A place where Hoosier hospitality and world-class architecture come together
While central Indiana may rarely leap to mind as one of the country’s great architectural hubs, this modest-size enclave (population 50,000) just southeast of Indianapolis is indeed legendary for its buildings and sculptures by some of the biggest names in modern art and architecture, including I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Henry Moore, and Dale Chihuly.
Of course, after that common question of “really?” is answered, the next logical query is usually something along the lines of “why?” And the short answer, provided by Visit Columbus director of marketing Erin Hawkins, is that longtime local manufacturer Cummins established a program in the 1960s through which the firm’s foundation would pay the design fees for any public building in its hometown, provided it was an architect from a preselected list.
What resulted was a collection of projects from some of the giants of mid-20th-century modern design that continue to mark Columbus as a unique Midwestern destination. “Columbus has a super-walkable downtown full of public art and great buildings,” Hawkins says. “Unlike a lot of cities, we didn’t raze our historic storefronts so downtown retains a lot of small-town charm.”
And while its lineup of impressive structures is by far the city’s most notable calling card, Hawkins says there are plenty of other reasons for suburban Chicagoans to make the easy four-hour trek down I-65—including its proximity to nearby Brown County, which is always a popular autumn draw. Here are a few highlights to check out on your weekend adventure.
Open through the end of November, this exhibition pairs designers, artists, and architects with 13 of the city’s iconic architectural sites to create temporary, interactive installations under the theme of “Public by Design.” exhibitcolumbus.org
Miller House and Garden
Designed in 1957 by Saarinen for Cummins president J. Irwin Miller and his wife, Xenia—not to mention interior work from Alexander Girard and landscaping by Dan Kiley—this landmark home is considered one of the most important examples of midcentury modern residential architecture in the country. “This is the product of the collaboration of the three top designers in their respective fields working together at the height of their careers,” Hawkins says. “It never fails to blow people’s minds.” columbus.in.us
Situated in a three-story historic building, this community children’s museum features a climbing wall, a bubble room, and (seriously) the world’s largest toilet, complete with a slide that lets kids flush themselves down. Across the street from the museum is the 5,000-square-foot Commons indoor playground, a free play experience that includes the 35-foot-tall Luckey Climber, an installation built of colorful platforms cabled together for adventurous kids to explore. kidscommons.org
Dating from 1900, this lovingly restored ice cream parlor features a soapstone soda fountain from the 1904 world’s fair in St. Louis as well as the Welte Orchestrian, an antique mechanical musical contraption that staff will play on request. zaharakos.com
Photos: Don Nissen (sign); Thomas R. Schiff (The Commons); Andrew Laker/The Republic Newspaper (Luckey Climber); Tony Vasquez (Miller House and Garden); Columbus Area Visitors Center (Zaharakos)