Architectural Mecca

With the opening of another length of Interstate 69 in mid-December, we can finally drive to Bloomington, Indiana, completely on interstate. This will make travel to Columbus, Indiana, a bit easier than driving over to Louisville, Kentucky, and then up I-65. Take a spin on the new interstate to Bloomington, then head east a scenic 36 miles to Columbus.

Columbus became a company town in 1919 with the founding of Cummins. Today the global designer and manufacturer of power generation equipment, power systems, gasoline engines, and custom power supplies still is headquartered in the city of 45,775 people and continues to set the vibrant tone of Columbus.

Columbus is known as an architectural mecca. In the mid-1950s, the Cummins Foundation began paying design fees for public projects designed by highly regarded architects, an effort led by Cummins Chairman J. Irwin Miller to improve quality of life in the town.

Esquire magazine featured Miller on the cover of its October 1967 issue, with the headline, “This man ought to be the next president of the United States.” (Instead, it is said, Miller helped persuade Nelson Rockefeller to run.)

The New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in 1976, “Columbus, Indiana, and J. Irwin Miller are almost holy words in architectural circles. There is no other place in which a single philanthropist has placed so much faith in architecture as a means to civic improvement.”

As the years passed, Columbus came to have a newspaper building designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; a library designed by I.M. Pei; churches designed by Eero Saarinen and his father, Eliel; a Kevin Roche post office; and a Cesar Pelli shopping area.

In 1953, the Millers commissioned Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect whose father Eliel had designed First Christian Church in Columbus (one of the first churches in the U.S. to be built in a modernist style), to design a new home for their growing family. In 1947 Eero Saarinen designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

J. Irwin died in 2004; his wife Xenia died in 2007. The family agreed to donate the home and gardens to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Today, twice-daily tours (Tuesday-Saturday, in small groups) are offered by the Columbus Area Visitors Center.

The Miller House and Garden is regarded as one of the five most significant mid-century Modernist residences in the U.S. Joining Saarinen’s creative team on the home were Alexander Girard, who brought strong colors and patterns into the modern aesthetic, and landscape designer Dan Kiley, a leading figure in modern American landscape architecture who employed the Miller home landscape’s grandest feature, an allée of honey locust trees.

Tours have sold out months in advance — visit the IMA website before you go and book in advance.

When You Go

Columbus is home to a fantastic Hotel Indigo, within walking distance of downtown and Mill Race Park. Weeknights are often full — the hotel hosts global onboarding for Cummins — but the property aims to accommodate and some weeks are busier than others. 

Henry Social Club is a farm-to-table restaurant with a bar. Proprietor Gethin Thomas spent a career as executive chef for Cummins; he certainly has been around a kitchen or two. The name derives from his favorite writer and poet, Henry Charles Bukowski.

The Inn at Irwin Gardens is a 1910 Edwardian mansion built by the Miller family now serving as a bed and breakfast and events venue. It is located next door to the I.M. Pei designed Bartholomew County Library. 

No visit to Columbus is complete without a visit to Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum. Enjoy a grilled cheese and an epic sundae, and take in Zaharakos’ elaborate collection of vintage soda fountains, syrup dispensers, and mechanical music players.

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