Columbus, Ind. — glitter amid the rust
Luminaries' architecture, design set apart city of 40,000
North Christian Church in Columbus, Ind., is Eero Saarinen's last building and a National Historic Landmark. (HANDOUT)
By all rights, Columbus, Ind., should look like many other Midwestern towns of 40,000 — a once thriving downtown that was forced into economic mediocrity. Businesses gone, displaced by an ugly mall inhabited by franchise stores, nail salons and fast-food restaurants.
Columbus, however, is a town that lifts your spirits. It is a community enhanced by modern architecture that dates from the 1950s to present, designed by notable names such as Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero, Harry Weese, I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier and Robert Venturi. Some 60 architectural gems — schools, a library, churches, banks, a post office, fire stations, a newspaper and offices — make you ooh and aah.
In what other small town will you find a muscular 20-foot-tall sculpture by Henry Moore or a dazzling 9-foot-long glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly?
Columbus ranks sixth — after the more predictable Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington — among the top 10 U.S. cities for architectural design as selected by the American Institute of Architects.
The largesse of modern works stems from the vision of J. Irwin Miller, grandnephew of William G. Miller, a local business man/banker, who in 1919 helped his chauffeur, Clessie L. Cummins, a self-taught mechanic, launch the Cummins Engine Co., a manufacturer of diesel engines. Now Cummins Inc., the town's largest employer, is a multibillion-dollar worldwide Fortune 500 corporation. Irwin Miller, who took over as general manager in 1934, subsequently became the corporate owner and also the driving force in bringing architectural treasures to Columbus.
Some years after Miller wooed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen to design the First Christian Church (1942), he struck a deal with the school board, which was casting about for a school design. Miller would supply the names of five prominent architects for them to interview. The board would choose the one it liked, and Miller would pay the architect's design fees.
More than 50 years later, the same deal applies, Miller's role having been replaced by the Cummins Foundation. The red brick and glass City Hall (1981) with its cantilevered arms and window wall of glass, and the two-story minimalist red brick Cleo Rogers Memorial Library (1969) with the Moore sculpture, exemplify Miller's artistic visions. Today, the firm of Koetter, Kim & Associates of Boston has designed a new Commons, a downtown community center under construction and scheduled to open in 2011, and Pelli's latest project is a technical school, an advanced manufacturing-training center to open next year.
Thus, a remarkable town with striking brick, stone, steel, aluminum and glass architecture and handsomely designed parks continues to flourish.
After crossing the red basket-handled Gateway Arch Bridge that spans Indiana Highway 46, drive to the Columbus Visitors Center, 506 Fifth St., for tips on tours, dining and lodging. Inside the visitors center you will see Chihuly's "Yellow Neon Chandelier and Persian Windows."
Within a few blocks of the center, you will see some of the town's most important contemporary works, among them the First Christian Church (Eliel Saarinen), Lincoln Elementary School (Gunnar Birkerts), Cleo Rogers Memorial Library (I.M. Pei), the "Large Arch" sculpture (Henry Moore), Irwin Union Bank and Trust Co. and Columbus Post Office (Roche Dinkeloo), Republic newspaper (Myron Goldsmith) and the Columbus City Hall (Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.)
Along Washington Street, the downtown's main drag, you will find the Bartholomew County Courthouse (1874) with the adjacent dramatic limestone columns of the Memorial for Veterans (1995), and several blocks of late 18th century Victorian buildings that are still in use.
Two-hour bus tours are available for $12, a tour using your cell phone $10, or you can drive yourself and follow a routes on an architectural tour map.
Where to eat
Columbus offers a range of restaurants serving everything from burgers and bruschetta to grilled salmon and rack of lamb. Among the most popular restaurants are Smith's Row (812-373-9382,, smithsrow.com), Tre Bicchieri (812-372-1962,trebicchieri-columbus.com) and the high-end Bistro 310 (812-418-8212, bistro310.com). Another option: Zaharakos (812-378-1900, zaharakos.com), a recently restored Victorian ice cream parlor with stained glass, Tiffany-style lamps and a 50-foot-long back bar, a Columbus institution since 1900.
Where to stay
For an overnight in the downtown area, consider the modern Hotel Indigo (812-375-9100, dorahotels.com/Indigo_
Columbus/indigo_columbus.htm), a member of the Inter-Continental group; The Inn at Irwin Gardens (812-376-3663, irwingardens.com), posh accommodations in an updated 1864 mansion; or the less-expensive Ruddick-Nugent House B&B (812-350-6708, ruddick-nugent-house.com).
Columbus is about 230 miles and four hours southeast of Chicago off Interstate Highway 65, 45 miles south of Indianapolis. For more information on Columbus, check out columbus.in.us or phone 800-468-6564.
Extending your getaway
From Columbus you can follow Indiana Highway 46, a designated scenic route, west for about 20 miles to Nashville, a tiny art colony with scores of galleries and studios. Just south of Nashville lies Brown County State Park, Indiana's largest, a holiday unto itself. Another 25 miles west will put you in Bloomington, home of Indiana University.