Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana

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By Amanda Dameron / Published by Dwell
A photographic celebration of a small American city and its design legacy.

It comes as no surprise to followers of midcentury modernism that Columbus, Indiana, is one of the most important design destinations in America. A laboratory of ideas spurred in the 1940s and 1950s by the patronage of the forward-thinking Miller family and its Cummins Engine Foundation, the city of 46,000 is home to a staggering number of public works created by the most recognizable names in 20th-century architecture: Saarinen, Roche, Weese, Noyes, Pei, and Pelli, among many others. The city demonstrates how an enlightened practice of culture can alter history and change lives. Here, we present but a tiny glimpse of Columbus and nod to its future

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 1 of 18 - The North Christian Church was Eero Saarinen’s last building; he passed away unexpectedly before it was finished. Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates completed the project three years later. A trim 192-foot-tall spire tops the sloping roof of the six-sided building. 

The North Christian Church was Eero Saarinen’s last building; he passed away unexpectedly before it was finished. Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates completed the project three years later. A trim 192-foot-tall spire tops the sloping roof of the six-sided building. 


Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 2 of 18 - The central altar is crowned by an oculus in the cast-concrete ceiling. The church is a National Historic Landmark. 

The central altar is crowned by an oculus in the cast-concrete ceiling. The church is a National Historic Landmark. 

"As an architect, when I face Saint Peter I am able to say that out of the buildings I did during my lifetime, one of the best was this little church." Eero Saarinen, architect

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 3 of 18 - Cummins Engine Company head J. Irwin Miller (1909-2004) promoted architecture in Columbus through a program in which the company paid the architects' fee, provided clients selected a firm from a list compiled by Miller. The program was initiated with public schools, and later included fire stations, public housing, and other community structures. In 1954, Eero Saarinen designed the Irwin Union Bank and Trust (now renamed the Irwin Conference Center). Its aesthetic is credited with influencing the design of financial institutions for the next several decades, largely due to the architect's approach to openness and transparency. 

Cummins Engine Company head J. Irwin Miller (1909-2004) promoted architecture in Columbus through a program in which the company paid the architects' fee, provided clients selected a firm from a list compiled by Miller. The program was initiated with public schools, and later included fire stations, public housing, and other community structures. In 1954, Eero Saarinen designed the Irwin Union Bank and Trust (now renamed the Irwin Conference Center). Its aesthetic is credited with influencing the design of financial institutions for the next several decades, largely due to the architect's approach to openness and transparency. 

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 4 of 18 - Saarinen’s overhead lighting was unusual: Concave expanses hold custom fixtures, while a constellation of smaller embedded bulbs plays up the feeling of space. 

Saarinen’s overhead lighting was unusual: Concave expanses hold custom fixtures, while a constellation of smaller embedded bulbs plays up the feeling of space. 


Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 5 of 18 -


Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 6 of 18 - Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church was the first modern structure built in Columbus, and one of the earliest modern churches in the United States. Saarinen’s son, architect Eero Saarinen; his wife, Loja Saarinen; and designer Charles Eames contributed designs for the interior.

Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church was the first modern structure built in Columbus, and one of the earliest modern churches in the United States. Saarinen’s son, architect Eero Saarinen; his wife, Loja Saarinen; and designer Charles Eames contributed designs for the interior.

 

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 7 of 18 - A 166-foot-high campanile is a defining feature. The son of a Lutheran minister, Eliel Saarinen described it as "a simple church for simple people."

A 166-foot-high campanile is a defining feature. The son of a Lutheran minister, Eliel Saarinen described it as "a simple church for simple people."

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 8 of 18 - The fortress-like facade of Southside Elementary School, designed by architect Eliot Noyes in 1969 as a junior high school, features Brutalist, precast concrete panels and slotted windows. 

The fortress-like facade of Southside Elementary School, designed by architect Eliot Noyes in 1969 as a junior high school, features Brutalist, precast concrete panels and slotted windows. 

"Here they don’t say things like, ‘That doesn’t look like a church,’ or ‘That doesn’t look like a school.’ If there is criticism, it is more along the lines of saying what doesn’t work well, and you can’t ask for a better climate than that." J. Irwin Miller, Columbus resident and patron of the arts, 1976

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 10 of 18 -
Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 11 of 18 - From 1964 to 1965, Alexander Girard designed the interiors of the Cummins Corporate Office. For the lobby's ceiling, Girard worked with Cummins project manager Harold Hatter to fabricate the plaster-coated metal "stalactites.""

From 1964 to 1965, Alexander Girard designed the interiors of the Cummins Corporate Office. For the lobby's ceiling, Girard worked with Cummins project manager Harold Hatter to fabricate the plaster-coated metal "stalactites.""


Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 12 of 18 - Inside the Columbus, Indiana, office of J. Irwin Miller, designed by Alexander Girard. 

Inside the Columbus, Indiana, office of J. Irwin Miller, designed by Alexander Girard. 

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 13 of 18 -  The screen in the office is made of teak strips and steel zig-zags. 

 The screen in the office is made of teak strips and steel zig-zags. 

"There is really no equivalent of Columbus anywhere—there is no other place in which a single philanthropist has placed so much faith in architecture as a means for civic engagement." Paul Goldberger, architecture critic

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 14 of 18 - The Columbus Post Office (Kevin Roche, 1970)

The Columbus Post Office (Kevin Roche, 1970)


Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 15 of 18 - The Columbus Post Office (Kevin Roche, 1970)

The Columbus Post Office (Kevin Roche, 1970)

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 16 of 18 - First Baptist Church (Harry Weese, 1965)

First Baptist Church (Harry Weese, 1965)


Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 17 of 18 - First Baptist Church (Harry Weese, 1965)

First Baptist Church (Harry Weese, 1965)


Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana - Photo 18 of 18 - St. Peter's Lutheran (Gunnar Birkerts, 1988)

St. Peter's Lutheran (Gunnar Birkerts, 1988)