For too many folks, Columbus, Ind., is a city to drive through en route to Indianapolis (on one of our too-long routes to the state capital, until Interstate 69 is complete) or to the shopper’s bonanza, Edinburgh Premium Outlets. My advice: Slow down, take exit 68 onto the Front Door Bridge, and spend a day in this architectural mecca. Better still, spend a few days and slumber at the Inn at Irwin Gardens.
The city of Columbus and the Inn at Irwin Gardens are inextricably linked; together they tell the story of Columbus, have shaped the commercial and cultural history of the town, and continue to define what Columbus is today.
Columbus banker and businessman Joseph I. Irwin built the Inn, an Italianate design, in 1864. To accommodate four generations of the Irwin family, the home has been enlarged and redesigned over the years, including a significant remodel in 1880.
The Inn at Irwin Gardens is in fantastic shape thanks to the efforts of the new owners Jim and Eve Jackson and innkeepers Chris and Jessica Stevens. Visitors enter the mansion through a grand foyer with quarter-sawn English white oak paneling and an ornate staircase that rises to the second and third floor guest rooms. Although the gardens are not in their original splendor due to a lack of attention in recent years before the current owners moved in, they still are more than worth enjoying during your stay and provided a great place for my kids to play when we stayed there in October.
Next door to the Inn is the I.M. Pei designed Columbus Library. Across the street is The First Christian Church (originally known as the Tabernacle Church of Christ), designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and built in 1942. It was the first contemporary building in Columbus and one of the first churches in the United States to be built in a contemporary architectural style.
It was J. Irwin Miller (1909-2004), great nephew of Cummins Engine founder William Irwin who grew up in the Irwin home, who brought mid-century modern architecture to Columbus. He and his wife Xenia commissioned Saarinen to build the church across the street that set the tone and tempo of the city’s world-class modern architectural development. In 1953, they commissioned Saarinen’s son, Eero, to build their residence. Today, the Miller House, as it is now known, a National Historic Landmark, is owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art and is regarded by many experts as the finest example of residential mid-century modern architecture in the U.S. Stay at the Inn, but book a tour of the Miller House early; tours book months in advance.
My family was afforded an additional lesson in the significance of Columbus’s architecture during the delicious breakfast served at the Inn, where we shared a table with two couples – college friends and architects from far-flung places. Like us, they had chosen to explore this town of 44,000. Visitors to Columbus can see more than 70 buildings and pieces of public art by internationally noted architects and artists. Nowhere can you see the works of so many great modern architects in such close proximity.
For families staying at the Inn, it’s important to note that Columbus offers much more than architectural eye candy. Enjoy landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh’s award-winning park design in Mill Race Park, located just steps away from downtown. Its curving drive follows the line of the river, and from the 84-foot observation tower you can view the river as well as the downtown rooftops and steeples.
The city’s newest architectural jewel, The Commons, is also a family play area. Jaws drop at the sight of the 35-foot-tall climber and 5,000-square-foot indoor playground. Also at The Commons is the seven-ton, automated Chaos I sculpture by Jean Tinguely. The work represents one of his main statements: “Life is movement.”
The next time you find yourself headed north on Interstate 65, consider not moving so fast and exit off to Columbus, where you’ll be well rewarded.