Columbus a Hoosier mecca of architecture


We both read the review of a new movie while drinking our morning coffee. We were intrigued that the setting for “Columbus” is the Indiana city near us. Apparently, the city’s famed architecture is an integral part of movie.

“You know,” Becky said, “we have been saying we need to see the Miller House for the last six years. We live 40 minutes away. We should go see it before it gets too crowded because of this movie.”

Not one to put off for another six years what I could do today, I got on my computer, went to the website, bought two tickets then went back to my still-warm coffee and unfinished crossword. As much as I rail against it, and as wary as I am of its potential to do harm, I must admit modern technology sometimes can be quite handy.

An appreciation of architecture is one of the things we have always had in common. More laypeople than specialists, we are mostly drawn to well-designed buildings as art forms. Our interest prompted us to make a side trip during one vacation to visit the Falling Water house in Pennsylvania. We planned other vacations to Wisconsin and Arizona partly to visit to Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes. We’ve driven north, east and west but haven’t been able to drive 40 minutes south to see the Miller House.

Isn’t it curious how people will travel far and wide to see amazing things when amazing things are often in their own backyards? Wait a minute. Isn’t that the theme of “The Wizard of Oz”? As a matter of fact, John Cho, the star of “Columbus,” has said, “(Columbus) is block after block of just fascinating buildings. … It’s a bit of an Emerald City.”

The next day we were off to Columbus Visitor’s Center where we boarded a shuttle bus to the Miller House and its grounds. The property has been in the hands of the Indianapolis Museum of Art since 2009 when it was donated by members of the Miller family along with a generous endowment. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to endow something beautiful, lasting and worthwhile? Isn’t it a blessing that there are people who chose to do just that?

J. Irwin Miller was just such a man. He is as responsible as any one person for making Columbus the “Athens of the Prairie.” His activities and accomplishments in and for Columbus were many and varied, but one story we heard on our tour has stayed with Becky and me.

In the midst of the 1950s Baby Boom, leaders in the city realized the growing need for new schools. Rather than risk a poorly designed and/or ascetically mediocre building, Miller, as CEO of Cummins Engine Co., made an offer to the school board to pay the architect’s fees if they would choose one architect from a list of five provided by Cummins. This launched the Cummins Foundation Architectural Program which covers the design fees for Columbus schools and other public buildings to this day.

Our shuttle arrived at the Miller House, and we spent about an hour touring the beautiful and light-filled home. We learned that the house was not just a sterile example of the Mid-Century style, but was a real home for 50 years to the Millers and their five children. Danish architect Eero Saarinen designed the home, and I was reminded that he also designed the St. Louis Arch. In the clean and unadorned lines of the house I felt I could recognize a relationship between both structures. (I was also happy to be in a house designed by a guy whose first name is a common answer in crossword puzzles.)

Becky and I returned to the Visitor’s Center, ate a late lunch and then drove home. We managed to visit the Miller House before the movie “Columbus” opens, so that mission was accomplished. The tour of the house was as satisfying and informative as any architectural visit we have experienced. And it was only 40 minutes away.

Norman Knight is a retired Indiana school teacher. Send comments to [email protected].

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