Why Can’t Dallas Be More Like Columbus, Indiana?

Republic newspaper building designed by Myron Goldsmith. (Photo: Wikimedia/Don47203)

Columbus, Indiana, is about 45 miles south of Indianapolis and about 70 miles north of Louisville. In such a largely rural state, Columbus is definitely in the boonies. Its 46,000 residents hold a secret that Indiana University, 35 miles west in Bloomington, tapped last week.

You see, beginning this fall, Indiana University’s new master’s in architecture program will be housed in the former home of Columbus’ newspaper, The Republic. Far from any old building, The Republic building was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Myron Goldsmith and completed in 1971. It’s a long, transparent building that riffs on mentor Mies van der Rohe’s style. The building was designed to show the news being born. Onlookers would walk the length of the glass exterior and see the news being written at one end and ultimately printed at the other.

What led to such a building being built in tiny Columbus, Indiana?

J. Irwin Miller was born into privilege in 1909 in Columbus, the great-nephew of the founder of the Cummins Engine Company. He attended all the right schools, eventually returning to Columbus to ultimately run the business. Today, Cummins generates $20 billion in revenues and is the largest independent diesel engine maker in the world. But Miller departed from the norm of today’s business leaders. He was on speed dial with Martin Luther King Jr. and once said: “Character, ability, and intelligence are not concentrated in one sex over the other, nor in persons with certain accents or in certain races or in persons holding degrees from universities over the others. When we indulge ourselves in such irrational prejudices we damage ourselves most of all, and ultimately assure ourselves of failure in competition with those more open and less biased.”

Gunnar Birkerts, Lincoln Elementary gym, first modern school built 1967

Miller also believed the way forward was forward, not backwards. He was also an architecture fan. As Dallasites can easily imagine, back in the 1950s, Miller thought the schools being built to accommodate the Baby Boomers were boring and unimaginative. He approached the local school board with an offer. He’d pay the architect’s fees if they’d build modernist designs from a list of architects whose work he enjoyed.

Gunnar Birkerts, Lincoln Elementary Exterior (1967)

The result wasn’t just a few nifty schools on the prairie, but local businesses taking up the cause and hiring their own starchitects for projects large and small.

The Avenue of Architects

The result is that Columbus was named in 2006 as the sixth-most architecturally innovative city in the United States by the American Institute of Architects. Obviously Dallas doesn’t outrank it, but being the sixth after Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., is staggering for such a small town.

In downtown Columbus, there’s what Saarinen protégé Gunnar Birkerts called, “The Avenue of Architects.” At less than a mile long, this stretch of 5th Street features buildings, landscapes, and art installations any city would covet, including two National Historic Places.  But Columbus’ architecture chops go beyond this to include six national historic landmarks.

First Christian Church (1942) with Henry Moore sculpture in foreground

Everything kicked off when Miller’s congregation at the First Christian Church wanted to build a new church. They went modern with an Eliel Saarinen design that became the town’s first modernist building in 1942, eventually named a national historic landmark. Looking at the picture above, it does not strike you as a 76-year-old building, does it?

The St. Louis Gateway Arch or the TWA building at JFK airport may bring to mind the Saarinen name. Eliel was arch designer Eero’s father. And like father, like son, Eero built in Columbus, too (with associate Kevin Roche). Above is a photograph of J. Irwin Miller’s home designed by Eero Saarinen in 1952.

Three years later in 1955, Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche designed the North Christian Church a low-slung building with a captivating spire. That design produced this interior sanctuary space.

Even more workaday buildings like a fire station merited a star’s touch with this 1964 example by Robert Venturi who won the Pritzker Prize in 1991. Venturi began as a modernist, transitioning to post-modernism in his later career.

The most recent school project is the Central Middle School replacement by Ralph Johnson, completed in 2007. This demonstrates that while Miller died in 2004, the Cummings Foundation he setup is still working with the Columbus school system to continue building good, modern architecture.

Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence (2011)

Many Dallasites will remember Cesar Pelli’s design for the McKinney & Olive building. But a few years earlier, he was building the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Columbus.

This all barely scratches the surface of the architectural treasures found in this small town of 46,000 residents. There’s a Koetter Kim-designed parking garage, the Irwin Bank (now conference center) also designed by Eero Saarinen, another fire station designed by William Rawn, the public library by I.M. Pei, and eight buildings of Kevin Roche.

Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Bank (now conference center)

With this scant list of Columbus’ modernist buildings, it’s not hard to understand why Indiana University jumped at the chance to house their master’s degree program in architecture in Columbus. It’s also not difficult to understand why they named the program after J. Irwin Miller.

Sure it helped that Cummins was headquartered in their city, but in the 1940s when Miller’s passion started with his own church, he didn’t have the economic reach the company enjoys today. But he felt that everyday architecture had influence on people and how they lived. He created the vision that became the Architecture Program within the Cummins Foundation.

The phrase, “it only takes one person,” often falls on suspicious and doubtful ears. But in the case of Columbus, Indiana is was true. One man believed in the future, and that architecture could make the future manifest. Miller’s kindling of modernity with the public schools led city churches, businesses and municipal parks, streetscapes and buildings to embrace better architecture.

J. Irwin Miller said, “What is built reflects what a city thinks of itself and what it aims to be.”

As you look around Dallas at the buildings being built today, ask yourself, “What does Dallas think of itself and what does it aim to be?”


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.


One Comment

  • Awesome article, Jon. Columbus is truly unique and an aesthetic treasure that must be seen in person. Where are the people of J. Irwin Miller’s caliber and vision today?