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The Champion of Urbane Renewal

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2004; Page C05

He was sometimes referred to as a "Medici of the Midwest," and the town that he helped put on the map was sometimes called the "Athens of the Prairie."

But these highfalutin names didn't really fit J. Irwin Miller or the modest city of Columbus, Ind.

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Miller, who died this week at 95 in his Eero Saarinen-designed house in Columbus, his home town, lived long enough to become a throwback to what now seems a distant age.

A longtime chief of Cummins Engine Co., a world-ranked manufacturer of diesel engines started in 1919 by a boyhood friend, Miller was a titan of industry and an unassuming man. He also was a moderate Republican and a believer in personal and corporate responsibility.

Miller's great claim to fame, however, was as an architectural patron. An average, midsize, Midwestern burg in many respects, Columbus also is a world-renowned mecca for serious fans, critics, students and practitioners of modern American architecture. This wildly improbable state of affairs is due, in large measure, to Miller's direct or indirect influence.

With its population of 39,000, Columbus likely has more buildings per capita designed by winners of the profession's highest award -- the Pritzker Architecture Prize -- than any city on Earth.

The Pritzker parade started in 1964 with Robert Venturi's Fire Station No. 4, continued in 1969 with I.M. Pei's main public library and entered the 1980s with Richard Meier's Clifty Creek Elementary School. Among other Columbus commissions, Pritzker laureate Kevin Roche designed the post office in 1970 and the Cummins company headquarters in 1983.

Furthermore, the city has an awful lot of buildings by architects who most likely would have won the Pritzker had they been around to do so. (The prize, created in 1979, is given only to living architects.)

Eliel Saarinen, for one, would have been an excellent candidate. The gifted Finnish American architect, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1920s, designed a church in Columbus in 1942, an austere brick cube with a stern belltower that still punctuates the city's skyline.

The Columbus guidebook says it was Miller's aunt and great-uncle who chose the architect, but one can't help but suspect that the young Miller also had a say. He and Eero Saarinen, Eliel's son, had known each other from their 1920s college days at Yale. (Miller later told an interviewer that even as an undergraduate he didn't at all like the Gothic revival architecture the university was building at the time.)

Not surprisingly, the younger Saarinen got some important jobs in postwar Columbus. In addition to Miller's house, he designed a wonderfully transparent building for Irwin Union Bank (founded by Miller's grandfather) in 1954 and, in 1964, a hexagonal shelter with an unforgettable spire for the North Christian Church. Designed about the same time he was working on Dulles International Airport, the church was Saarinen's last building.

Saarinen's colleagues at the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the advanced design academy the elder Saarinen had shaped, also got their fair share of Columbus work. Harry Weese, in particular, became a fixture on that scene, designing at least eight buildings in the city between 1957 and 1968.

Weese was the first architect selected under the innovative program that Miller initiated in the mid-1950s through his leadership of the Cummins Engine Foundation. In response to the tremendous postwar demand for new schools, the foundation offered to pay the design fees for each school built in Columbus.

There was, of course, a catch. The architect had to be selected from a list provided by the foundation. This explains why major-league architects such as Weese, Meier, the Architects Collaborative, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Gunnar Birkerts, Eliot Noyes, Romaldo Giurgola and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer have designed school buildings in minor-league Columbus.

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