Destination Art
7:32 am
Sat August 4, 2012

Columbus, Ind.: A Midwestern Mecca Of Architecture

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 11:43 am

Columbus, Ind., looks like any other small town, with its small shops and restaurants. But what sets this town apart is its architecture.

The Modernist buildings — mostly geometric and made of glass and steel — are not immediately visible, interspersed as they are with old, 19th-century, gingerbread-like structures; but more than 60 public buildings in Columbus have been built by a veritable who's who of modern masters — I.M. Pei, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, Robert Venturi and James Polshek, to name a few.

In 1991, the American Institute of Architects rated Columbus sixth on its list of the top 10 American cities for architectural quality and innovation, right up there with Chicago, New York and San Francisco. That's pretty amazing for a town of just 44,000 residents. Six of the city's modern buildings have also been designated as national historic landmarks, and enough people travel from nearby towns and states — and even other countries — to see them that the local visitors center gives walking tours.

One such tour takes you past a large, arch-like sculpture by English artist Henry Moore. It sits across from a library designed by architect I.M. Pei and built in 1969. The building's facade is made of brick with nearly invisible mortar — Pei mixed red brick dust into the white mortar to make it blend in.

The first modern building in Columbus is opposite the library. Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen built the First Christian Church in 1942. Grim and factory-like, the church has a tall, rectangular tower and small, rectangular windows. It helped launch a local design revolution that World War II promptly put on hold. Then, in the 1960s, thanks to some design-conscious decisions by the biggest business in town, the architectural revolution soared, with schools, fire stations, an all-glass bank, a courthouse, city hall, a world-class golf course and a jail — a really attractive jail.

As tour guide Bob Bishop puts it, "This is Columbus. We don't build anything that isn't attractive."

An Architectural Prophet

The force behind that philosophy is the Columbus-based Cummins Engine Co., or, more specifically, J. Irwin Miller, the company's longtime head. Nearly eight years after his death, Miller's values still inhabit the town.

"Whatever you do in this world, you've got a responsibility and a privilege of doing it the very best way you can," Miller says in a company film clip. "And whether it is architecture or cooking or drama or music, the best is none too good for any of us."

Miller's son Will, the youngest of five, was raised in Columbus. Today, he heads the Wallace Foundation (an NPR underwriter) in New York and sits on the Cummins board. Will Miller grew up in a stunning, light-filled, white marble and glass house by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, son of Eliel Saarinen. Completed in 1957, the home is open to the public by appointment and for a $20 ticket.

Standing inside the house where he grew up, Will Miller says his parents had high expectations and standards.

"All of us, when we were growing up, had to take piano lessons and practice every day," he recalls. "One morning, for some reason, my alarm clock went off at 4 in the morning. And I didn't pay any attention; I just came out here and started banging on the keyboard and my father appeared in the doorway over there and said, 'What are you doing?' And I said, 'Practicing. I have to practice.' And he said, 'It's 4 in the morning, go to bed!' And I said, 'But I've already practiced, right? I don't have to do it again.' "

Not Just Buildings, But Architecture

In the mid-1950s, Will's father launched a program to subsidize public buildings in Columbus. He specified that the buildings be designed by great architects, because, as Will remembers his father always saying, "Mediocrity is expensive."

"This was the early '50s," Will says. "The community was growing with the baby boom so rapidly that it became clear to the school system they would have to build an elementary school every two years in order to keep up with the demographics that they could see in the birth rates."

Before J. Irwin started his program, a school had gone up that was built on the cheap — and it showed. Why would prospective Cummins engineers from MIT, say, who could work anywhere, want to raise families in a small town they'd never heard of with bad-looking schools? J. Irwin Miller had a business problem and a community problem.

To solve them, he and his Cummins Foundation made the school board an offer they couldn't refuse: If the school system picked an architect from a list of five provided by the foundation, then the foundation would pay that architect's fees. Ten percent of the cost would be paid by Cummins, not taxpayers; there would be quality buildings and the decision would be made by public officials. The first school designed under the Cummins plan turned out so well that the school board wanted the deal again and so did other public authorities. Will says they still keep coming. It's an ongoing process and completely voluntary.

So, how much does good architecture affect a person's behavior, or their outlook on life? Will Miller has a theory:

"I've always made a distinction between building, sculpture and architecture. If it's space that physically encloses a human activity and functions at a reasonable level but has no capacity to elicit from you a desire to go further, think spiritually, worry about your fellow man, then it's just a building. If it's an enormously elaborate, beautiful, moving space that you can inhabit but it was designed as a symphony hall and you can't hear the orchestra in the back, then it's large-scale sculpture. Architecture to me is that fantastic combination of the two where it enhances and encloses human activity but it actually inspires you to do better."

A Win-Win For Cummins And Columbus

At a Cummins plant just outside town, the slogan "doing better" appears on workstation wall signs. In the ladies' room, one sign reads, "Treating people with dignity and respect is a core value at Cummins," and there are other signs about safety and health.

This plant alone assembles 500 midsize diesel engines every day — mostly for Dodge Ram pickups — with help from some 500 workers. (Cummins is an $18 billion business that employs 5,000 workers in the U.S. and 44,000 worldwide.)

Here in Columbus, the assembly line looks a little like Santa's workshop.

The place is full of air compressors, engine blocks, pistons and things this former English literature major can't fathom. The handsome, modern plant is shiny and new. Business is good right now. In past years, Cummins has seen some layoffs, but it's also seen comebacks.

Over on Second Street, at The Republic newspaper building — built by the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in 1971 — associate editor and county historian Harry McCawley says, in his 46 years in Columbus, he's come to appreciate Cummins' old-fashioned values as well as the newfangled architecture.

Still, he says, "I think sometimes people in Columbus take themselves too seriously. And they, for instance, look upon J. Irwin Miller as this marvelous benefactor, which he undoubtedly was. But I think he was a businessman and so many of the things that have been done have had a dual result: It's benefited the community, no question, but it's also benefited the company."

After all, McCawley says, having an attractive community for a top workforce is a win-win situation

Hanging On To The Past

Tourists may come to Columbus for the modern architecture, but they can't leave without stopping at Zaharakos, an ice cream parlor that was built in 1900 and restored in 2009. It's full of brass chandeliers, dark woodwork, marble counters and a self-playing organ.

Wilma Hare, 71, is pouring hot fudge sauce behind the counter. An old-fashioned place like Zaharakos amid Columbus' other modern buildings can be anachronistic, but Hare says she likes having the past around.

"There's good things in the past. There was bad, but there's good things in the past and we need to hang on to the good things," says Hare, who's spent most of her life in Columbus. When asked what she thinks of all the new buildings, she laughs. "Oh, don't get me started."

Smiling, she plunks a maraschino cherry on top of whipped cream on top of caramel sauce on top of vanilla ice cream. Then Wilma Hare looks out the parlor windows at the passing parade of neighbors — and, thanks to J. Irwin Miller, plenty of visitors, too.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Recalculating. When possible, make a U-turn, then turn left.

STAMBERG: Columbus, Indiana shouldn't be that hard to find for a story and NPR series of Destination Art.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It told me to turn right.

STAMBERG: You just did. But there's the red...

STAMBERG: ...but the small south central Indiana town, about an hour from Indianapolis and Louisville - a bit longer from Cincinnati - Columbus, Indiana gave Ms. GPS a bit of a challenge. Maybe she's not a fan of architecture.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Arriving at destination on left.

STAMBERG: And this town in the middle of soybean country is a mecca of architecture. The greatest designers - I.M. Pei, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, James Polshek - a veritable who's who of modern masters have done more than 60 public buildings here. You can see lots of them at npr.org. The American Institute of Architects rated Columbus, Indiana sixth in their top 10 list of U.S. cities, right up there with Chicago, New York, San Francisco - the big guys. Amazing for a town with just 44,000 residents. And there's a little Main Street that looks like a lot of other Main Streets, but an old steeple church at one end of it. And now passing another steeple brick church. Lots of brick here.

The modernist buildings - mostly glass and steel and geometric - don't show up right away. Interspersed as they are with old gingerbread-y 19th century structures, but the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named six of the glass and steel ones historic landmarks. And enough people from nearby towns and states as well as other countries want to see them that the visitor's center gives walking tours.

BOB BISHOP: So, you can see you'd have a solid impact of the building rather than...

STAMBERG: Past a looming greenish Henry Moore sculpture that's a treat for wannabe drummers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

STAMBERG: Moore's arch faces the library I.M. Pei designed in 1969 - brick with nearly invisible mortar. Pei mixed red-brick dust into the white mortar to make it blend it. The first modern building in Columbus was the first Christian church; Eliel Saarinen, 1942. Grim and factory-like, tall rectangle of a tower, small rectangles of windows, it launched a local design revolution which World War II put on hold. Then in the 1960s, because of design-conscious decisions by the biggest business in town, the architectural revolution soared with schools, fire stations, a bank - all glass. Bonnie and Clyde would have been sitting ducks. A courthouse, City Hall, a world-class golf course, a jail - a really attractive jail.

BISHOP: This is Columbus. We don't build anything that isn't attractive.

STAMBERG: The force behind that philosophy is the Columbus-based Cummins Engine Company. One tourist, Vikram Rajidacksha(ph), did land development for Cummins 30 years back. Were they good to work for?

VIKRAM RAJIDACKSHA: Yeah. I paid their bills. I mean, that's all we looked for. And they liked good stuff.

STAMBERG: The good stuff, the new look for this old small town, was the vision of one man, J. Irwin Miller, the longtime head of Cummins. Seven years after his death, Miller's values, expressed here on a company film clip, still inhabit Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM CLIP)

J. IRWIN MILLER: Whatever you do in this world, you've got a responsibility and a privilege of doing it the very best way you can. And whether it is architecture or cooking or drama or music, the best is none too good for any of us.

STAMBERG: Irwin Miller's son, Will, the youngest of five, was raised in Columbus. He heads the Lila and Dewitt Wallace Foundation in New York - NPR underwriters, it must be told. Will sits on the Cummins board. We meet in the home where he grew up, a stunning, light-filled 1957 house by Eero Saarinen. The white marble and glass house, which could be a set for "Mad Men" but with better ethics, is open to the public by appointment and a $20 ticket. Will Miller says his parents, Irwin and Xenia, had high expectations and standards.

WILL MILLER: All of us, when we were growing up, had to take piano lessons and practice every day. And one morning, for some reason, my alarm clock went off at four in the morning. And I didn't pay any attention; I just came out here and started banging on the keyboard. So, my father appeared in the doorway over there and said what are you doing? And I said practicing. You know, I have to practice. And he said it's four in the morning, go to bed. I said OK. But I already practiced, right? I don't have to do it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

STAMBERG: In the mid-1950s, Will Miller's father launched a program to subsidize public buildings in Columbus designed by great architects. Great ones because, as Will remembers his father always saying...

MILLER: Mediocrity is expensive.

STAMBERG: J. Irwin applied that lesson in building and in business in developing his town.

MILLER: This was the early '50s. The community was growing with the baby boom so rapidly that it became clear to the school system they would have to build an elementary school every two years in order to keep up with the demographics that they could see in the birth rates.

STAMBERG: The first school that went up was built on the cheap and it showed. Why would prospective Cummins engineers from MIT, say, who could work anywhere, want to raise families in a small town they'd never heard of with bad-looking schools? J. Irwin had a business problem and a community problem. To solve them, he and his Cummins Foundation made the school board an offer they could not refuse.

MILLER: The offer was if the school system pick an architect from a list of five that would be provided by the foundation, then the foundation would pay the architect's fees.

STAMBERG: It meant 10 percent of the costs would be paid by Cummins, not taxpayers; plus there'd be quality buildings and the choices would be made by public officials. The first new school turned out so well, the school board wanted the deal again. So did other public authorities. And Will Miller says they keep coming. It's an ongoing process and completely voluntary. Question: think living with good architecture affects your behavior, your outlook on life?

MILLER: I've always made a distinction between building, sculpture and architecture. If it's space that physically encloses a human activity and functions at a reasonable level but has no capacity to elicit from you a desire to go further, think spiritually, worry about your fellow man, then it's just a building. If it's an enormously elaborate, beautiful, moving space that you can inhabit but it was designed as a symphony hall and you can't hear the orchestra in the back, then it's large-scale sculpture. Architecture to me is that fantastic combination of the two where it enhances and encloses human activity but it actually inspires you to do better.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

STAMBERG: At a Cummins plant just outside of town, doing better is the theme posted on workstation wall signs. One in the ladies' room says: Treating people with dignity and respect is a core value at Cummins. And there are other signs about safety, health. Five hundred midsize diesel engines are assembled here every day - for Dodge Ram pickups mostly by some 500 workers. There are 5,000 Cummins workers in this country; 44,000 worldwide. We're talking an $18 billion business here. This assembly line looks like Santa's workshop.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (unintelligible) these two lines.

STAMBERG: Oh, these two.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes. The green and the black.

STAMBERG: You have to be skinny around here.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You're fine.

STAMBERG: The place is full of air compressors, engine blocks, pistons - things this former English literature major can't fathom. But the handsome, modern plant is shiny and new.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

STAMBERG: And there are great sounds. Business is good right now for Cummins. In years past, there have been layoffs then comebacks. So, this the end of the assembly line, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes. So, actually, we'll go around this way and then assembly line actually...

STAMBERG: Over on Second Street at The Republic newspaper building - Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architects, 1971 - Harry McCawley, associate editor and county historian, has spent 46 years in Columbus. McCawley appreciates the old-fashioned Cummins values as well as the newfangled architecture. But...

HARRY MCCAWLEY: I think sometimes people in Columbus take themselves too seriously. And they, for instance, look upon J. Irwin Miller as this marvelous benefactor, which he undoubtedly was, but I think he was a businessman. And so many of the things that have been done have had a dual result. It's benefited the community, no question, but it's also benefited the company.

STAMBERG: Attractive living space for a top workforce.

MCCAWLEY: And I think that it's a win-win for everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT RHYTHM")

STAMBERG: Architecture, engines, philosophy, values - nice - but you can't leave Columbus, Indiana without a stop at Zaharakos ice cream parlor - built in 1900, restored in 2009, with brass chandeliers, dark woodwork, marble counters, not to mention the self-playing organ and the hot fudge sauce, poured out by 71-year-old Wilma Hare.

Do you call yourself a soda jerk here?

WILMA HARE: No, I just call myself a jerk. That's OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Isn't it funny to have an old-fashioned, wonderful place like this in this town with all this modern stuff?

HARE: This is the past and I'm strong in the past. I mean, there's good things in the past - there was bad - but there's good things in the past and we need to hang on to the good things.

STAMBERG: And what you think about all the new buildings, the new architecture, the recent (unintelligible)?

HARE: Oh, don't get me started.

BISHOP: In Columbus, Indiana, there's discussion and dispute about pretty much everything - especially a new building. It's a community after all, full of democratic - small D - opinions. Wilma Hare has spent most of her life in this town. She plunks a maraschino cherry on top of the whipped cream on top of the caramel sauce on top of the vanilla ice cream, smiles, and glances out the parlor windows at the passing parade of neighbors and visitors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: You can see photos from Columbus and tell us about your favorite small-town arts destinations at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.