The Architectural Landscape of Columbus, Indiana

by ekramer on August 22, 2008

The architecture in Columbus, Indiana, makes it one of the country’s most important cities — that’s according to the American Institute of Architects. Native son J. Irwin Miller owned the city’s largest employer, the Cummins Engine Company, and helped pay the design fees for buildings by world renowned architects. Miller died four years ago this week. Now, some people in Columbus are questioning if new construction is spoiling the legacy he left. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

J. Irwin Miller was smitten with modern architecture and his passion propelled the construction in Columbus of more than 60 buildings designed by internationally known architects.

In the 1930s, he tapped Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen to design a new home for the First Christian Church. Finished in 1942, this first Modernist church in the country is a simple box shape made of limestone, taupe brick and glass.

Twelve years later, Miller extended his influence to civic buildings. He set up the Cummins Foundation which worked with developers to identify world-famous architects. Since 1954, it has paid $25 million in design fees for civic buildings in town.

The first project was the Lillian Schmitt Elementary School, which opened in 1957.

The classrooms here have A-shaped ceilings that mirror the roofs of nearby houses. The octagon-shaped library is lined with planks of wood and topped off with skylights that flood the stacks with sunlight.

Thirty-year-old Kelli Adams has a son in the third grade at the school. She remembers when her sister went to school here and how she used to ride her bike exploring the city. Back then, Adams didn’t really understand that architecture made Columbus significant.

“It was just a playground for me,” Adams says. “And then growing up, now, I appreciate, you know, the artists that did make somewhat of their name here and make Columbus kind of the architectural drawing point that it is.”

Adams used to play under the large Henry Moore sculpture outside the library designed by architect I.M. Pei, who also designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre. She also went to the indoor playground at the Commons. Built in 1973, it was one of the first enclosed urban malls.

Today, the Commons has been reduced to its shell to make way for a conference center, a hotel, an office building and other private businesses. But after much public input, the new Commons will retain some of its community space — including the indoor playground and a small theater.

Tom Vujovich is president of the city’s redevelopment commission. It was formed in 2003 and pushed for building a downtown garage and remaking the Commons, which was no longer attracting people into the city.

Standing atop the garage, Vujovich calls it a first for Columbus.

“We’ve debated for 50 years whether there was a need for a garage,” Vojovich says. “We finally got over that. We built it. And from here you can see a lot of the community’s architectural legacy.”

Some people, like Kelli Adams, say the garage and other structures, like the new Indigo Hotel two blocks east, could threaten that legacy. They call them unremarkable buildings that can go up fairly quickly without a huge price tag.

But Vujovich insists these designs do blend with the existing architecture. He says projects like this hotel are needed to bring more business.

“We think it’s a product that fits in real well with the downtown,” he says. “We did market studies that indicated a need for more hotels, more guestrooms in the community.”
¼br /> Vujovich says boosting economic activity in a time of falling tax revenues and tight budgets has required some compromises.

Those compromises are justified, says Alan Brake. Brake is associate editor of The Architect’s Newspaper and has written about Columbus.

“Some of the building that’s going on there now might not be of international caliber, but from an economic standpoint it’s probably very smart,” Brake says.

Brake says Columbus, like many cities, is finding it needs to revitalize its downtown to bring in business and fortify its public coffers.

Brake and Vujovich say that the days of patronage that came from the likes of J. Irwin Miller are gone. The large companies that they built, like Cummins, often still contribute to their communities but they also have interests in other cities and in satisfying their stockholders.

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