Postcard from Columbus the second

16th June 2024

John Wyver writes: with apologies for the hiatus in delivering these, welcome to the fourth Postcard from the American road trip that my wife Clare Paterson and I recently took across the mid-west. The first three Postcards are here, here and here.

So They Put a Rifle in my Hand

This Postcard is all about Columbus, Indiana, a remarkable town an hour or so south of Indianapolis, which is home to an extraordinarily dense concentration of modern and twenty-first century architecture. We started our exploration with a wander around the downtown area, which was largely deserted on Memorial Day afternoon. 

The town’s very fine Memorial for Veterans was created in 1997 by Thompson and Rose Architects, working with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. This is distinguished by inscriptions taken from letters sent by and to women and men who died in military service. You inevitably slow down to read them and to reflect on the sacrifices made, and the effect is truly moving.

American Land

Just a little further on we more or less bumped into the First Christian Church, the architect for which, back in 1942, was Finnish-American Eliel Saarinen. This was the first contemporary building in Columbus and one of the first modernist churches in the United States. When the idea of a new church was first mooted, there were plans for a neo-gothic building, but J. Irwin Miller, nephew of the wife of the pastor, had recently completed an architectural appreciation course at Yale, proposed a Modern church instead.

Architect Eliel was the father of the more famous Eero, who designed interior details and of whom there’s lots more to come in our story, including in Columbus. For the moment, however, note that directly across from this church is Bartholomew County Library, designed by I.M. Pei and opened in 1969.

And yes, that’s a cast of Henry Moore’s monumental Large Arch, 1971, perfectly placed in the plaza before it.

From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)

The remarkable backstory here is that J.Irwin Miller, who as well as his time at Yale studied PPE at Balliol, Oxford, joined the family business of diesel engine maker Cummins in 1934. He turned around the company’s fortunes, served with the US Navy in the South Pacific during World War Two, and ran a socially progressive company.

In the early 1950s he commissioned a design for the Irwin Union Bank in Columbus from Eero Saarinen, and this radical modernist design (above), now with 1972 additions by Kevin Roche is the Irwin Conference Center (below).

Then in 1957, through his Cummins Foundation he offered the town that he would pay architects’ fees for new public buildings. Initially, the proposal was restricted to schools, but it was broadened in the 1960s, and has resulted in an entirely unique and extraordinarily extensive collection of schools, churches and much more.

Among the fruits of the Foundation’s work that we walked past on our first afternoon are  

Columbus Post Office, architect Kevin Roche, 1970
Republic Building, architect Myron Goldsmith and SOM, 1971
Cummins Corporate Office Building, architect Kevin Roche, 1983
Columbus City Hall, architect Edward Charles Bassett and SOM, 1981
St Peter’s Lutheran Church, architect Gunnar Birkerts, 1988
Bartholomew County Jail, architect Don Hisaka, 1990

Wandering around, encountering all of these remarkable buildings in such a concentrated area, is a wondrous experience.

My Father’s House

We stayed overnight in The Inn at Irwin Gardens, a unique 19th century house from 1864, preserved as it was after a renovation back in 1910. With Henry Moore’s Large Arch now just outside the front door, this was the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller family home when J. Irwin grew up, although the exact family relationships remain something of a mystery to us. 

Checking in here for the night is sort of like time travelling, with unique furniture and detailing complemented by a wonderful Pompeii-style garden. Sitting here in the late afternoon sum with a glass of chilled white wine was absolutely one of the highlights of the whole holiday.

On our second day we took the tour of the Miller House and Garden, the home designed for and with J. Irwin and his wife Xenia by Eero Saarinen, with interior designer Alexander Girard and landscape architect Dan Kiley. It’s a fascinating mid-century house, commissioned in 1953, and built as a single story around a central living area with a ‘conversation pit’ at its centre. 

I loved getting a sense of this world, where Xenia lived well into the twenty-first century, but Girard’s eclectic, fanciful and overly fussy decorations were not at all to my taste. If only, I thought, I could re-imagine all this with some excellent mid-century art – Klines, Stills, Rothkos would look wonderful here.

Following which we toured three further architectural commissions, a photograph of the first of which, Eero Saarinen’s 1964 North Christian Church, was probably the initial stimulus for my interest in making the journey to Columbus, Indiana, although currently the interior of the building is off-limits to visitors.

By contrast at the 1965 First Baptist Church, the architect for which was Harry Weese, despite not having made any arrangements, we were welcomed by both the pastor and one of the specialist guides, who gave us a personal tour crammed with fascinating information.

There’s so, so much more to write about Columbus, and indeed to visit if I ever make it back here again. Also there’s a delightful 2017 feature-length drama Columbus, made by the filmmaker Kogonada, which was shot in and around many of the town’s iconic locations. And in the town’s very well-organised Visitors’ Center, you can pick up a leaflet which details where the various scenes of the film were shot.

I’m On Fire

I hope I’ve given a sense of just how much we loved our visit to Columbus. And perhaps the best moment was right towards the end when we drove out to take a look at Fire Station 4, designed in 1967 by Robert Venturi, later the architect of the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery as well as many other museums, academic buildings and more.

We were greeted by the three-person crew on shift that morning and given a guided tour. The guys were both proud of their Fire Station but at the same time frustrated by how little space the architect had provided, and how little concern he’d had for their day-to-day requirements.

Also, they were puzzled as to why Venturi had designed the structure as a trapezoid with not a single right-angle on the plan. But it seems that this was determined by the need for the engine to be able to turn round in the back area, and the trapezoid was a solution to fit the requirements into a very tight area.

One curious note: perhaps you can see that in the middle of the white area of the facade there are two black bricks, which are apparently a Venturi signature thing.

As we were making ready to leave, a call came through the guys jumped into the engine and pulled away. We walked back to our car for a short hop into our next destination, Indianapolis.

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