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Columbus Architecture and the Homes and Gardens of the Miller Family
Thursday, May 16, 2013

By Nelson Price

Historic and mid-modern homes, churches, and other buildings that have become nationally renowned for their distinctive architecture – as well as two private, widely acclaimed gardens — were among the destinations during a Spring Pilgrimage to the southern Indiana city that’s been called the “Athens of the Midwest.” The Society of Indiana Pioneers traveled to sites in Columbus – including the mid-modern J. Irwin Miller House and Garden now owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art – during the pilgrimage on May 16, a Thursday.

Ever since the American Institute of Architects ranked Columbus sixth among U.S. cities on architectural quality and innovation (only five significantly larger cities ranked higher, including Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C.), the town of 44,000 people has been drawing attention from publications such as The New York Times, USA Today and Architectural Digest as well as network TV shows such as CBS Sunday Morning.

During the Spring Pilgrimage, it was the Pioneers’ turn to focus on the sites that are generating so much buzz, including the Mid-Century Modern house commissioned in 1953 by the late philanthropist J. Irwin Miller, the civic and business leader who built Columbus-based Cummins Engine into a Fortune 500 company. Considered one of the best examples of the modernist movement in the country, the house was designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. He designed other buildings in Columbus as well. So did his equally famous father, architect Eliel Saarinen.

Touring the J. Irwin Miller Mid-Century Modern home.

The Pioneers, their guests, and other travelers on the motor coach embarked from pickup sites in Indianapolis amid weather that veered from mild and sunny to, rather briefly, rainy. Even amid the periodic showers, the Pioneers were able to savor sites that included the Civil War-era ancestral home built by J. Irwin Miller’s great-grandfather, Joseph Irwin. (Mr. Miller was a member of the Pioneers until his death in 2004.) The historic home and its lush, sunken gardens on a two-acre estate in downtown Columbus provided a stark contrast to the mid-modern home and the city’s contemporary buildings.

View of landscape design by David Urban Kiley

The Pioneers’ first stop was the Columbus Area Visitors Center, where the group gathered for a short video about the history of the community and of the Irwin-Miller family. Then, the Pioneers subdivided and rotated sites because only groups of 13 people were permitted inside the mid-modern Miller home, a national historic landmark. Visitors are shuttled to the home from the Visitors Center; photography is not allowed inside the house, which was the primary residence of Mr. Miller and his wife, Xenia, until their deaths.

The home is located on more than 13 acres of landscaped gardens created to harmonize with the interior of the residence. Designed by landscape architect David Urban Kiley, the gardens include apple trees planted “soldier style” in straight rows as well as eye-catching trees, including a weeping European beech tree, seldom seen in Indiana.

The interior of the Miller house includes what is believed to be the country’s first residential “conversation pit”; the sunken area, stuffed with pillows, was cherished by the Miller’s five children. The Pioneers enjoyed a guided tour of the 6,700 square foot home, including its kitchen, bedrooms, and dining area, with furniture designed for the family by the legendary Charles Eames.

Irwin Family ancestral home built in 1864

The day’s next stop provided an architectural contrast. It was the Italianate ancestral home of the Irwin family of bankers in downtown Columbus. J. Irwin Miller grew up in the historic house, which was built in 1864 and now is a bed-and-breakfast called the Inn at Irwin Gardens. The manager of the B & B escorted the Pioneers through the house, which is furnished with many of the Irwin and Miller family’s possessions. Its lavish gardens feature fountains as well as sculptures and other artifacts from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

View of Irwin House and Gardens from the Tea House

Following the home and garden tours, the Pioneers savored a luncheon at Smith’s Row, a restaurant in downtown Columbus. Then, the group re-boarded the motor coach for a driving tour of architectural sites with commentary by step-on guide John Lemley of Columbus.

Disembarking at the first building that drew national attention to the city’s architecture, the Pioneers toured the First Christian Church, built in 1942 and designed by Eliel Saarinen. The group gathered in its sanctuary with a 45-foot ceiling while Mr. Lemley shared details about the building, which is considered the first American church designed in a contemporary style. The church has interior brick walls and indirect lighting, both revolutionary when it was constructed.

North Christian Church was designed in 1960 by Eero Saarinen.

Later on the architectural tour, the Pioneers explored a church commissioned by J. Irwin Miller decades later. Located on 14 acres landscaped by Mr. Kiley, North Christian Church has a towering spire rising from its roof. Inside, the pews are arranged in a semi-circular style. North Christian Church, designed in 1960 by Eero Saarinen, was the site of J. Irwin Miller’s memorial service.

During the driving tour, the Pioneers rode past (and heard commentary about) the Bartholomew County Courthouse built in 1874, a Lutheran church designed by a Latvian architect, the glass-enclosed offices of the Columbus Register newspaper, and City Hall, which was built in the 1980s.

More than 60 buildings in Columbus are considered architecturally significant. Beginning in the 1950s, Irwin Miller’s Cummins Engine Foundation began paying the design fees for architects of public buildings; the distinguished architects were selected from a pre-approved list. (Cummins Engine was founded in 1919 by Clessie Cummins, the chauffeur for Miller’s family members, who funded the company.)

Zaharakos is an ice cream parlor and museum.

After the architectural tour, the Pioneers ended the day in Columbus with a treat. The group visited Zaharakos, an ice cream parlor founded in 1900 by Greek immigrants. Following a multi-million dollar renovation and expansion in 2009, Zaharkos includes a soda fountain museum. Its décor has original stained glass windows, a carved oak bar, marble countertops, vintage photographs, and a self-playing pipe organ. While a Zaharakos staff member shared details about its history, the Pioneers enjoyed ice cream sundaes to cap the day.