“Mediocrity is expensive.” This quote by the late J. Irwin Miller sums up the ethos behind the commitment to serious, high-level architecture and landscaping in Columbus, Indiana, a small city of roughly 40,000 people 40 miles south of Indianapolis. This commitment to quality goes beyond the architecture or trees. From spending three days in Columbus and reading more about this fascinating town, the leaders and citizens alike have long demonstrated a commitment to each other and bettering their community through a strong public-private partnership, including in the creation of quality public spaces. This dedication has paid off. The American Institute of Architects ranks Columbus sixth on a list for architectural innovation and design after much larger cities Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington.
This brings me back to the architecture, both building and landscape, and to Mr. Miller–as all the residents still call him. He died in 2004 at the age of 95. ”Columbus, Ind., and J. Irwin Miller are almost holy words in architectural circles,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in 1976. ”There is no other place in which a single philanthropist has placed so much faith in architecture as a means to civic improvement.” (Esquire magazine put Miller on the cover in October 1967 with the headline, “This man out to be the next president of the United States.”)
Miller, the founder and longtime head of Cummins Engine Co., went to Yale and became interested in modern design during that time. In the post-war years, as the population of manufacturing-centric Columbus was booming, Miller was concerned about the quality of the school facilities, and in turn, the quality of students who would seek jobs at Cummins. Facing this conundrum, Miller created a foundation and told the school board that he would pay the architects’ fees of a newly designed school. The catch was the architect had to come from the foundation’s list of young up and comers, which was put together with the help of Eero Saarinen and Pietro Belluschi, the dean of MIT’s architecture school. The program was so popular that it was expanded for other schools and then to other types of buildings in the town.
But even before Miller got what would be become known as the Architecture Program off the ground, he began spreading the modern gospel by persuading a reluctant Eliel Saarinen to design the First Christian Church (1942). This is when Miller, only in his 30s, met Eero Saarinen. Eero would accompany his father to Columbus from Cranbrook for the church’s building committee meetings. Miller and Eero Saarinen were not allowed in the meetings held by their parents, so Miller took the younger Saarinen and Charles Eames to the popular Zaharakos, the old-time soda and ice cream shop which recently reopened after extensive restoration. This friendship between Miller and Saarinen would result in four projects together: The Miller Cottage in Ontario, and three in Columbus: the Irwin Union Bank and Trust (1954), the Miller House (1957) and North Christian Church (1964), which was Saarinen’s last project before he died at 51. All three Columbus buildings are National Historic Landmarks. All three are landscaped by modern master Dan Kiley.
So Why did modernism catch on in small-town Indiana? Will Miller, the son of Irwin and Xenia Miller, said Midwestern values and modernism have a lot in common. “At one level, the notion of modernism as being about finding beauty and elegance in simplicity is a Midwestern notion–and also the economy of modernism, the lack of ornamentation,” Miller said in a Worth magazine article published in 2000. “What appealed to us about modernism was both the sense of simplicity and the sense of value for money, both of which are traditional Midwestern traits.”
I am going to start the tour of Columbus with the First Christian Church, the first modern building in the city. The younger Saarinen designed the light fixtures, which look like biblical oil lamps, while Eames designed the pews.
Look for more posts on the rest of my trip in the coming days and weeks. You can also check out the sites of other bloggers on the trip for their reflections on this unique Midwestern mecca of mid-century modern and modern architecture.