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Small Town, Big Names: Discovering world-class architecture among the Indiana cornfields

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By Mike Michaelson

Everyone loves an underdog. There are the unseeded tennis players who reach the Wimbledon finals and the amateur golfers who survive the cut in the Masters. There’s John Sayles making acclaimed films on a small budget. And tiny Oshkosh  with its massive air show. And then there’s Columbus, Indiana, David among the architectural Goliaths.

With a population of less than 35,000, this Hoosier town, surrounded by stubby cornfields, forty-five miles south of Indianapolis, has more distinguished architecture than cities fifty times its size. In 1991, when the American Institute of Architects asked members to rank U.S. cities based on design quality and innovation, diminutive Columbus came in sixth. It was exceeded only by, in order, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington. Pretty heady company.

Nearly sixty buildings designed by world-renowned architects grace Columbus. Even the county jail rates a stop on the architectural tour. A dramatically oval-shaped postmodern building, designed in 1990 by Don M. Hisaka, it is topped by an airy, wire-mesh dome.

The list of Columbus architects reads like a who’s who of modern building behemoths: Eliel Saarinen, Harry Weese, I.M. Pei, Alexander Girard, Robert Venturi and Kevin Roche. Today, when an up-and-coming architect gets invited to design a building in Columbus, it’s seen as an imprimatur, a sign of arrival.

Although the city is well-endowed with the buildings designed during the second half of the nineteenth century, modern architecture began in Columbus with the first Christian Church—designed by Eliel Saarinen and dedicated in 1941—a structure whose bold simplicity has influenced the design of contemporary churches across America.

But the true heyday started in 1957, when the Cummins Engine Company (a Fortune 500 company that makes diesel engines and is the town’s major employer) offered to pay architectural fees for sorely needed new schools, stipulating that distinguished national architects be asked to design them. As a result Cummins chairman J. Irwin Miller became to Columbus what the Medici family was to Florentine artists. The apex: bringing in four architect who are winners of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel prize–Roche, Pei, Venturi, and Richard Meier.

“We shape our buildings, and they shape us,” says a tour guide who accompanies two-hour architectural bus tours. It’s a pat line, but appropriate none-the-less.

Among the many architectural highlights: Saarinen’s landmark First Christian Church, a geometric building of buff brick and limestone, and his son Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, irreverently dubbed the “Oil Can Church” because of its cone-shaped roof and 192-foot spire. Then there’s Leighton Bowers’ Fire Station No. 1, an example of a seamless 1990s addition to a 1941 building that is an eclectic blend of Art Nouveau and Art Deco Styles. The bank, post office and numerous schools all are stops on the tour, as is the steel-glass-and-concrete Cummins Engine Company corporate headquarters. The two-block long Commons Mall is a skylighted shopping center with exhibits halls and a play area dominated by “Chaos I,” a thirty-foot high, seven-ton moving sculpture by Jean Tinguely of Switzerland. A bizarre, fascinating Rube Goldberg contraption, it resembles an animated scrap heap.

Spend some time there and you’ll grasp that Columbus represents the antithesis of Hoosier provincialism. It is innovative and culturally rich, and so invitingly clean and well-scrubbed that it could be a Dutch hamlet. Tribune architectural writer Blair Kamen tagged it “a textbook case of what a small town should be.”

And it goes beyond architecture. It is spirit, too, such as that embodied in Zaharako’s diner, with its Mexican onyx soda fountains purchased from the St. Louis World Exposition in 1905, gleaming chrome bar stools, a stainless steel luncheonette counter, and a 50-foot backbar of solid mahogany and Italian marble. Likewise, that feeling resides in Bennie’s coffee shop—dubbed “the Seventh Street Precinct” because it’s a notorious cop hangout—which has served chicken every Thursday for twenty-four years.

The small town aura is likewise embodied in brick sidewalks flanked by trees, planters, benches and in the five-mile “People’s Trail” linking city parks. Buses will take you anywhere around town for a quarter, and grade-school kids take architecture classes.

Columbus’s spirit also emerges at factories, where fountains play as workers take their lunch in landscaped garden, and at outdoor symphony concerts, and with the state’s first police department bagpipe band. Columbus has two symphony orchestras, a city band, a dance company and theatrical groups, and the only branch of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Its public art includes sculptures by Henry Moore, J. Seward Johnson Jr., Tinguely and Dale Chihuly. There are two universities, and exemplary school system, and fifteen public parks covering nearly 500 acres, plus and enclosed ice rink.

And, of course, there’s all that nice architecture.

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