Indiana's 'Athens'

By M.J. McAteer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 26, 2008

Never heard of Columbus, Ind.? You are not alone.

The city that Lady Bird Johnson called the "Athens of the Prairie" lurks so far beneath the radar that even a friend who is a Hoosier born and bred had never been there. Yet for appreciators of architecture, even amateur ones, Columbus is impressive in its unpretentious Midwestern way.

In what other city of fewer than 40,000 can a visitor stand in one place and see an I.M. Pei library, a monolithic Henry Moore sculpture and a church by Eliel Saarinen, said to be the first modernist house of worship in the country? And by craning the neck just a little, where else does the view extend to two 19th-century buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, the 186-foot copper spire of a spectacular church designed by Gunnar Birkerts and the entrance to formal gardens that come complete with teahouse and waterfall?

The answer may be "only in Columbus," where work by a who's who of architects -- including Pritzker Prize winners Pei, Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi and Richard Meier; Saarinen's son, Eero, designer of Dulles Airport's iconic terminal; and Harry Weese, best known in our area as the architect of Metro -- mixes unself-consciously with Anywhere, USA architecture.

But the first thing my friend Frank and I noticed when we arrived in Columbus wasn't the buildings, but how quiet it was. Although Columbus tries to keep things lively (a music festival was being held that weekend in the city's downtown park), its boast of having 25,000 annual visitors seemed about right, as that comes out to about 68 a day, not counting leap year. Even the guide on the walking tour we would take -- a tour that included only one other person -- said, "Columbus is the quietest town I ever lived in." The upside of such quietude: In 2006, Columbus was named the sixth-safest U.S. city on a list of 330.

Our first tour was a cruise in our car, and our first stop was the visitors center, where we picked up a map for a driving tour of 71 sites. The 1864 building has an addition by Roche and a vivid yellow glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly.

For the next few hours, we drove to about 40 of the sites before driver and navigator got a touch testy and in need of lunch. We were bowled over by some buildings; others Frank dismissed as "padding," though their rather antiseptic lines probably were just not to our taste. After lunch, we watched a video at the visitors center that explained how these buildings came to pass. It is an unusual, maybe even unique, story of corporate creativity.

In the late 1930s, J. Irwin Miller, who would head Columbus's main business, the Cummins Engine Co., urged his fellow congregants at First Christian Church to hire Eliel Saarinen as architect for a new house of worship. He reportedly said, "Mr. Saarinen is probably going to build a building I won't like much personally, but it will be a great building."

Spot on, Mr. Miller.

Descriptions of the interior of the church describe an inspiring space flooded with light, and the outside of the 1942 brick church is certainly impressive. Yet I found it hard to embrace. Its freestanding, 166-foot bell tower made me think of a smokestack, and the overall effect was factory-like, as though worshipers must punch a time clock on their way into services.

That church got Miller's ball rolling, however, and in 1954 he created a foundation to pay the design fees for any new Columbus school that chose its architect from a list prepared by an independent committee. That largesse eventually extended to fire stations, hospitals, public housing, a jail, even a switching station, with $15 million spent on architectural fees as of 2007.

Columbus's churches got into the spirit on their own dime. Eero Saarinen's North Christian Church is perhaps the most eye-popping of a half-dozen on the driving tour: A 192-foot needle-nosed steeple rises from the center of a hexagonal building with recessed entrances that resemble flying-saucer portals. The church seems poised to lift off and take man to meet his Maker.

Three of my favorite sites on the walking tour we took later that day were the Second Street Bridge, whose red suspension cables scream carnival ride; the Veterans Memorial (think of the pipe-organ nests that mud dauber wasps build); and the sleek Cummins Corporate Office Building, which has a lofty pergola along one side and enfolds an old brick mill.

Our stay in Columbus was brief but still long enough to showcase Miller's dream of creating "the very best community of its size in the country." Sadly, such business leaders seem scarcer than a safe investment these days. "Some people have a tombstone," one resident said about Columbus's benefactor, who died in 2004 at age 95. "Mr. Miller had the whole town as a monument."

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