Touring The Athens Of The Prairie
Columbus, Indiana wants you to know that you don’t have to visit Chicago or Washington D.C. to see great architecture.
The American Institute of Architects ranked Columbus sixth in the nation for architectural innovation and design, thanks to some 60 buildings and landscapes designed by influential architects of the 20th century—including the private home and gardens of industrialist J. Irwin Miller, which recently opened to the public.
There are also six National Historic Landmarks of Architecture in Columbus: three churches, a private home, a public school, and a bank.
On the 2-hour guided tour conducted by the Columbus Area Visitors Center, visitors ride in a bus to see 25-30 buildings designed by architects like I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, and Henry Moore.
The Design Trio
We decided to stick to our feet at first and walk to one of the National Historic Landmarks of Architecture. The First Financial Bank (formally Irwin Union Bank) is on Washington Street downtown, two blocks from the visitors center and another two blocks from the new Commons building.
It’s a collaboration between the three designers who were also responsible for the Miller House And Gardens: architect Eero Saarinen, textile artist Alexander Girard, and landscape designer Dan Kiley. In fact, the allée of honey locust trees lining the sidewalks by the bank matches the backyard of the Miller house.
“There’s that indoor/outdoor relationship you saw at the Miller House,” says Cindy Frey, Associate Director of the Columbus Area Visitors Center, “and then Kiley’s influence can be seen on the inside, too.”
She says the relationship between J. Irwin Miller and Eero Saarinen can be traced back to their youth, when the First Christian Church was under construction. Many consider that building to be the first modernist building in Columbus.
Eero’s father, Eliel Saarinen, was the architect on that project. When Eliel would come to town to meet with the building committee, a young J. Irwin Miller would take Eero and designer Charles Eames to the local soda shop (now Zaharako’s). “He would have to babysit the younger generation that would come along with Eliel Saarinen, and they would have a sundae and talk about design and politics,” adds Frey.
The younger Saarinen was tapped to build this branch of the Miller family bank, a project that was completed 12 years after the First Christian Church. At the time, the tradition was to build banks that were solid, brick establishments, where the tellers sat behind cages. According to Frey, though, “Mr. Miller’s philosophy was, ‘We want to show people what we’re doing with their money. We want that transparency.’”