Columbus, with seven of Indiana’s 43 National Historic Landmarks and 60 buildings designed by prominent architects, is often ranked among the nation’s most architecturally important cities. That distinction is owed to an extraordinary Hoosier.
In about 1940, a young J. Irwin Miller convinced his mother, Nettie Sweeney Miller, that her congregation should build a modernist church building in Columbus. As chair of the building committee, she engaged Eliel Saarinen, a famed Finnish architect. When completed in 1942, First Christian Church gained international acclaim for its unique design, featuring a glass-fronted hall and separate tower. In 1947, Miller became president of Cummins Engine Co., founded in Columbus by his great uncle, and made the company profitable. Determined to make his hometown the “very best community of its size in the country,” Miller and his foundation paid notable architects to design Columbus buildings. Like First Christian Church, six of those buildings became National Historic Landmarks — North Christian Church, First Baptist Church, Cummins Irwin Office Building, Republic Newspaper Office, Mabel McDowell Adult Education Center and Miller House and Garden (more next week), where Miller lived with his wife, Xenia. In 1967, Esquire magazine featured Miller on its cover, saying that he was the person most qualified to run for president in 1968 because of his character and business and civic accomplishments, including leadership in establishing the National Council of Churches.
In addition to its important mid-20th-century buildings, Columbus includes attractions from earlier eras, including the ornate Bartholomew County Courthouse, hailed as the “best in the west” when completed in 1874; Zaharakos, established in 1900 and one of the nation’s oldest ice cream parlors; and the classic gardens and house where Miller grew up, now a bed and breakfast. Tours of Columbus and its many attractions can be arranged through the Columbus Area Visitors Center at columbus.in.us.