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North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, designed by Eero Saarinen
Hadley Fruits

Mapping a modernist mecca in Columbus, Indiana

With works by architects like Eero Saarinen and I. M. Pei, these buildings tell the story of the city that modernism built

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North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, designed by Eero Saarinen
| Hadley Fruits

If you’re on the prowl for some of the best modernist architecture in the United States, your mind might jump to Frank Lloyd Wright houses in and around Chicago, or the skyscrapers of New York.

But your best bet is to make a pilgrimage to Columbus, Indiana, the small midwestern town that plays host to dozens of modernist gems by some of the profession’s biggest names, from Eero Saarinen to I. M. Pei.

How did a town of 46,000 come to be known as a mecca of modernist architecture? Much of this reputation is thanks to industrialist Joseph Irwin Miller, the longtime head of the Columbus-based Cummins Engine Company. Miller commissioned extraordinary buildings in hopes of luring more talent to the region. That’s how buildings across Columbus, from banks to schools, became fascinating examples of U.S. architectural history, in a city that continues to carry a torch for modernist design today.

Here’s a list of 17 buildings that best represent Columbus’s modernism footprint, from the middle of the twentieth century to today.

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1. First Baptist Church

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3300 Fairlawn Dr
Columbus, IN 47203

Harry Weese’s First Baptist Church, built in 1965, embraces simplicity to stunning effect. The exterior features steep sloping roofs that are expressed inside as soaring, wood-paneled ceilings, illuminated by a single skylight. Considering its basic geometries, the design feels as though it could be drawn up in just a few seconds, but that belies the complexity needed to create such a grand sanctuary.

Hadley Fruit Lead Hadley Fruits

2. North Christian Church

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850 Tipton Ln
Columbus, IN 47201

Eero Saarinen may have only helped his father with the interior design of his game-changing First Christian Church, but, by the time the dust settled, the junior Saarinen’s legacy far outstripped the elder’s in Columbus. The North Christian Church, completed in 1964, was Eero’s stunning meditation on faith, adorned with an iconic slender spire that reaches toward the sky and is topped with a small gold-leaf cross that inspired copies for decades after. The base of the church is built in a hexagonal shape that slopes toward the landscape around it. Inside, pews encircle the central altar, alluding to Saarinen’s belief in the centrality of worship.

Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress

3. The Miller House and Garden

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2764 Highland Way
Columbus, IN 47201

Eero Saarinen’s Miller House epitomizes modernist design with its flat roof and stone walls. Built in 1957 with help from interior designer Alexander Girard and landscape architect Dan Kiley, the home and its sprawling gardens were commissioned by business magnate J. Irwin Miller and his wife, and is today a national landmark. The glass and concrete interior features the world’s first living room conversation pit, while a grid of skylights illuminates the 6,800-square-foot home.

Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress

4. Columbus Fire Station 4

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4730 E 25th St
Columbus, IN 47203

Columbus hosts a handful of fire stations, each featuring a design that represents the era in which it was built. Fitting, then, is Robert Venturi’s circa-1967 contribution, which combines eye-catching architecture with clean, simple lines. The trapezoidal brick building sits low to the ground, with the exception of its hose-drying tower, which breaks up the white-and-red facade and communicates the building’s use to all who pass.

Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress

5. First Financial Bank

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707 Creekview Dr
Columbus, IN 47201

Though it was built in 2006, the Deborah Berke Partners-designed Creekview branch of the First Financial Bank fits seamlessly into the modernist tradition that has carried this town. Situated amid an array of big-box retail buildings, this understated building comprises two sections: a brick volume that houses the banking hall, and a glass box that sits above it, filtering light into its interior. Outside, the glass volume serves as a dramatic canopy for drive-thru customers, lighting up at night to create a striking landmark.

Catherine Tighe

6. AT&T Switching Center

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420 7th St
Columbus, IN 47201

Architect Paul Kennon took advantage of a routine update of a mundane piece of telecommunications infrastructure and used the opportunity to create a playful, colorful addition to downtown Columbus. When the telephone company, then Indiana Bell, needed to update an antiquated, three-story, yellow-brick mechanical switching site from 1936, Kennon decided to wrap the structure in a reflective, metallic material and create color-coded “organ pipes” (intake and exhaust vents for heating and cooling the electrical gear inside). The AIA bestowed the quirky example of placemaking with its 1980 Honor award.

Hadley Fruits

7. Lincoln Elementary School

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750 5th St
Columbus, IN 47201

Gunnar Birkerts was tasked with designing a school that could mediate the dangers of a site on a busy downtown street while being confined to a small city block. The resulting structure, built in 1967, was a two-story school partially sunken into the ground, showcasing a physical separation from the street without sacrificing space. In addition, both levels were accessible via ramps and elevators, the first school in the country to consider the needs of students with disabilities—years before the ADA would mandate it.

Hadley Fruits

8. Cleo Rogers Memorial Library

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Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, 536 5th St
Columbus, IN 47201

When I. M. Pei set out to design the flagship library of downtown Columbus, he wanted more than simply another building in the modernist tradition; he wanted a library that would transform the city’s downtown. The result was the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and its sprawling civic plaza, a piece of architecture that complemented and drew from the language of Saarinen’s Irwin House and First Christian Church. Pei succeeded in his request to close a street to build out his idea of grand unification and today the plaza hosts outdoor events of all kinds.

Hadley Fruits

9. Cummins Corporate Office Building

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500 Jackson St
Columbus, IN 47201

This Kevin Roche-designed corporate head office for Cummins wrapped the old Cerealine Building, the company’s first office, in a maze-like series of precast concrete elements, mirrors, and glass, which was then bounded by a landscape designed by Jack Curtis. The modular system led to a number of unique features, including precast spandrels covered in mirrors and a large arcade, park, and pergola covered in ivy and hydrangea. A recent $50 million renovation to update the office to reflect more modern trends in workspace design should be complete by next summer. Roche fans can stand at the corner of Fifth and Jackson streets outside the Cummins HQ and see two other works by the Pritzker winner: his Post Office, and his addition to Irwin Union Bank and Trust. 

Hadley Fruits

10. Irwin Conference Center

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500 Washington St
Columbus, IN 47201

Though Eero Saarinen’s masterpiece in Columbus is widely considered to be the Miller House, the architect had already established a rapport with J. Irwin Miller in 1954 after he was commissioned to build a conference center. Place the two buildings side by side and you can see that Miller had a type; the center is low-slung and features walls upon walls of windows, while the interior features an open floor plan that allows light to flood the space. The similarities don’t end there, as here, too, Saarinen enlisted Dan Kiley to design the surrounding gardens.

Hadley Fruits

11. First Christian Church

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531 5th St
Columbus, IN 47201

When this church rose in 1942, it was unlike any that Americans had ever seen. Designed by Eliel Saarinen and built to accommodate a growing congregation during World War II, the church featured a stark design that marked a daring departure from classical ecclesiastical architecture and would ultimately vault church design toward a more progressive and contemporary future. The building, clad in brick and limestone and featuring a simple geometric design, was also the first of many that would make Columbus renowned for its modernist architecture.

Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress

12. The Commons

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300 Washington St
Columbus, IN 47201

Urban renewal plans in the ‘60s and ‘70s hit cities across the country, and Columbus was no exception. The Commons comes out of the belief that the community needed to reinvest in downtown, in this case, with a Portman-esque enclosed glass park designed by Cesar Pelli. The original two-acre, glass-enclosed park and gathering space, set under a 38-foot ceiling, represented “the modern American equivalent of an Italian piazza,” according to the architect. The Commons was rebuilt in 2008, but still boasts a large, indoor playground as well as Chaos 1, a kinetic junk metal sculpture by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. 

Hadley Fruits

13. 301 Washington Street

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301 Washington St
Columbus, IN 47201

Don’t let the classic facade of this former bank building fool you; inside lies a midcentury time capsule. As Curbed critic Alexandra Lange wrote in a piece about designer Alexander Girard, who had a long-time relationship with the Miller family, he was commissioned in 1962 to create an office for J. Irwin Miller. The “up-to-the-moment modern suite” in a tobacco-leaf color palette of brown-on-brown has been restored, along with many of Girard’s other period designs, by the current building owner. The Cummins Company.

Hadley Fruits

14. Crump Theatre

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425 3rd St
Columbus, IN 47201

A 19th century opera and playhouse that was reborn with a 1940s Art Deco makeover by architect Alden Meranda, the Crump has been seen as a link to the city’s architectural past, as well as a potential anchor for downtown’s future. While the venue has been mostly abandoned and unused, except for special events, for decades, preservationist have long called for adaptive reuse to create a new arts space for Columbus.

15. Columbus City Hall

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123 Washington St
Columbus, IN 47201

Columbus City Hall was built in 1981 as the city grappled with the growth of its downtown area and recognized the need for a space that reflected the town’s storied history. Built of brick and limestone, this three-story building was designed by Edward Charles Bassett of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and forms a triangle, with a central courtyard onto which glassed-in interior spaces look.

Hadley Fruits

16. The Republic Newspaper Plant & Offices

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333 2nd St
Columbus, IN 47201

The former plant for Columbus’s local newspaper is a sleek glass-and-steel building that upended the traditional verticality of most newspaper offices at the time. The structure, designed by Myron Goldsmith and erected in 1971, is strikingly transparent, inviting passersby to take a look at the process of crafting a newspaper from start to finish. Though the paper moved its operations elsewhere in 2016, the building now houses Indiana University’s master of architecture program—a fitting site if there was any.

Hadley Fruits

17. Southside Elementary School

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1320 W 200 S
Columbus, IN 47201

Yes, even Columbus has its monuments to Brutalism. Southside Elementary, designed by Eliot Noyes and built in 1969, has the look of a fortress with its exterior of precast concrete, slot windows, and vertical fins. But its intimidating exterior opens up to a bright, two-story central common area illuminated by a skylight, a space which Noyes saw as the town square to the school’s city. Meanwhile, bright, abstract murals designed by Ivan Chermayeff adorn the stairwell walls, bringing more color to the space.

Hadley Fruits

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1. First Baptist Church

3300 Fairlawn Dr, Columbus, IN 47203
Hadley Fruit Lead Hadley Fruits

Harry Weese’s First Baptist Church, built in 1965, embraces simplicity to stunning effect. The exterior features steep sloping roofs that are expressed inside as soaring, wood-paneled ceilings, illuminated by a single skylight. Considering its basic geometries, the design feels as though it could be drawn up in just a few seconds, but that belies the complexity needed to create such a grand sanctuary.

3300 Fairlawn Dr
Columbus, IN 47203

2. North Christian Church

850 Tipton Ln, Columbus, IN 47201
Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress

Eero Saarinen may have only helped his father with the interior design of his game-changing First Christian Church, but, by the time the dust settled, the junior Saarinen’s legacy far outstripped the elder’s in Columbus. The North Christian Church, completed in 1964, was Eero’s stunning meditation on faith, adorned with an iconic slender spire that reaches toward the sky and is topped with a small gold-leaf cross that inspired copies for decades after. The base of the church is built in a hexagonal shape that slopes toward the landscape around it. Inside, pews encircle the central altar, alluding to Saarinen’s belief in the centrality of worship.

850 Tipton Ln
Columbus, IN 47201

3. The Miller House and Garden

2764 Highland Way, Columbus, IN 47201
Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress

Eero Saarinen’s Miller House epitomizes modernist design with its flat roof and stone walls. Built in 1957 with help from interior designer Alexander Girard and landscape architect Dan Kiley, the home and its sprawling gardens were commissioned by business magnate J. Irwin Miller and his wife, and is today a national landmark. The glass and concrete interior features the world’s first living room conversation pit, while a grid of skylights illuminates the 6,800-square-foot home.

2764 Highland Way
Columbus, IN 47201

4. Columbus Fire Station 4

4730 E 25th St, Columbus, IN 47203
Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress

Columbus hosts a handful of fire stations, each featuring a design that represents the era in which it was built. Fitting, then, is Robert Venturi’s circa-1967 contribution, which combines eye-catching architecture with clean, simple lines. The trapezoidal brick building sits low to the ground, with the exception of its hose-drying tower, which breaks up the white-and-red facade and communicates the building’s use to all who pass.

4730 E 25th St
Columbus, IN 47203

5. First Financial Bank

707 Creekview Dr, Columbus, IN 47201
Catherine Tighe

Though it was built in 2006, the Deborah Berke Partners-designed Creekview branch of the First Financial Bank fits seamlessly into the modernist tradition that has carried this town. Situated amid an array of big-box retail buildings, this understated building comprises two sections: a brick volume that houses the banking hall, and a glass box that sits above it, filtering light into its interior. Outside, the glass volume serves as a dramatic canopy for drive-thru customers, lighting up at night to create a striking landmark.

707 Creekview Dr
Columbus, IN 47201

6. AT&T Switching Center

420 7th St, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

Architect Paul Kennon took advantage of a routine update of a mundane piece of telecommunications infrastructure and used the opportunity to create a playful, colorful addition to downtown Columbus. When the telephone company, then Indiana Bell, needed to update an antiquated, three-story, yellow-brick mechanical switching site from 1936, Kennon decided to wrap the structure in a reflective, metallic material and create color-coded “organ pipes” (intake and exhaust vents for heating and cooling the electrical gear inside). The AIA bestowed the quirky example of placemaking with its 1980 Honor award.

420 7th St
Columbus, IN 47201

7. Lincoln Elementary School

750 5th St, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

Gunnar Birkerts was tasked with designing a school that could mediate the dangers of a site on a busy downtown street while being confined to a small city block. The resulting structure, built in 1967, was a two-story school partially sunken into the ground, showcasing a physical separation from the street without sacrificing space. In addition, both levels were accessible via ramps and elevators, the first school in the country to consider the needs of students with disabilities—years before the ADA would mandate it.

750 5th St
Columbus, IN 47201

8. Cleo Rogers Memorial Library

Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, 536 5th St, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

When I. M. Pei set out to design the flagship library of downtown Columbus, he wanted more than simply another building in the modernist tradition; he wanted a library that would transform the city’s downtown. The result was the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and its sprawling civic plaza, a piece of architecture that complemented and drew from the language of Saarinen’s Irwin House and First Christian Church. Pei succeeded in his request to close a street to build out his idea of grand unification and today the plaza hosts outdoor events of all kinds.

Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, 536 5th St
Columbus, IN 47201

9. Cummins Corporate Office Building

500 Jackson St, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

This Kevin Roche-designed corporate head office for Cummins wrapped the old Cerealine Building, the company’s first office, in a maze-like series of precast concrete elements, mirrors, and glass, which was then bounded by a landscape designed by Jack Curtis. The modular system led to a number of unique features, including precast spandrels covered in mirrors and a large arcade, park, and pergola covered in ivy and hydrangea. A recent $50 million renovation to update the office to reflect more modern trends in workspace design should be complete by next summer. Roche fans can stand at the corner of Fifth and Jackson streets outside the Cummins HQ and see two other works by the Pritzker winner: his Post Office, and his addition to Irwin Union Bank and Trust. 

500 Jackson St
Columbus, IN 47201

10. Irwin Conference Center

500 Washington St, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

Though Eero Saarinen’s masterpiece in Columbus is widely considered to be the Miller House, the architect had already established a rapport with J. Irwin Miller in 1954 after he was commissioned to build a conference center. Place the two buildings side by side and you can see that Miller had a type; the center is low-slung and features walls upon walls of windows, while the interior features an open floor plan that allows light to flood the space. The similarities don’t end there, as here, too, Saarinen enlisted Dan Kiley to design the surrounding gardens.

500 Washington St
Columbus, IN 47201

11. First Christian Church

531 5th St, Columbus, IN 47201
Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress

When this church rose in 1942, it was unlike any that Americans had ever seen. Designed by Eliel Saarinen and built to accommodate a growing congregation during World War II, the church featured a stark design that marked a daring departure from classical ecclesiastical architecture and would ultimately vault church design toward a more progressive and contemporary future. The building, clad in brick and limestone and featuring a simple geometric design, was also the first of many that would make Columbus renowned for its modernist architecture.

531 5th St
Columbus, IN 47201

12. The Commons

300 Washington St, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

Urban renewal plans in the ‘60s and ‘70s hit cities across the country, and Columbus was no exception. The Commons comes out of the belief that the community needed to reinvest in downtown, in this case, with a Portman-esque enclosed glass park designed by Cesar Pelli. The original two-acre, glass-enclosed park and gathering space, set under a 38-foot ceiling, represented “the modern American equivalent of an Italian piazza,” according to the architect. The Commons was rebuilt in 2008, but still boasts a large, indoor playground as well as Chaos 1, a kinetic junk metal sculpture by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. 

300 Washington St
Columbus, IN 47201

13. 301 Washington Street

301 Washington St, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

Don’t let the classic facade of this former bank building fool you; inside lies a midcentury time capsule. As Curbed critic Alexandra Lange wrote in a piece about designer Alexander Girard, who had a long-time relationship with the Miller family, he was commissioned in 1962 to create an office for J. Irwin Miller. The “up-to-the-moment modern suite” in a tobacco-leaf color palette of brown-on-brown has been restored, along with many of Girard’s other period designs, by the current building owner. The Cummins Company.

301 Washington St
Columbus, IN 47201

14. Crump Theatre

425 3rd St, Columbus, IN 47201

A 19th century opera and playhouse that was reborn with a 1940s Art Deco makeover by architect Alden Meranda, the Crump has been seen as a link to the city’s architectural past, as well as a potential anchor for downtown’s future. While the venue has been mostly abandoned and unused, except for special events, for decades, preservationist have long called for adaptive reuse to create a new arts space for Columbus.

425 3rd St
Columbus, IN 47201

15. Columbus City Hall

123 Washington St, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

Columbus City Hall was built in 1981 as the city grappled with the growth of its downtown area and recognized the need for a space that reflected the town’s storied history. Built of brick and limestone, this three-story building was designed by Edward Charles Bassett of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and forms a triangle, with a central courtyard onto which glassed-in interior spaces look.

123 Washington St
Columbus, IN 47201

16. The Republic Newspaper Plant & Offices

333 2nd St, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

The former plant for Columbus’s local newspaper is a sleek glass-and-steel building that upended the traditional verticality of most newspaper offices at the time. The structure, designed by Myron Goldsmith and erected in 1971, is strikingly transparent, inviting passersby to take a look at the process of crafting a newspaper from start to finish. Though the paper moved its operations elsewhere in 2016, the building now houses Indiana University’s master of architecture program—a fitting site if there was any.

333 2nd St
Columbus, IN 47201

17. Southside Elementary School

1320 W 200 S, Columbus, IN 47201
Hadley Fruits

Yes, even Columbus has its monuments to Brutalism. Southside Elementary, designed by Eliot Noyes and built in 1969, has the look of a fortress with its exterior of precast concrete, slot windows, and vertical fins. But its intimidating exterior opens up to a bright, two-story central common area illuminated by a skylight, a space which Noyes saw as the town square to the school’s city. Meanwhile, bright, abstract murals designed by Ivan Chermayeff adorn the stairwell walls, bringing more color to the space.

1320 W 200 S
Columbus, IN 47201