The Modernist Marvels of Columbus, Indiana: Building Community Through Architecture and Design

In the middle of Indiana lies a surprising oasis of modern architecture. The treasure trove of masterpiece structures serve as not only a magnet for architecture aficionados, but also an anchor for the community. Cover graphic by Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

From Eshaan Mehta’s childhood affinity for Lego to the vast real estate he built on Minecraft, his pull towards the architecture field has always felt natural. Today, Mehta is a sophomore at Pratt’s Institute School of Architecture. 

After several moves from coast to coast, Mehta’s family moved in 2010 to Columbus, Indiana, where over 90 pieces of modern architecture and art thrive. Designers of the town’s masterpieces include I.M. Pei, designer of the Louvre Pyramid; Eliel and Eero Saarinen, designers of the Helsinki Central Station in Finland and the St. Louis Gateway Arch, respectively; and Harry Weese, designer of the Washington, D.C. underground Metro system.

First Christian Church
North Christian Church
Cleo Rodgers Memorial Library
The Republic
Mabel Mcdowell Education Center
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The family’s move was not a happy coincidence; Mehta said it represents the fulfillment of J. Irwin Miller’s values while growing Cummins Engine Company, where Mehta’s father works. Architecture enthusiast, civic activist and American industrialist, Miller helped grow his great uncle’s company into an international Fortune 500 company in his hometown. At the forefront of his efforts was a sense of corporate responsibility that extended not only to the business and its employees, but also to the surrounding community.

“It’s interesting that my parents ended up here. [My parents] have been in cities all their lives,” Mehta said. “They were sort of reluctant to move to the Midwest, but upon discovery, they were like, ‘Yeah, this is a unique place.’ You could ask any other person that’s moved here and they’ll have a different reason as to why they learn to love Columbus, but it sort of all leads back to this thing about active placemaking and the design.”

The Founding of an Iconic Modernist Landscape 

Everything goes back to a small model around 10 inches square, said Tricia Gilson, an archivist of the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library. The model, designed by Edmund Gilchrist, is a neo-gothic church with buttresses and a spire. Gilchrist was unable to finish the commission, however, so the model remained a small mock-up of a forgotten, nonexistent building, now collecting dust in archival storage. 

Eventually, the congregation hired Eliel Saarinen, who was inspired to take the commission by the church’s vision of humility and accessibility for the rapidly growing population of Columbus between the two world wars. An unpublished manuscript by Elsie Sweeney details the symbolism of the First Christian Church. 

In the manuscript, Sweeney quotes her sister Nettie in conversation with Saarinen: “Our town is small and there are all sorts and conditions of men. While we should like the church to be beautiful, we do not want the first reaction to be, how much did the church cost? We want the poorest women in town to feel at home there and able to worship her God in those surroundings.”

These words “thrilled” Saarinen, and in 1942, First Christian Church — considered the first modern church in America and one of the first modern buildings to call Columbus home — was completed. 

“In fact, It was built on an old railroad yard back in the day,” Larry Ruble, a current church member who is part of First Christian’s archives ministry, said. “It brought the elements of a hard-working blue collar community together with world-class architecture. And it changes both ends of that spectrum. You come together to a much happier middle. And probably, both ends grow better, too.” 

Ruble said the sentiment still resonates with him today; upon entering the space, he feels humbleness.

“When I think about it, Saarinen took simple materials and simple shapes and made a spectacular building and did great things with those simple things,” Ruble said. “Essentially, that’s the embodiment of Christianity. God takes very ordinary, simple people and does wonderful things.”

First Christian Church was a collaborative design effort between Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero, who worked on the interior furnishings. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection.
Years later, Eero would design North Christian Church — another of Columbus’ seven landmarked buildings — which was completed in 1964. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection.

Years later, Miller — who started his career in Cummins receiving the company’s mail — became the president and later the chairman of the board of directors. According to Mehta, Miller wanted the nation’s best and brightest minds to come work at Cummins while raising families and planting roots. 

Miller’s hopes manifested in a unique investment in civic engagement: modern architecture.

Looking for better alternatives to the multitude of “standard, but uninspired” school buildings that popped up all across the nation post-World War II in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Miller gave the school board an offer: he would help pay architectural fees for a new school building on the condition that they chose an architect from a curated list he provided. 

The school board chose Harry Weese, which resulted in the construction of the Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School, a modernist school building made of brick, glass and wood featuring roof frames resembling little houses in each classroom. In 1960, the process formally became part of the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program, starting with schools and later expanding to any taxpayer-owned buildings such as fire stations, hospitals and libraries. 

Interior of the Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School, designed by Chicago Architect Harry Weese. Weese designed the roof frames to resemble those of little houses and kept the building low to make school feel more approachable for young students. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection. 

Embedded in Miller’s mission was a belief in the power of “place” and its impact on a community’s well-being and sense of self. 

“My understanding of architecture — and having lived here — has made me fall in love with the buildings themselves,” Mehta said. “The activities and people in the buildings have become dear friends and they’ve become like a new community. I stop into these buildings sometimes not to visit the buildings, but to visit the people I know.”

Carrying the Torch

In the 81 years since First Christian Church’s 166-foot tower appeared in Columbus’ skyline, modern architecture and design have become an organizing principle in Columbus. Today, the city builds on Miller’s legacy to shape its future. 

Two members of the high school design team working on their installation, “Tunnel Vision,” for the 2020-2021 Exhibit Columbus cycle. Image by Hadley Fruits courtesy of the Landmark Columbus Foundation.

Landmark Columbus Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to “caring for, celebrating and advancing the cultural heritage of the city.” Their efforts include “Progressive Preservation,” a term that encapsulates the ethos of setting the city up for success of future generations under the value of good design, said its founding director, Richard McCoy.

“We have been working to adopt the concept of progressive preservation as a way to think about preservation that is community-based, rather than just focusing on the bricks and mortar of a building,” McCoy said.

McCoy said he sees the value of good design in motion especially when engaging younger Columbus residents. One of Landmark Columbus Foundation’s programmatic arms is Exhibit Columbus, which engages global and local conversations about architecture, design and art through a series of public installations and events. The installations are created by professional firms as well as local high school students, while university professors in design research across the U.S. participate in a design competition. Exhibit Columbus is now in its fourth cycle.

“This is a way for us to kind of make a circle that starts in high school and connects across the globe and allows us to continue to prove the value of Columbus and to, more importantly, push it forward and advance it,” McCoy said.

Nettie Meeks, a Columbus native who will enter her first year at Ball State University’s architecture program in the fall, helped design “Machi,” a public gathering space which will be installed in the heart of downtown, for this year’s theme, “Public by Design.” 

“I learned that you’re not doing well unless people tell you you’re crazy,” Meeks said. “The crazier the better, I think. You need to be able to take on as big of a project as you’re wanting to envision. You just have to be out there; you have to go outside of the box.” 

Members of the high school design team for Exhibit Columbus present their installation, “DENCITY,” to a tour group led by Landmark Columbus Foundation founder Richard McCoy during the 2018-2019 cycle. Image by Hadley Fruits courtesy of the Landmark Columbus Foundation.
The high school design team’s installation, “Between The Threads,” for the 2016-2017 cycle. Image by Hadley Fruits courtesy of the Landmark Columbus Foundation.

For Mehta, who also participated in the program in high school, Exhibit Columbus’ trust in their work and vision instilled a confidence that he and his teammates used to complete their project. 

“For us, [Exhibit Columbus] is like the first thing that we can call our own. This is the first time that we’ve done this, and you don’t forget your first. Every single member is excited about it as a high schooler, and they invite their friends to come and check it out. Those friends enjoy it. They remember it. They tell that story and it just sort of starts to propagate and grow,” Mehta said.

Calling Columbus Home

In 2011, Indiana University and the city of Columbus made a collaborative agreement to plant a design program in Columbus, establishing the IU Center for Art and Design. Then in fall of 2018, the center hosted its first cohort of architecture students in the J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program. According to program director T. Kelly Wilson, part of the original center’s mission was to take an iterative, experimental approach to what a design program could look like in Columbus. Wilson said the center’s origins go back to around 2008, when the economic collapse had negatively impacted Columbus’ banks. 

“So Columbus, instead of taking a knee and packing it in, reached into their play bag and said, What do we do? We’re resourceful. We can design our way out of this,” Wilson said. “One of their solutions was to do something that advantages their intrinsic asset, which has to do with the nature of the people here who accept the premise that you don’t have to sit on your history. You can be audacious and seek to find solutions that are unique — that aren’t dependent on a historical solution.”

According to Wilson, the Republic Building, where the program is housed, was originally built to embody values of transparency for The Republic, a local newspaper. Likewise, Wilson hopes the architecture program’s presence in the city will “remove the mystery” of the design process. Image by Hadley Fruits courtesy of the Landmark Columbus Foundation.

For young aspiring architects like Mehta and Meeks, this community-wide appreciation of the modernist marvels of Columbus is at the root of their sense of home. 

“Before I settled on architecture, the second I left, I don’t think I planned on coming back [to Columbus] other than visiting my friends and family,” Mehta said. “But now, because of the architecture and everything that I’ve learned, I’ve gained something that keeps me wanting more and keeps me wanting to come back.”

Meeks’ hometown has inspired her to dream big out in the world and back home, too. 

“I really want to go big. There are times where I just sit and I think, what would I be without architecture? It’s really the fuel of my life and it keeps me going,” Meeks said. “And if I can come back, I want to eventually come back and help Columbus. I want to come back and help preserve and keep that story going. It’s just something I’ll always cherish.”


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