inside, making it difficult to spend any time there. 

So it’s not like these great minds had everything worked out, but they provided a blueprint to the future, with each new generation called upon to add their own imprint of improvements.

There were two scenes from the film that stood out for me. 

One was the house that John Cho stayed at, staying at The Inn at Irwin Gardens (IrwinGardens) where he was afraid of touching anything, afraid to break all the valuables on display, as it felt like living inside a museum.  The film made it seem like he was living on the first floor, though his room was actually on the third floor.  When he stepped into the back yard, there is this immense view of staggering proportions, which isn’t actually on the property, but is at the Miller House (Miller House and Garden :: Newfields), a modern era glass house where the outdoor beauty becomes a prominent indoor feature, as the outside is seen from the inside through floor-to ceiling windows, becoming a picturesque interior wall.  Here the freshly mowed back yard stretches to the horizons, as if floating in air, with a line of trees at the back offering a panoramic vantage point.   

So we stayed at that same house which is downtown next to the visitor’s center and visited the Miller House, both in all their splendor. 

The other scene was the covered bridge over the water, which in its simplicity captured the essence of the natural world in all its beauty and elegance.

Those two were the centerpieces of the visit, images carried over from the film, which greatly expanded once we arrived and could see much more for ourselves. 

Because the town is relatively small, it is possible to see many of the items on a tour, and then go inspect each one in more detail afterwards, or check out things not on the tour.

So many are close to the downtown area, so people are continually walking in and out of these buildings. 

While tourism is a major draw, it’s also one of the headaches to the locals, as there’s a constant influx of strangers, yet people are friendly enough everywhere you go. 

The restaurants have not kept pace, as the offerings were not particularly inviting, though breakfasts at the Inn were scrumptious.  

While it’s a bit like stepping into another world, Columbus (population 44,000) is listed as the #6 US city for architectural innovation and design, behind Chicago (2.7 million), New York (8.5 million), Boston (685,000), San Francisco (884,000), and Washington DC. (703,000)  

Many of the people we visited had been back two or three times, so it’s an individualized experience, one with personal ramifications, exactly as suggested by the film. 

Articles of interest


  1. I agree with Daniel. Eero Saarinen FTW. #torille (an inside joke only Finns would understand.)

  2. Well I don't begin to understand it, but that's OK, as it's only appropriate that a film about the relationship between children and their parents is so dynamically represented by a father and son architectural team, namely Eliel and Eero Saarinen. The work they've produced is simply timeless.

  3. Nice to learn Chicago ranks number one in architectural design among US cities.