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Columbus Architecture: First Financial Bank

One of Columbus, Indiana's six National Historic Landmarks of Architecture is the downtown branch of the First Financial Bank (formally Irwin Union Bank).

First Financial Bank Building With Trees

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

The allée of honey locust trees lining the sidewalks by the First Financial Bank is a match to the backyard of the Miller house. Both landscapes were designed by Dan Kiley.

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.

conference table with rolling chairs and tapestry on wall

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

The interior of the First Financial building was designed by Alexander Girard, including the conference room that features a colorful tapestry.

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.”

desks in a bank lobby

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

The design of this bank was innovative for 1954. Instead of confining tellers to cages as was the custom, J. Irwin Miller wanted an open floor plan so customers could see what the bank was doing with their money.

Banding Together

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.’”

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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  • Daniel Ostroff

    Hi, I heard that this bank and its contents were put up for sale?  Is that the case?  So sad if that is true.

    Any details on this?

  • Ricky Berkey

    Cummins has bought the Bank building and the adjoining office buildings from First Financial. They have sold off the furnishings from the office buildings and repurposing the space. The bank itself is still open as First Financial until they finish their new downtown banking building. It has never been clearly stated but it is expected that Cummins will respect the decor and original  furnishings left in the bank lobby.

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