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.
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.
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.
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.