The Little-Known Indiana Town That Modernism Built

The best place for modern architecture is a Midwest town you’ve probably never heard of.

In a roll call of the greatest American cities for architecture, places like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles immediately come to mind. Then there’s Columbus, Indiana, population 46,000.


Though it’s lesser known, Columbus has a remarkable number of buildings by noted 20th- and 21st-century architects, including Eero Saarinen, Dan Kiley, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Robert A.M. Stern. It’s flown mostly under the radar over the decades, while maintaining a cult following among design nerds.

So how did this small town become a hotbed of modernism? Columbus’s remarkable pedigree is thanks in part to industrialist Joseph Irwin Miller, who died in 2004. Miller was a long-time executive at the Cummins Corporation, a major machinery and engine building company that is based in Columbus. And over his decades of leadership at Cummins, he transformed the Midwestern city into a company town–and used architecture to entice the best people to work for him.

City Hall by Charles Bassett (of SOM), c. 1981

“Miller built Cummins into a Fortune 200 company, and he created the Cummins Foundation in the 1950s to make Columbus a great place to live,” says Richard McCoy, director of Landmark Columbus, an organization founded in 2015 to preserve the city’s architectural heritage. “In order for him to get top employees, the city had to be a great place for families.”


So the Cummins Foundation agreed to foot a portion of the bill for public buildings, provided they were designed by a pre-approved list of architects. Humble buildings like schools, churches, banks, and civic offices were thought of as important enough to bear the signature of a respected architect. “Every one of us lives and moves all his life within the limitations, sight, and influence of architecture–at home, at school, at church, and at work,” Miller once said. “The influence of architecture with which we are surrounded in our youth affects our lives, our standards, our tastes when we are grown, just as the influence of the parents and teachers with which we are surrounded in our youth affects us as adults.”

But Miller’s point wasn’t to make a grand statement or have a constant state of one-upmanship for each new structure added to the city. “The Millers weren’t the Medicis–they didn’t control the town,” McCoy says. “They wanted the community to be involved, so they were behind the scenes. There aren’t big things named after him. He wasn’t a gregarious figure who wanted to put his name everywhere.”

Miller wanted Columbus to have its own identity in the sea of standardized designs that the postwar building boom brought.

Mill Race Park by Michael van Valkenburgh, c. 1993

Today, the city is wrestling with its past and future identity as boomer-generation leadership retires and new blood enters politics.

The architectural challenge for the Columbus is figuring out new uses for these aging buildings, as the city ponders ways for its history and future to peacefully coexist. It’s tempting to want to preserve as much history as possible, but the line between living museum and languishing mausoleum is fine. Landmark Columbus recently hosted a symposium in which contemporary architects mused on ways to build anew in the city and ensure that it remains relevant for future uses, too.

McCoy believes the city is prime for growth–the U.S. Census listed Columbus 15th in its list of the 20-fastest growing cities for startups–just as long as new developers tap into the same spirit as previous generations that put so much emphasis on thoughtful planning. Recently, adaptive reuse projects have breathed new life into some of the historic structures, as well. For example, a newspaper building by Myron Goldsmith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is changing hands to a medical company, and a pump house built in 1903 by Harrison Albright is now a brewery.


“There are some challenges because this heritage that came up in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s,” McCoy says. “Columbus is known for what it did in design and architecture, so to catalyze new reactions and remind the world and the community why these things make communities great places to live [is important] . . . It’s practical and pragmatic to invest in good design. It’s not more expensive than bad design and it lasts longer.”

We asked McCoy to lead us through 10 of his favorite spaces and places in Columbus. “Even for most Hoosiers, Columbus is obscure,” he says. “It’s known as the design fantasy land of the state.”

1. First Christian Church by Eliel Saarinen, c. 1942
“This was the first modern church in America,” McCoy says. “His son Eero, who was about 20 at the time, and Charles Eames designed the interior furnishings.”


2. Cleo Rogers Memorial Library by I.M. Pei, c. 1969
“This is an early building for I.M. Pei and it’s visually and stylistically connected to the First Christian Church, which is across the street,” McCoy says.

3. Irwin Union Bank and Trust Company by Eero Saarinen, c. 1954
“By this time J. Irwin Miller was friends with Eero Saarinen,” McCoy says. “When they were building the [First Christian] Church, a twentysomething Miller and twentysomething Saarinen built a friendship, and from there Eero builds Miller’s vacation home in Canada and then builds the bank. It’s the second glass-walled bank in America and it’s revolutionary inside and out. It’s very open, and no longer has the big wrought-iron gates of older banks, which say this is a vault and fortress; it says ‘come in.'”

4. Miller House and Garden by Eero Saarinen, c. 1957
“Saarinen’s home for Miller is another National Historic Monument,” McCoy says. “For many folks, this alone is worth the trip to Columbus. It’s a remarkable building with so many remarkable pieces in it–like a custom marble Tulip table with a fountain in the center and the first conversation pit. It’s designers working with a sophisticated and enlightened client to make exciting spaces. Even though it’s modern and linear, it’s warm and unique. Dan Kiley did the landscape and Alexander Girard did the interiors.”


5. The Republic Newspaper by Myron Goldsmith, c. 1971
“This had nothing to do with the Millers directly or indirectly–it was a business using good design to make a building that would last a long time,” McCoy says. “It’s fun, interesting, and quite simple.”

6. City Hall by Charles Bassett (of SOM), c. 1981
“This was made with support form the Cummins Architecture Foundation, which would pay for design fees of the project if the client chose an architect from its approved list,” McCoy says. (The list of architects included is a who’s-who of modernism and postmodernism: Harry Weese, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Eliot Noyes, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, Gwathmey Siegel, and Richard Meier, among others.) “Over 50 projects were funded this way–libraries, city hall, parks. This is how the Cummins Foundation tried to make the city a better place to live.”

7. Lincoln Elementary School by Gunnar Birkerts, c. 1967
“Birkets was a Lithuanian architect who worked with Saarinen and this school was built with support from the Cummins Architecture Foundation architecture,” McCoy says. “It is used today in a mostly unchanged way.”


8. Mill Race Park by Michael van Valkenburgh, c. 1993
The park is a great example of the community coming together to turn a challenge into an asset,” McCoy says. “The area of town was called Death Valley because it was in a flood zone.”

9. Chaos by Jean Tinguely, c. 1973
“A two-story-tall masterpiece by Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, it’s probably the least published thing in the city and the community’s favorite,” McCoy says.

10. North Christian Church by Eero Saarinen (completed by Roche Dinkeloo & Associates), c. 1964
“This was built to solve a client’s goals, not to be sculptural, and yet it’s one of the most powerful spaces in the city,” McCoy says.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.