Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church
Tom Harris Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church

Special buildings are always best when you come upon them unexpectedly. So it was that I stumbled upon the First Christian Church in Columbus, Ind., in the dark. I had pulled into Columbus late in the day and had strolled downtown to get something to eat. Unready to head back to my room, I wandered for a while past closed storefronts on the city’s version of Main Street, and then farther afield, until I looked up on a quiet side street and saw the church’s tower: stark, rectangular, immense in its bold modernist silhouette against the stars.

A single set of windows were lit yellow in the building below and, as I approached, I saw a small group of men and women meeting around a table. The rectangle of light floated within the dramatic shadow of the church. As I watched, a man leaned back in his folding chair, stretched his arms toward the sky in an unconscious echo of the tower and then bent back to the work at hand.

The moment was a small example of a landmark building alive in its community, an organic part of the life it was intended to serve. I have a feeling it would have made the church’s architect, Eliel Saarinen, the son of a Finnish Lutheran minister, happy.

First Christian Church
Tom Harris First Christian Church

Saarinen’s church was one of several buildings that left me smiling during my visit to Columbus, a city of 46,000 that probably has more modernist architecture of note than any place its size in the country. Gunnar Birkerts, FAIA Emeritus, I.M. Pei, FAIA Emeritus, Kevin Roche, FAIA Emeritus, and Harry Weese all worked here. The city is, in its own unassuming Midwestern way, an architectural treasure chest.

Columbus is also notable for having no historic preservation law or preservation commission to protect this legacy. Preservation law has been under attack in much of the Midwest by property-rights advocates, including in Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker this year signed a bill restricting the ability of political subdivisions to create historic districts. Indiana has a tradition of small-government conservatism, which may have as much to do with Columbus’s approach to preservation as anything.

But local supporters insist there’s another rationale for the approach. It’s in keeping with the city’s history as an incubator of creative design—a tradition of embracing the new without getting trapped by the past. As Jeff Baker, a downtown merchant who heads an architectural advocacy committee, put it, “Columbus is a community, not a museum.”

I traveled there to see how that approach was working. As someone who believes in traditional methods of historic preservation, I had my doubts that it could be working all that well. And, of course, I came to tour the city’s midcentury modern buildings, one of my favorite ways to spend a day. I particularly wanted to see the Miller House, a beautifully maintained modernist masterpiece designed by Eliel’s son, Eero Saarinen, with grounds by the landscape architect Dan Kiley and interior decoration by Alexander Girard. The house, beautifully maintained, was everything I hoped it would be. As for the rest of Columbus’ architectural legacy, can the city continue to protect it?

Eero Saarinen's Miller House
Tom Harris Eero Saarinen's Miller House
Miller House
Tom Harris Miller House

Columbus’ “Great Man” Theory
My Columbus tour guide was Richard McCoy, the executive director of Landmark Columbus, a local group chartered to care for and celebrate the city’s design heritage. Wiry and intense, a runner, McCoy opened our conversation by telling me that the narrative commonly used to explain how Columbus became a center of exceptional architecture was wrong.

That narrative adopts the “Great Man” theory of history, giving credit to J. Irwin Miller, a former head of Cummins Inc., the diesel engine manufacturing firm that is still the city’s biggest employer. Miller not only chose leading architects to design his own home and Cummins buildings, he set up a system that spurred the city to hire talented architects for its projects, too. “I think he has to be seen as one of the greatest architectural clients in the 20th century,” McCoy acknowledges. But he believes focusing on Miller undersells a “collaborative community process” that supported so much notable architecture.

I.M. Pei's Cleo Rogers Memorial Library
Tom Harris I.M. Pei's Cleo Rogers Memorial Library
Cleo Rogers Memorial Library
Tom Harris Cleo Rogers Memorial Library

Maybe, but it sure seems like a lot of the credit belongs to Miller. The grandnephew of one of the founders of Cummins, he became the company’s general manager in 1934. Educated at Oxford and Yale, he was a successful businessman, turning a local firm into a global behemoth that operates in 94 countries. He was active in the Civil Rights movement, helping to organize the March on Washington in 1963 and pulling Cummins out of South Africa because of apartheid. He was the first president of the National Council of Churches. If that’s not enough, he played both the piano and violin, and he and his wife, Xenia, were collectors of fine art, including works by Matisse and Picasso.

But it was Miller’s commitment to contemporary design that would distinguish the community he called home. He combined a fine eye with an essentially forward-looking philosophy, a faith in human progress. “He believed that the best response to the gifts we receive from previous generations is to create something of lasting value in our own time and in our own way for future generations,” Will Miller, his youngest son, wrote after his death in 2004.

Harry Weese's First Baptist Church
Tom Harris Harry Weese's First Baptist Church
Eero Saarinen's North Christian Church
Tom Harris Eero Saarinen's North Christian Church

In 1960, Miller established an Architecture Program as part of the Cummins Foundation, which provided a list of five architects for any public project owned or operated by tax dollars. The foundation consulted with experts in the field to assemble the lists, which included both up-and-coming and more established talent. “Miller said if you use one of these architects, I’ll pay for the design,” McCoy says.

This commitment wasn’t simply altruistic. Miller wanted to attract talented people to Cummins, and he knew a city that embodied creative energy would help. That said, what’s most impressive is how Miller managed to strike a balance between guiding his community and empowering it. He never imposed the final choice of a hire. The various public entities, informed by public input, decided who they wanted to build their buildings and what they wanted those buildings to be. They simply selected from an elite list.

SOM's Republic Newspaper Building
Tom Harris SOM's Republic Newspaper Building
Robert Venturi's Fire Station No. 4
Tom Harris Robert Venturi's Fire Station No. 4

The result is a small city with more than 70 buildings of distinction, many by the giants of 20th-century architecture: schools, churches, banks, the city hall, the library, even a fire station. Certain details from my own whirlwind tour remain particularly vivid: The low-lying glass-walled offices of The Republic newspaper (the work of Myron Goldsmith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) that both reflect the surrounding cityscape and open the paper to its own inspection; the First Baptist Church by Weese, with its exaggerated roofline and nearly windowless interior, a thin ribbon of glass dropping light on the altar; the serene and minimalist elegance of the Irwin Conference Center, formerly the Irwin Union Bank and Trust, designed by Eero Saarinen.

The bank stands as an example of the egalitarian, essentially optimistic philosophy behind several Columbus buildings. In 1954, at a time when banks were built to impress and perhaps intimidate, Saarinen designed an open, welcoming interior that placed tellers behind an unintimidating low counter with no grates or other impediments to interaction. “This is Mr. Miller and Mr. Saarinen rethinking how banking works,” McCoy notes. Even today, there is something in the clean, sun-filled brightness of the interior that seems to embody a hopefulness about the future.

Weese's Lillian Schmitt Elementary School
Tom Harris Weese's Lillian Schmitt Elementary School
Leers Weinzapfel addition to Lillian Schmitt Elementary School
Tom Harris Leers Weinzapfel addition to Lillian Schmitt Elementary School

A Recent Loss
When you talk to people in Columbus you can’t help but notice how strong the emotional connection is between many residents and the city’s architecture. A few years ago, an addition was added to the Lillian Schmitt Elementary School, originally designed by Weese in the 1960s. The addition, designed by the respected Boston-based firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates, incorporates everything school officials asked for, and it’s not a bad design on its own, but it overpowers the delicacy of the original building’s saw-tooth roofline and glass-fronted design.

Here’s the thing: the addition was added in 1991 and people in Columbus are still mad about it. The addition came up in three different conversations while I was there. When I had lunch with Baker, who heads Landmark Columbus’ advocacy and education committee, this cheerful man referred to the building as “an abortion.”

Let’s be honest, in most of America, folks might have grumbled a little and then focused on the fact the school now had plenty of brand new classrooms. In Columbus, there were public meetings about the design and even an attempt to pass a bond issue to have it remodeled. This is the commitment that makes civic leaders think they can protect the city’s best architecture without a formal preservation law. “We’ve been fortunate in that we haven’t lost a lot of buildings,” Baker says.

Site of the recently razed Fisher and Spillman–designed bank
Tom Harris Site of the recently razed Fisher and Spillman–designed bank

That’s true. Yet in 2014, a bank designed by Fisher and Spillman in 1966, considered part of Columbus’ architectural heritage, was razed when a new buyer couldn’t be found after the building sat abandoned. The tower at the First Christian Church is also in need of significant and costly structural reinforcement if it’s to survive long-term.

These realities were part of the motivation for the creation of Landmark Columbus, launched in 2015 by the local Heritage Fund. The organization holds events to create greater public awareness about the city’s historic design and also works to provide resources for owners of significant buildings. Indeed, it has helped establish a friends group to raise money for First Christian Church. “I don’t think this community is ready for a preservation ordinance, but I think by organizing people we can do the same thing,” says Brooke Hawkins, Landmark Columbus community project manager.

The Miller family is no longer as involved in Columbus as they were, but Cummins and other local corporations continue to work with civic leaders to preserve the city’s legacy. “This is what the community would call the Columbus way,” McCoy says.

Carlos Jiménez's Cummins Child Development Center
Tom Harris Carlos Jiménez's Cummins Child Development Center

Few Recent Buildings of Note
Yet the problem with any voluntary approach is that it depends on continued good will and commitment, things subject to changing leadership and economic conditions. During my visit, I met with Louis Joyner, a local preservation architect who played a leading role in getting many of the city’s most important buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, and with Tricia Gilson, head of the Indiana Architectural Archives program, housed in the library. We talked about both the past and the current situation. The Cummins Foundation still runs its Architecture Program, but the last buildings of significance in Columbus were built years ago. They were the 2000 Cummins Child Development Center, designed by Houston-based Carlos Jiménez, and the 2007 Central Middle School, with Ralph Johnson, AIA, of Perkins+Will serving as the principal architect.

While the city is economically healthy, the paucity of significant new building reflects a changing reality, one without a J. Irwin Miller or the same growth as in the past. “We’re still figuring out how we move forward with new parameters, new leadership, a new economic reality,” Gilson says.

Eero Saarinen's Irwin Conference Center
Tom Harris Eero Saarinen's Irwin Conference Center

Landmark Columbus hopes to spark a fresh wave of creative thinking. The organization is organizing “Exhibit Columbus,” which will include a symposium this year and showcase temporary designs by young and upcoming architects in the center of town next year. Baker hopes the effort will “refocus people on the future.”

Today’s reality also intrudes on the question of preservation. When I asked Joyner whether the city can maintain its architectural inheritance with its current approach, he shrugged. “That remains to be seen. We have a legacy of people who are still very engaged. I think it’s still very much part of the community, but it’s very expensive.”

Still, Joyner says he has come to believe there is a reason to try that goes beyond what he called simple Indiana conservatism. “The other thing is this idea that every age has to make its mark and its own mistakes,” he says, “and if you freeze time, you don’t allow that to happen. I think that’s something Irwin Miller believed.”

Central Middle School by Ralph Johnson of Perkins+Will
Tom Harris Central Middle School by Ralph Johnson of Perkins+Will

He points to Central Middle School as an example of the rewards that can come with that approach. “We had a 100-year-old, Neoclassical, central stairway, three-story middle school,” he says. “Orthodox preservation would have kept that.” Instead, he notes, “We got a very nice Ralph Johnson building.”

After we finished talking, I strolled down to the middle school to take a look. It was a beautiful afternoon and kids were just leaving school. My own daughter is in high school, and I know from personal experience that the quality of the built environment in education directly affects the students’ sense of worth. I was looking at a school that told you that you mattered.

I thought of something McCoy said as we were driving around town: “The other thing that needs to be preserved is this intangible thing—a community that wants good design. The idea that needs to be preserved is the value of making good things.”

Whether the Columbus approach can be applied everywhere seems to me debatable. Preservation law and commissions arose in response to genuine threats, and preserving the best of the past does not have to mean elevating it above the best of today. But in Columbus, fine design is so woven into the town’s character that it just might work. “Every town has something that helps it understand what it is,” says Joyner, “and architecture is how this town understands itself.”