Why Columbus, Indiana, Should Be Your Next Design Destination

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By Kelsey Keith / Published by Dwell
Boasting dozens of modernist structures by iconic architects, this midwestern town is sure to be a bucket-list destination for design enthusiasts.

Dwell readers and fans of NPR, unite. Public radio stations have been airing a summer travel series from NPR's Arts Desk called "Destination Art" that explores "off the beaten track" cities across North America, where listeners can tune into the theater culture of Stratford, Ontario (home to Justin Bieber), the art scene in the far-flung Texas town Marfa, and one of our personal must-sees—the architectural legacy of Columbus, Indiana. Dwell sent photographer Leslie Williamson to Columbus in 2011 to shoot the fabled Miller House, an Eero Saarinen–designed home and one of America's foremost modernist residences. Here's what else you shouldn't miss in this "midwestern mecca for architecture."

The reason such a small town is stocked with more than 60 civic buildings designed by modernist architects (including I.M. Pei, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, Robert Venturi, and James Polshek, to name a few) is that J. Irwin Miller, the industrialist who commissioned his home from Saarinen, was a true believer in the movement. Through his family's company, Cummins Engine Co., Miller established a foundation that would fund city structures as long as he could create the shortlist of architects.

Why Columbus, Indiana, Should Be Your Next Design Destination - Photo 1 of 4 - The front entrance of the Miller House is flanked by a series of glass screens, designed by either Dan Kiley or Girard.

The front entrance of the Miller House is flanked by a series of glass screens, designed by either Dan Kiley or Girard.

Why Columbus, Indiana, Should Be Your Next Design Destination - Photo 2 of 4 - The custom-made sofa in the open-plan living area, with its brass back detail, was originally going to be an Eames Compact couch. But when its exposed back was deemed visually objectionable, Girard modified the piece to suit the room.

The custom-made sofa in the open-plan living area, with its brass back detail, was originally going to be an Eames Compact couch. But when its exposed back was deemed visually objectionable, Girard modified the piece to suit the room.

Among such architectural hotspots, reporter Susan Stamberg recommends the Irwin Union Bank and Trust (now closed), built by Saarinen in 1954 and added onto by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo in 1973. Stamberg says, "I like how the old buildings are mingled in with the new stuff—if everything was designed in the 1950s, the town would be monotony central."

Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church (1942) was the first modernist building on the block, and other must-sees include the city hall building—built by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1981—as well as a glass-skinned manufacturing facility for Cummins by Roche Dinkeloo (1973) and the brick First Baptist Church by Harry Weese (1965).

Why Columbus, Indiana, Should Be Your Next Design Destination - Photo 3 of 4 - The North Christian Church by Eero Saarinen was completed in 1962.

The North Christian Church by Eero Saarinen was completed in 1962.

Confessing to a more traditional aesthetic herself, Stamberg also recommends Zaharakos ice cream parlor, which was built in 1900 and restored in 2009. "It's got a self-playing organ, old brass chandeliers, and big marble counters," she says. "You can even pull the levers (though they aren't filed with hot fudge sauce anymore)."

Why Columbus, Indiana, Should Be Your Next Design Destination - Photo 4 of 4 - Exterior and interior of Harry Weese's First Baptist Church in Columbus, Indiana.

Exterior and interior of Harry Weese's First Baptist Church in Columbus, Indiana.

One last stop on the Columbus architecture express? "I was very impressed by the Bartholemew County Jail," Stamberg says. "Very well designed [by Don M. Hisaka]. There's a domed glass top and the prisoners would go up there and exercise. The community objected though it was such a nice facility for a bunch of prisoners!"

Listen to Susan Stamberg's story on Columbus, courtesy of NPR. For more on the Miller House, read Dwell's 2011 story and visit in person—it's now open to the public.