clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Midcentury Modern Gem Called the "Athens of the Prairie"

Welcome to CityScapes, a column in which we explore some of the nation's oft-overlooked cities and towns: their local history and real estate offerings. Have a suggestion? Do let us know.

Were it not for the industrialist J. Irwin Miller, Columbus, Indiana might have turned out like so many other indistinguishable small towns, but Miller, one of the co-founders of diesel engine manufacturer Cummins, was determined to make Columbus one of America's most architecturally admired cities. To that end, Miller set up the Cummins Foundation and offered to pay the fees of notable contemporary architects for public projects, so long as the client chose from a pre-approved list. The result are more than 60 buildings by prominent architects, including Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, and Robert A.M. Stern. It was Saarinen, a personal friend of Miller, who designed Irwin's personal residence (above). The interiors were crafted in exhaustive detail by superstar designer Alexander Girard, while the grounds were left to Dan Kiley, the preeminent postwar landscape architect.

? The result of all those great minds working together is a breathtaking example of the height of midcentury design, spread over more than 6,800 square feet and 13.5 riverfront acres. Highlights include the cylindrical fireplace in the living room (above), the many personalized Girard fabrics, and horse chestnut trees lining the drive. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000, the Miller House was donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art following the death of Xenia Miller, Irving's wife, in 2008.

? The Miller residence is hardly the only attraction in Columbus, which boasts five additional National Historic Landmarks, including Saarinen's North Christian Church. The church, completed in 1964, consists of a hexagonal base with a sloped roof leading to a 192-foot spire. This house of god has the distinction of being the last structure designed by Eero Saarinen before his death in 1961.
Unfortunately, the Cummins Foundation's focus on public buildings and Miller's own stunning residence did not rub off on the construction of private homes. Without the financial assistance of the foundation, homeowners instead opted for affordable and traditional (read: boring) architecture. That shows in Columbus's somewhat lackluster housing stock. Nevertheless, here are three picks from the local market, because, hey, at least they're in close proximity to the masterpieces.

? Lying directly across the street from the North Christian Church, this three-bedroom brick manse has a better view than most of the city's architectural treasures. That's not to say this place is a treasure itself. Built in 1950, the 3,200-square-foot spread is listed for $220K.

? For something a little more upscale, if no better presented, try this 18-acre horse farm on the outskirts of town. Centered around a five-bedroom, "Williamsburg style" brick mansion built in 1977, the compound is equipped with two barns and a three-bed guest house. It's no Miller House, but it's still one of the more expensive homes in town at $1.1M.

? This 1907 Gambrel cottage is one of the more architecturally interesting houses for sale in Columbus, and also one of the cheapest, asking just $110K. The low price might be due to the interiors, which have neither been updated nor terribly well maintained. Still, at least someone hasn't swung in here on a granite and stainless steel spree. Let's just hope there's some hardwood underneath all that carpet.

· 20th-Century Fox [Dwell]
· 2796 Sycamore St [Zillow]
· 572 S 250 E [Zillow]
· 1602 Washington St [Zillow]