Enticed by seeing the small movie Columbus last year, we put this mecca of modernist architecture on our post-Derby travel itinerary. It had long lurked in the back of my mind as a place to visit one day, but the movie crystallized that wish. In it, an architect’s son, played by John Cho, stays at an elegant bed and breakfast (The Inn at Irwin Gardens, where we stayed too!) and helps a young Columbus resident (Haley Lu Richardson), understand what’s so great about the buildings she’s been surrounded by her whole life.
It started during World War II with a church. First Christian Church member J. Irwin Miller, the head of the area’s largest employer, Cummins Engine Company, persuaded the congregation not to build another faux-gothic pile, but a modern church. Eliel Saarinen’s design became the country’s first “modern” church. It was followed by the first modern bank building.
Post-war, the city experienced the baby boom and the need for new schools. The first were pre-fab structures, truly awful. Miller gave the school board a list of five U.S. architects and promised that, if they chose one of them for the next school, his foundation would pay the design fee. The result was so successful that many more architect-designed schools, followed by fire houses and libraries, as well as other churches, banks, and factories followed.
Buildings by such architectural luminaries as the Saarinens (Eliel and Eero), Robert A.M. Stern, Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, and I.M. Pei. Landscape architects and significant sculptural pieces followed, with installations by Henry Moore, Dessa Kirk, Dale Chihuly, and Ruth Aizuss Migdal (Her “Flamenco” was a favorite).
Miller and his wife (a woman from a modest background, whom he met over the bargaining table. He was Management, she was Labor) built a home designed by Eero Saarinen, with interiors by noted graphic artist and architect Alexander Girard, that is both modest and magnificent. One of seven Columbus buildings deemed a National Historic Landmark, its most appealing feature for me was Saarinen’s ingenious tic-tac-toe lines of skylights that deliver bright outdoor light to almost every room of the house.
The Visitor’s Center provides maps, tours of the Miller House, and a lovely gift shop.
From Louisville: 72 miles
From Columbus, Ohio: 189 miles
From Chicago: 227 miles
From St. Louis: 284 miles
Books to toss in your suitcase
Columbus, Indiana – photographic essay by Thomas R. Schiff
The Cathedral Builder – Biography of J. Irwin Miller by Charles E. Mitchell Rentschler
Alexander Girard: Popular Edition – by Kiera Coffee and Todd Oldham