Hoosier, Reason Writer Touts Columbus Architecture


Radley Balko, a Greenfield native whose work at Reason I’ve been reading for some time, has scribed a rather interesting piece on how Columbus has become an architectural marvel. He explains how private philanthropy has helped cultivate the structures, which were designed to draw attention and businesses to the town. Read the full article here and see pictures of Columbus’ many creations here:

Columbus, improbably, is one of the most architecturally rich towns in America. The American Institute of Architects ranks it the sixth most architecturally innovative city in the country, after Chicago, New York, Washington, Boston, and San Francisco. GQ calls the burg "an essential destination for the study of contemporary design and planning." Smithsonian says it’s "a veritable museum of modern architecture." National Geographic Traveler recently placed Columbus 11th in its list of the top 109 worldwide historic destinations, and the town now has six buildings on the registry of National Historic Landmarks.

None of this is due to strict zoning laws or preservationism. Little Columbus became an architectural magnet because J. Irwin Miller, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist, decided 50 years ago to use his fortune to make his hometown a visually interesting place to live. Miller began with the church he attended, then moved on to public buildings, private businesses, and residences.

Miller, who died in 2004, was the longtime chairman of the Cummins Engine Company, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of diesel engines. He first developed an interest in architecture after taking some classes on the subject as an undergraduate at Yale. In 1942 Miller and his family commissioned a new church for their congregation from the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. The result, the First Church of Christ, was one of the first modernist churches in the country. Its design included a simple rectangular tabernacle lined with a grid of reflective windows (in which Saarinen included a cross) and a matching freestanding bell tower. Some religious leaders criticized the nontraditional approach, but the church won praise from architecture critics around the world. It’s now the centerpiece of the town’s architectural tour.

In 1954 Miller decided to do something similar for local public schools, whose boring design he blamed for stifling kids’ creativity. So he made a bargain with the city: The Cummins Engine Foundation would foot the architect’s bill (though not the construction costs) for any new school building, as long as the city selected from a list of architects compiled by the foundation. The bargain soon expanded to other public buildings, and by the 1960s Columbus had become a world-renowned magnet for privately financed modernist design. Even the county jail is art: The Cleveland architect Don M. Hisaka designed a round jail with a recreation area capped by a mesh dome. Some of the locals objected to letting convicts live in such an interesting building, until they were assured the place would look pleasant only from the outside.

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