Editor's note: Folks are traveling again, and Illinois writer Doug Kamholz, in the latest installment of his Midwest quest "for hidden gems," as Bob Dylan would say, takes us to a place where masters of architecture performed dozens of tricks. (Photos by Don Nissen.)
The best-kept secret in the Midwest is a small city an hour south of Indianapolis. It places sixth on an important list after Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. That city is Columbus, Indiana, home to fewer than 50,000. That list is one ranking architectural significance across these United States.
Of course if modern architecture isn’t your cup of tea, you won’t like these stories. (And let us hope that was the last of my architecture jokes.) Just how any modest burg could rate so high on any national list guarantees my interest unless it was a ranking of most polluted water or highest murder rate or, say, largest Beanie Baby collection. I also want to know how one distinction affects the rest of community life.
We’ll get back to that. (ranking, not Beanie Babies)
First Christian Church, designed in 1942 by Finnish-American Eliel Saarinen, started the architecture adventure in town. It is among the first religious buildings done in Modernist style, its buff brick and limestone resting under a 166-foot campanile or bell tower. Saarinen helped his son, Eero, on the St. Louis Arch in the 1960s.
I. M. Pei, perhaps best known in the U.S. for Cleveland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, designed the Columbus public library in 1969. This and First Christian alone would signify greatness. In Columbus they are two of 97 works by world-class architects. And these two are right across the street from each other with a 20-foot, sandcast bronze Henry Moore sculpture rising in a plaza between. (A comparable Moore bronze sold in 2016 for $33 million.)
The biggest names have come to Columbus to make civic buildings, schools, churches, fire stations, plants, parking lots and a park. Everywhere, wood and stone and metal are crafted with such a human touch in such a human scale it’s easy to think it would bleed if you nicked it.
Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy tornado-spins down from Kansas all sepia and then steps out her farmhouse door into that full-color Land of Oz garden? Well, crossing over Flatrock River on a beautiful steel-cable-strung bridge at the edge of central Columbus delivers that kind of drama. Your first mile or so after exiting I-64 is a chock-a-block gauntlet of chain-brand beige. Then riverside trees. Then the bridge. Then the Hoosier State’s own “Over the Rainbow.”
It is visitors’ good fortune that seeing many of these jaw-drops is pretty easy. A step-up from just plain “Looky There!” is a $3 guide for walking and wandering around town. You could rent an audio device to enhance your “Looky There!” You could spring for a walking-tour guide who would say, “Looky Here!” What I keep going back for is the $25 bus tour from the well-run visitors center so I can get up close and inside stunner after stunner.
For a break from buildings, go hang out in Mill Race Park along the Flatrock River on the west edge of downtown. It’s 85 acres of typical park stuff but with a twist; it’s all on a floodplain so almost nothing touches the ground. For example, water passes easily in the bathroom. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. What I mean is the walls stop a foot short of the concrete floor. On top bright red pipe frames the facility with an obvious “M” roof line on one side and an equally obvious “W” on the other.
This is still the Midwest, so nothing around Columbus is all that hoity toity. There’s a grade school with long and bright-colored tunnel-connectors between its sections and levels. How could you not call it what students call it: the Hamster Cage?
Eliel Saarinen gathered all of North Christian Church, picture left, under a shallow six-sided roof and a slender 192-foot spire. It’s locally known as the Oil Can as it surely resembles a spring bottom oiler, that common little household device that squirted oil when you pushed in its underside. (I remember my dad had one. When used, the spring bottom made a mellow plunk-plunk sound.)
Prominent downtown is the four-story county jail’s large, white, wire-mesh recreation dome. Of course it’s called the birdcage. (Jail. Bird. Cage.) Chicago’s Harry Weese designed the bank beneath with crenelated towers on each corner. Evoking castle battlements, the tops of walls look like lower teeth with some missing and were likely meant to symbolize the bank’s security. But folks in Columbus thought the whole building looked like a dead horse, its four stiff legs pointing skyward. (That “dead horse” has recently been transformed into a coffee shop. And the horse, of course, has a drive-though.)
Again recall that you don’t have to travel borough to borough in New York City or Nob Hill to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to see these wonders. The whole city is less than half the size of Washington, D.C. Think of being in an excellent art museum with a Picasso in front of you and a Rubens, a Michelangelo and a couple Monets just down the hall.
Returning to architect Weese, Washington’s underground D. C. Metro is perhaps his best known project, but his several buildings in Columbus put us on the tracks to where it all began.
J. Irwin Miller (1909 – 2004) was well-born, well-learned and well-heeled. Through family ties he became head of Cummins Engine Company, world leader in diesel technology and located in Columbus since it began in 1919. As a parishioner in 1940, he helped convince the famed Eliel Saarinen to build a new First Christian Church sanctuary.
Fifteen years later the young Cummins Foundation started offering to pay all architects’ fees for any public building in Bartholomew County. Weese and Miller went to Yale. Weese became the go-to guy for 16 projects in Columbus including Cummins factory buildings while the foundation’s work forged forward to employ most of the last century’s great architects; this philanthropy continues today. (Starchitect Frank Lloyd Wright is absent from Columbus as his personal morality was off-putting to the community.) Outside of business, Miller was the first layman elected president of the National Council of Churches and a major organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. He did say there was a selfish motive to hiring world-class designers beyond being a fan of Modern style; he said he hoped it would help attract the better and brighter to Columbus to make both Cummins and the town more successful places.
The one-name film director Kogonada directed his feature film Columbus in 2017. It is a multi-award-winner in which the title city’s buildings are as much stars as are actors. South Korean Kogonada had once visited Columbus on a family trip and wanted to film there. His characters’ lives parallel what he said about the place in an interview: “For me, the town is a testament of this pursuit to find meaning inthe construction of space, in the relationship between absence and presence . . “
All this makes Columbus worth a visit. Here are a few details from my last time there. I always go for ice cream at Zaharakos — locals just call it the Greeks — on the main drag since 1900. You could think of it as an exquisite museum, with sprinkles! On that same street I bought a suit jacket at Dell Brothers, operating since 1916. A few days later my salesman, with the family name Dell, sent me a thank-you note in the mail. My wife and I have driven all over town, and that pride of place stretches block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, wealthy to working-class. You can see answers to what creates life of community and quality of life.
One last time, on the scale of un-discovery there may be no more shiny, multi-faceted nugget than Columbus, Indiana.