Of the many U.S. cities and towns named for Christopher Columbus, the Getaway Guys are familiar with three: those in Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana. The Ohio Columbus is a big place with a major university, the Wisconsin Columbus is a small place with a Louis Sullivan bank, and the Indiana Columbus (population: 39,000) is a unique place with a lot of extraordinary contemporary architecture. Washington, D.C. may have its National Building Museum devoted to architecture, but Columbus, Indiana, is itself an architecture museum.
The man behind Columbus, Ind.’s collection of architectural gems was the scion of the city’s Irwin-Miller dynasty, Joseph Irwin Miller (1909-2004), a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale University and a student at Oxford’s Balliol College before joining his family’s business, the Cummins Engine Company, in 1934. Founded by Clessie Cummins (the Irwin family chauffeur) with financial backing from Mr. Miller’s great uncle, William J. Irwin, in 1919, the Cummins Engine Company is the fountainhead of Columbus’s transformation from a pleasantly typical Midwest community to an international mecca of contemporary architecture. Perhaps not since the transformation of Athens under Pericles (495?-429 B.C.) or of Rome under Augustus (63 B.C.- 14 A.D.) has a community achieved architectural prominence due to the vision of one person. Comparing Periclean Athens and Augustan Rome to Columbus, Ind., may be a stretch, but William J. Irwin’s belief in an uneducated chauffeur and automobile mechanic (chauffeurs had to be both then) with an interest in the newly invented diesel engine is not. (If there is a better American success story, the Getaway Guys would like to know of it.)
Situated in Bartholomew County, 40 miles south of Indianapolis, Columbus is perhaps one of the least likely places in the U.S. to come across a church designed by Eliel Saarinen (1942) in close proximity to a library designed by I.M. Pei (1969), and within spitting distance of a bank addition designed by Paul Kennon (1974). To date there are an astounding 54 buildings and structures designed by many of the world’s leading architects. Of these, one of the most famous is perhaps Eero Sarrinen’s 1964 North Christian Church, an architectural icon frequently featured in architecture and art history texts. In addition to the 54 contemporary structures, there are a number of other noteworthy buildings of historical interest either preserved or re-invented in the 20th century by architects of note.
While bicycling around Columbus (until their behinds hurt), the Getaway Guys made two interesting observations: The architectural bonanza generated by Cummins Foundation seed money seems to have encouraged local landlords to restore or spruce up Columbus’s many pre-20th-century structures, and – oddly – very few local homeowners have chosen to adopt the Cummins modernist ethos in designing their own dwellings.
Of course the Getaway Guys had their typical differences about what was cool and what was coolest. Both dug Saarinen’s North Christian Church and Harry Weese’s First Baptist Church (1965), but were split on Robert Venturi’s Fire Station #4 (1967), which Neil thought was ordinary, and I.M. Pei’s Library, which Alan thought sub-par and Neil thought sort of heavy-duty. Alan wanted to linger at Bruce Adams’s Par 3 Clubhouse (1972), but Neil mistook it for a wood shack (his behind was wearing thin). Later Neil conceded: They should have lingered. The city is also a treasure-trove of landscape design, and its Mill Race Park – a collaboration by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh and architect Stanley Saitowitz – is a must-visit. Be forewarned, however: The railings at the top of its observation tower are very low, and, for those with vertigo, a schlep up the many stairs may not be the right cup of tea.
For lunch, the Guys retreated to the ambience of the Fourth Street Bar and Grill, where the atmosphere was congenial and the food and service good. For dinner they chose Smith’s Row Restaurant, where the food was copious and good, but the noise level a bit high. Because there are a fair number of inviting evening food venues to choose from in Columbus, deciding which is best to patronize is challenging.
Homeward bound, the Guys passed through Nashville, Ind., (thinking about lunch) and came face to face with Saugatuck, Mich., times ten. Containing what appear to be many authentic and interesting early 19th-century log structures, Nashville is wall-to-wall tourists in polyester. The Guys left immediately and headed for Bloomington, Ind., where they enjoyed a quiet lunch in this surprisingly pleasant university community, with a charming downtown courthouse square and a number of good restaurants.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.