Travel experts agree that road trips will be the way pandemic-era adventurers will return to discovering the world. And if there’s a destination ripe for these times, it’s Columbus, Indiana aka “Athens of the Prairie.” The unassuming midwestern town is the birthplace and mecca of modernist architecture and public art, a “natural” outdoor museum -- and the antidote for social distancing.
My visit here last fall opened my eyes to the modernist design movement between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries that did away with traditional styles of architecture and ornamentation in favor of function and simplicity. Even South Korean filmmaker Kogonada’s search for a film location ended when he discovered Columbus. Who would think that its simple buildings would star in his 2017 critically acclaimed directorial debut that he titled, simply, “Columbus.”
Almost 100 public buildings, including schools, the library and the fire house were constructed by elite architects -- think I.M. Pei, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Skidmore Owens and Merrill, Alexander Girard, Cesar Pelli, and others. A call out for the best of the best was the vision of industrialist and philanthropist J. Irwin Miller, Columbus native and CEO of Cummins Engine Foundation, to “rebuild” the city in the spirit of Winston Churchill’s words, “We shape our buildings, afterwards our buildings shape us.”
As his family’s diesel engine manufacturing business grew in the 1950s, Miller realized the need to attract employees by offering an attractive town with quality schools and public services. Miller’s renaissance of the city started with an architect program in which the foundation would pay architect fees only if the designer was chosen from his hand-picked list.
The rest is history.
Tours of Columbus’ art and architecture begin at the beautiful Visitor Center in the heart of downtown and housed in the 1864 home of John Storey who operated the old nearby mill. The building was repurposed in 1973 to welcome visitors as Columbus became a mecca for lovers of architecture.Miller’s wife, Xenia Simons Miller, oversaw the building’s reincarnation and in 1995 Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kevin Roche designed the building’s seamless expansion.
Steps outside the Visitor Center doors, we faced the I.M. Pei-designed Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and Library Plaza – Pei’s vision for the city’s first public space completed in 1969. Spoiler:The brick library stars prominently in “Columbus,” the powerful story aboutrelationships between offspring and their parents. Even the dynamics of father-son architects Eliel and Eero Sarrinen who built masterpieces around Columbus provided inspiration for the film.
Just a few yards away, our guide turned our attention to the patinaed curves of a 20-foot high bronze sculpture juxtaposed between the geometric lines of the library and First Christian Church across the street. The Millers commissioned British artist Henry Moore to create a piece for the plaza. Inspired by Stonehenge in England, “Large Arch” became one of Moore’s most important works.
Our tour continued onboard a small comfy bus. Tip: A social distancing-alternative for visitors with a car is to pick up an art and architecture map at the Visitor Center and embark on your own self-paced tour.
And as we turned practically every corner, it was becoming clearer to me why architecture enthusiasts make a pilgrimage to Columbus. Even a dialogue between Jin and Casey, the protagonists in “Columbus,” contemplates the healing power of buildings.
First Christian Church was Columbus’ first modernist building constructed in 1942. Designed by Eliel Saarinen, its plain shape was intended to welcome all denominations and social classes. In 1964, The younger Eero Saarinen designed hexagonal-shaped North Christian Church with his modern take on monumental cathedrals. Its 192-foot high spire can be spotted from afar and steps leading to the entrance were inspired by the temples of Angor-Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia. The churches were designated National Historic Landmarks and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 and 2000, respectively.
From one masterpiece to another – City Hall, the Republic Newspaper Building, the Main Library, the Irwin Conference Center (formerly Irwin Union Bank), the Miller House and others, I began recognizing characteristics of mid-century modern design: usually one story, flat rooftops, lots of glass for natural light, rectangular forms, horizontal lines, use of open space and use of both modern materials like concrete and steel and traditional materials such as stone, brick and wood in their natural forms.
The modern design roots of Columbus came full circle at the Miller House, the former residence of the Miller family. Stepping inside was like entering a modernist shrine.
Designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1957, the almost 7,000 square foot house with its original furnishings is simple yet stately, embodying the clean lines and utilitarian elements of modern design. The Millers entertained a lot, including industry leaders and heads of state.
The home’s interior design by Alexander Girard created a public space in the center of the home. A step-down conversation pit with “wall-to-wall” seating minimizes the visibility of furniture -- a pioneer design concept of the time that is making a comeback today. A sleek 50-foot long storage unit stretches across a wall with bookshelves and clever cabinets for hiding equipment and displaying prized objects. Across the room, a wall of glass windows frames the peaceful forest outside. And discreetly branching from this airy space are the bedrooms, kitchen, and laundry room – a design influenced by the 16th century Villa Rotunda in Italy.
The Miller House, the standard bearer of modernist design, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000 and donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2009, one year after Xenia’s passing.
IF YOU GO:
To learn more about art and architecture tours, visit https://columbus.in.us/