COLUMBUS, Ind.—Deep in the belly of Indiana off Interstate Highway 65 pops out a marvel of a town molded by eminent architects.
It was hard-core industry, specifically diesel engine manufacturing, that helped put this town on the map. That, along with invention and ingenuity.
The difference is that Columbus is a mere town of 37,000 folks.
The name instrumental in giving the town a boost is Clessie Cummins. He is credited with fine-tuning the German-invented diesel engine, which paid off both economically and, eventually, architecturally for Columbus. In 1919, Cummins Engine Co. set up its headquarters in town, growing into the world's largest independent manufacturer of diesel engines, employing 28,500 worldwide.
The crusade to bring in architectural talent took shape in 1957 under J. Irwin Miller, general manager of Cummins Engine at the time. The deal was simple: The company offered to cover design costs for much needed public schools -- as long as it was able to approve the architect selection.
For Cummins, what began with the Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School, designed by Chicago's Weese, who was an indelible force in shaping a chunk of the Windy City's skyline, still continues today. Thus far, more than 30 buildings and additions, ranging from schools to the post office to city hall, have been constructed under the Cummins Engine Foundation Architecture Program. Many of them are part of the architectural tour my boyfriend and I took while on our three-day weekend getaway to Columbus.
While getting here from Chicago may be a bit of a drive -- we clocked about four hours with traffic -- once downtown, you can ditch driving, as many of Columbus' main sights are within walking distance.
We chose lodging downtown in the historic Columbus Inn, a bed-and-breakfast that used to serve as City Hall. The Romanesque revival inn was built in 1895 and still has its intricate tin ceiling and 10-foot-tall Federal-style windows throughout. Our corner room, it turned out, was many a former mayor's office.
The inn is also conveniently located near the Columbus Visitors Center, which conducts architectural tours March through November. Call ahead to make reservations as space fills up mighty fast. The center also showcases the works of glass artist Dale Chihuly. Peer upstairs at the fiery "Yellow Neon Chandelier," a 1,200-pound, nine-foot-long light composed of 900 pieces of hand-blown glass with 50 feet of neon tubing.
The Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, crafted by Pei in 1969, was a starting point on our tour. Its large plaza houses a Henry Moore sculpture titled "Large Arch."
About a dozen schools boasting Weese, Richard Meier and Gunnar Birkerts as their designers are on the route as is Pelli's The Commons, a public playground that houses a mall, eateries and the Indianapolis Museum of Art Columbus Gallery.
The private sector, too, has been behind such works in town, including the First Christian Church designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen in 1942. It is considered to be one of the first churches of contemporary architecture in the United States.
So impressive are the buildings here that, in 1991, Columbus was voted sixth for design and innovation among United States cities in an American Institute of Architects reader survey. (Chicago ranked first.) Columbus still retains its sixth-place crown and is ranked fourth in the nation after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago in the number of buildings designed by famous architects.
One of the few non-buildings on our tour was Mill Race Park, an 85-acre riverfront oasis that once was a flood plain and a shanty town in the '70s. The ultramodern Stanley Saitowitz-designed restrooms seemed to stir up a lot of attention on the tour for their clever interchangeable M and W signs, but the park's most impressive feature is manmade Round Lake.
Take the two-hour tour (one hour tours are also offered) if you want to see the North Christian Church designed in 1964 by Eero Saarinen, the son of Eliel Saarinen. It's worth the wait. Hidden among groves of magnolia trees is a startling circular church topped with a 192-foot spire. It's also one of the only buildings on the tour that you'll actually enter. Note that Saturday afternoon and Sunday tour groups won't be able to enter the church at all.
For a quick architecture fix, walk down 5th Street. Locals call it the "arch axis," since it is lined with works by many of the famous architects featured on the tour. Also on the strip is the immaculate Irwin Home and Gardens. The gardens are open to the public April through September.
Not every nook and cranny of the town has been awarded a modern touch, and thankfully so. Older centerpieces in Columbus include the Bartholomew County Courthouse. Arvin Industries, a huge auto parts manufacturer in town, has a glorious turn-of-the-century schoolhouse that was renovated for its headquarters.
In our personal guide book, "tea time" and "tee time" are also well on the way to making Columbus famous. The combination actually turned out to make for a pleasant weekend afternoon. Before hitting one of six golf courses around town, we first visited The Columbus Inn's British-style tea room, heralded by locals as "the best tea room this side of the Atlantic."