Columbus Discovers Modern Architecture

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1954

Columbus, Indiana, a town of 44,000 people about an hour south of Indianapolis, is one of the world’s greatest troves of contemporary architecture. It is ranked by the American Institute of Architects as the sixth most architecturally innovative American city—behind only Chicago, New York, Washington, Boston, and San Francisco. The city is home to dozens of notable buildings, sculptures, and landmarks, including a public library by I. M. Pei; Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church; North Christian Church and Irwin Union Bank designed by Eliel’s son Eero; a downtown shopping center by Cesar Pelli; Harry Weese’s First Baptist Church; and a firehouse by Robert Venturi. Other architects and artists who have designed projects in Columbus include Henry Moore, Richard Meier, Kevin Roche, and Gunnar Birkets.

What brought these architectural giants to little Columbus was private philanthropy. Irwin Miller, chairman of the Columbus-based Cummins Engine Company, was an architecture enthusiast. In 1942, he commissioned a new design for his home church from Eliel Saarinen. The church became an instant landmark, and Miller saw a role for philanthropy in beautifying his hometown and raising its worldwide profile. He became a major patron of civic architecture in 1954 when he struck an innovative deal with the people of Columbus: any time a new public building was needed, Cummins would pay the commission for any first-rate architect selected from its own list.

Miller expanded his program to cover both municipal structures and private buildings with public purposes, such as churches, banks, and malls. And his own house, designed by Eero Saarinen, is a National Historic Landmark. “By the 1960s,” Radley Balko has written, “Columbus had become a world-renowned magnet for privately financed modernist design.” Miller’s vision continues today: architectural grantmaking in Columbus and its surrounding area remains a central interest of the charitable arm of Cummins Inc.