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The Champion of Urbane Renewal

Furthermore, a program that started with the need for good schools was soon extended to other civic buildings -- Pei's library, for instance, or the elegant 1983 city hall designed by Edward Charles Bassett of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

And the taste for modern architecture proved to be catching. The city's other businesses and, especially, its churches, began commissioning designs from architects on the Cummins lists. When the good folks of St. Peter's Lutheran Church went looking for an architect in the mid-1980s, for example, they chose Birkerts, whose 1967 school building they admired from directly across the street.

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Miller, through all of this, was consistently self-deprecating. "You know, too much attention is given to me," he told me solemnly during an interview 18 years ago. We were sitting in his foundation office, on the second floor of a 19th-century building with a view of Columbus's well-preserved, Main-Street-style downtown.

About the architecture he and his company sponsored, he said simply, "Well, that's something you can see. You can't see a spirit or a temperament or a character, though, and this is a very lively concern in the community."

As he said this, he gestured toward the view outside the window. "You can't push anybody around," he continued, "and as the largest employer, our role has been to react to community initiatives that are very good, and be supportive."

It is impossible not to take Miller at his word, for he was a smart and truly modest man. It is equally impossible, of course, not to give the man huge amounts of credit, for his quiet, forward-looking brand of patrician leadership is everywhere in evidence in his home city. It's something you can see.

There is nothing flashy or extravagant in Columbus's assortment of modern architecture, spanning more than half a century. It is, all of it, very real-world stuff -- buildings with limited budgets, demanding clients and present-day needs to fill. Yet the aesthetic quality is, on average, quite high. A certain civic politeness, too, is a norm -- these modernist buildings simply add a certain distinction to Columbus's leafy, spread-out streets and neighborhoods.

The most extraordinary thing of all, of course, is the fact that such a collection of modern buildings exists at all in a single, small Midwestern city. The collection continues to grow, too. Boston's William Rawn recently designed a sparkling new fire station, and Chicago's J. Muller International added a striking new bridge.

J. Irwin Miller clearly planted a seed in fertile soil.

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