For the past 75 years, Columbus’ remarkable collection of modern architecture, art, and design has been a defining characteristic of the city’s cultural identity, and a key economic driver. With a population of approximately 46,000 people, Columbus remains a shining example in America’s Heartland of what a community can do when it works together with shared values and philosophy.
Situated in Bartholomew County, about 50 miles south of Indianapolis, our small city features signature buildings by Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, Deborah Berke, Robert Venturi, Myron Goldsmith, Harry Weese, Charles Gwathmey, Robert A.M. Stern, and others. Yet Columbus is not just a city that happens to have iconic examples of midcentury modern and postmodern architecture. Columbus’ architectural offerings were the result of a half-century’s worth of innovative public-private initiatives spearheaded by community leaders, most notably the industrialist and art patron J. Irwin Miller (1909-2004) and his wife, Xenia Simons Miller (1917-2008).
J. Irwin was fond of the ancient Greek playwright Euripides, whom he referred to on various occasions. Before an audience at Princeton University in 1979, Miller reflected, “Americans feel themselves rootless, and in their anxieties seek, without finding, a sense of home. There is a line in Euripides which says, 'Where the good things are, there is home.' The artist today has this great chance to show us what the good things are, to help us find our home in the modern world.”
These words can be used to describe the Millers’ approach to public stewardship, and they also reflect the way Columbus’ innovative approach to art and architectural patronage was linked to the creation of a “home in the modern world.” This is evident in the impressive roster of buildings that came to be under the Millers' vision. They commissioned Eero Saarinen’s Irwin-Union Trust Bank (1954), Miller House and Gardens (1957), and North Christian Church (1964). The Millers were also a driving force behind the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program. Established as a means to promote design excellence in Columbus, the Architecture Program began in earnest in 1957 when it supported architect’s fees for the design of Harry Weese’s Lillian Schmitt Elementary School. And since that time, the Program has continued as the main force behind many of the signature public and institutional buildings in Columbus.
*Text excerpt from a series of site histories written by architectural historian Enrique Ramirez