In the 1950s, J. Irwin Miller made a deal with the city of Columbus, Indiana: The locally-based Cummins Engine Company (of which he was chairman) would bankroll the construction of future public buildings if Miller himself—a disciple of modern art—could simply choose the architect. The city agreed, and in a matter of a few years, designs from world-renowned names like Eero Saarinen (known for St. Louis’s Gateway Arch) and I.M. Pei (designer of the Pyramide du Louvre) began to grace the landscape of this modest Midwestern town, making it a destination for modern design lovers.
At just under 45,000 residents, tiny Columbus is a big player in the public art world, boasting more than 70 buildings and works that have earned the town its nickname, “The Athens of the Prairie.” One local favorite is famed Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, with its open design and classically modern features like deeply recessed windows and a coffered concrete ceiling. Out on the library’s plaza sits Henry Moore’s hefty bronze sculpture Large Arch, in which natural, organic lines provide a visual contrast to the stark right angles of the library and surrounding structures.
Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church is one of the town’s more striking buildings, featuring strong geometric themes created in brick, limestone, and concrete; the 160-foot-tall brick tower with its asymmetrical clock is visible from far and wide. Peppered throughout the gridded streets are dozens more buildings, including the 1941 Art Nouveau–style Fire Station No. 1 and the six-sided North Christian Church—designed by Eero Saarinen, Eliel’s son, and built in 1964. And one of the very first things you’ll see upon entering Columbus is St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, designed by Gunnar Birkerts. Built in 1988, the church is a more recent addition to the architectural landscape and has an imposing 186-foot copper spire.
The Miller House & Garden
Thanks to his efforts to beautify the city of Columbus, J. Irwin Miller has since been dubbed the “Patron of Modern Architecture.” So it makes sense that his splendid personal home—which is known as the Miller House & Garden—is now owned and operated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The home, commissioned in 1953 by Miller and his wife Xenia Simons Miller, was dubbed “America’s Most Significant Modernist House” by Travel + Leisure magazine, and is open to a popular series of public tours.
The Miller House was the group project of three leading 20th century designers: Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard, and Dan Kiley. Saarinen designed the structure itself, planning a free-form layout with natural materials lit by a grid of recessed skylights. Girard, a textile designer known for his work with Charles and Ray Eames, created the bright, lively interior decor, and Dan Kiley planned the striking landscape architecture, including allées of trees and a wide expanse of lawn leading down to the Flatrock River.
J. Irwin Miller’s home is at once flamboyant and austere, featuring many of the design characteristics that typify conceptual mid-century homes: The dining room table is a large piece of marble fixed to the floor with a central recessed area for accents (his wife Xenia is known to have filled the space with grass to hold Easter eggs) and the living room features a conversation pit, a sunken area of custom couches and pillows that provides seating without impeding the view throughout.
Inn at Irwin Gardens
Name-brand hotels surround the town, but the clear choice for lodging is the Inn at Irwin Gardens. Set in the early-20th-century home of Joseph I. Irwin (and boyhood home of one J. Irwin Miller, his great-grandson), the inn offers a glimpse of life in old Columbus. Guest rooms—most of which are actually large suites—occupy the original second-floor living quarters of the Irwin family (including that of the awesomely named Clementine Tangeman) and are furnished much like they would have been some 100 years ago. The gardens are filled with trees, sculptures, and fountains, and the whole property feels a world away from the busy streets outside.
The Inn at Irwin Gardens is more than just an historical attraction. It’s also the birthplace of Columbus’s most high-profile business, the Cummins Engine Company. Clessie Cummins worked as a chauffeur for the Irwin family, who encouraged and eventually financed his experiments with high-speed diesel engines. Eventually, Cummins’s work evolved into a $13 billion Fortune 500 company that still has its headquarters in Columbus.
Downtown Columbus has a robust foodie scene, with everything from bistros to bar rooms. Smith’s Row is one of the local spots for fine dining; the menu of American fare is beloved by cuisine-centric publications like Condé Nast Traveler and Wine Spectator. But if your time in town is short, then a visit to Zaharakos is a must. Opened in 1900, the ice cream parlor sports Tiffany-style lamps, double soda fountains, and a restored 1870s orchestrion (a self-playing pipe organ). Lunch and dinner are served daily, along with all the ice cream you can handle.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue.