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Prarie Modern

Prarie Modern

The Architecture of Columbus, Indiana

At this time of year, the flatlands of Bartholomew County in south-central Indiana are a dull gray-brown—the fields pockmarked by cornstalk stubble, the small rivers wandering across the plains muddy with recent rains. In this dun-colored landscape, the bright-red steel arch over the I-65/SR-46 interchange is the first clue that Columbus differs by design from other towns of the Midwest.

The overpass and its stylish red sister crossing the White River were devised by Jean Muller of Chicago as part of the Front Door Project, a citizen-based concept to create an efficient and eye-catching entrance into Columbus from the interstate. Civic leaders convinced highway engineers to modify their generic right-of-way plans by pointing out that the Muller overpass alone would save the state $1 million in construction costs. The resulting bridges are a late-’90s manifestation of a commitment to modern design that stretches back six decades.

Columbus first grew modern architecture in 1939, when members of the First Christian Church hired Eliel Saarinen to design a new building on a downtown block. The Finnish architect, whose unbuilt design for Chicago’s Tribune Tower streamlined the profile of the American skyscraper, was then in residence at Cranbrook Academy near Detroit.

For the First Christians, Saarinen made a buff brick and limestone complex of the simplest geometry. The architect pulled apart sanctuary and bell tower into complementary rectangles, flooded the white-and-wood sanctuary interior with a wall of light, and hired the young Charles Eames to design some furniture.

Columbus has taken its architecture seriously ever since. Today there are 60 buildings in the city designed by prominent architectural firms from both coasts and most of the major cities in between. Four Pritzker Prize laureates—the Nobel of architecture—have buildings in Columbus: Richard Meier, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, and Robert Venturi. In a 1991 survey, members of the American Institute of Architects ranked Columbus sixth in the nation for quality of innovation and design—behind only Boston, Chicago, New York, San Franciso, and Washington, D.C. Public spaces in Columbus feature sculpture by Henry Moore, Jean Tinguely, and Dale Chihuly; landscapes by Dan Riley and Michael Van Valkenburgh.

So how did all this design talent come to a prairie town of 37,000 people? Enlightened patronage.

In 1957 Bartholomew County was faced with a need for new schools. Only one had been constructed since 1929, while the population had doubled. J. Irwin Miller, chairman of the local Cummins Engine Company, proposed to the school board that the Cummins Foundation would pay the architectural fees for new schools if the architects were selected from a list of first-rate American designers. According to the published ground rules, the list for each project would be devised by a group of nationally prominent architects not competing for the project. The school board would have final control over each building’s program, design, and budget, with the architect responsible for planning and designing the total building, including siting, landscaping, and interior design and furnishings. The program was subsequently expanded to make all public institutions in the county—the Columbus city government; the fire, corrections, and parks departments; the affordable housing agency—eligible for the fee grants. Through 1998 the program had subsidized 42 buildings.

The Cummins program inspired private corporations and church congregations to stress quality design for their buildings without benefit of Foundation incentives. In 1963, city leaders began a fund drive to purchase 66 acres of what was known locally as “Death Valley,” a floodplain once the site of a tannery and tar-paper shacks across the railroad tracks from downtown. By 1992, the floodplain had become Mill Race Park, with a water-dominated landscape by Michael Van Valkenburgh and structures—observation tower, amphitheater, pergola, rest rooms, and overlooks—by Stanley Saitowitz.

Architectural self-consciousness led to downtown storefront renovation and streetscape initiatives as well as the restoration of the city’s significant 19th-century churches, homes, and government buildings. One hundred years after their family started the business, Lew and Ann Zaharako still serve up a mean hot fudge sundae on the solid onyx soda fountain of their confectionery on Washington Street.

But it is its embrace of modernist architecture for which Columbus is justly famous. The Irwin Union Bank & Trust Company—a 1954 structure by Eero Saarinen, son of Eliel—illustrates how a transparent glass curtain wall can rest companionably alongside 19th-century Victorian storefronts on the American Main Street. Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church of 1965 is an expressionistic manipulation of concrete that the architect employed on a larger scale at the Kennedy Airport’s TWA Terminal and Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. My personal favorite is the Columbus Mental Health Center of 1972 by James Stewart Polshek, two offset rectangles of concrete and glass sitting serenely astride Haw Creek that recall the covered bridges of the Indiana vernacular tradition.

Today Columbus presents the architecturally avid with a history of American design on a small town scale, and presents it eagerly. The downtown visitor’s center sells a catalog of the county’s architecture as well as monographs on the individual architects represented. A detailed self-guided tour map is available for those who want the leisure to examine all the details; daily guided tours provide a more structured approach.

The citizens of Columbus proudly call their town the “Athens on the Prairie,” in allusion to the small Greek town that put much of its treasury into civic architecture and sculpture and got famous. Maybe the Athens of the South should take the four-hour trip up the interstate, and take notice.


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