Irwin Miller was a visionary. After serving in the army during WWII, Miller took over his family’s business Cummins Engine Company and turned the failing company around. His greatest achievement though is the stellar architecture in his hometown of Columbus, Indiana.
Miller is an architecture lover who noted that the magnificent buildings of Oxford and Cambridge are proof of the vision of their creators. (Miller studied philosophy, economics and politics at Oxford.) Thus he believed that new architecture should do the same, look to the future rather than just copy the past, which he asserted shows a lack of creativity.
When the First Christian Church needed a new building, he convinced Finnish architect, Eliel Saarenin who’d designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch and Winnetka’s Crow Island School*, to build the new church. Later when the town needed a new school he offered the school board a deal, “I’ll put together a list of five architects and if you choose one of them, I’ll pay the design fees.” They accepted his offer and the Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School was the result.
Miller and the Cummins Foundation has paid the architecture fees for over 50 buildings in Columbus. Consequently, despite a population of just 44,000, Columbus has been ranked 6th in U.S. for architectural innovation behind New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago and San Francisco.
The Visitors’ Center offers an interesting video on how Miller started this endeavor highlighting much of the public art and architecture. They also have a good video describing Miller’s House, which is now a museum, that you must reserve weeks in advance to see.
The visitor center’s staff is friendly and informative. Many of the important buildings are within walking distance of the center as are some reasonably priced restaurants with good lunch offerings. You can’t get into most of the churches, which is disappointing.
The Visitors’ Center offers a bus tour for $20 per person to see some of the more distant sights, though you might prefer the freedom of driving to them with a map the center sells. Cell phone walking tours are also on offer.
Though I’m not always a big fan of modern architecture, I loved Columbus. I’m already planning a return visit. I stayed with relatives near Indianapolis, but there are plenty of accommodations in the area. Wouldn’t you want to see a hostel here?