City Tour: Columbus, Indiana

Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church as seen through Henry Moore's Large Arch

Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church as seen through Henry Moore's Large Arch

Columbus, Indiana is an unassuming town. It’s located about an hour from the capital city, Indianapolis. It’s also about the same size of Rome, Georgia. The similarities don’t end there. In Columbus, the Driftwood and Flatrock rivers converge to form the White River in a public park walkable from downtown. Local eateries and shops on Washington Street, and a number of churches are blocks from historic neighborhoods.

But one of those downtown churches is different. The First Christian Church, built in 1942, doesn’t look the part of a small town church. An asymmetrical monolith of brick and concrete with a separate rectangular bell tower give the onlooker pause. How did this church wind up in a city like Columbus, Indiana? The answer lies with one man, J Irwin Miller.

Between WWI and WWII, when the congregation needed a new building due to expanding numbers, Miller convinced church officials to hire a modernist architect. Eliel Saarinen was selected to design the building. Obviously, Miller wasn’t an ordinary parishioner, he was the president of the Cummins Engine Company. The church is radical today, and in 1942, caused quite a stir. But to Miller, the design was incredibly successful and helped put Columbus, Indiana on the map. During the course of construction, Miller and Saarinen’s son Eero forged a friendship that would last a lifetime.

Later, in the 1950s, Miller, through the Cummins company, established a foundation to pay the architectural design fees for any public building in the county--but there was a catch--the city had to use an approved list of modernist architects. Since architectural fees account for about ⅓ of the cost of a new building, this offered the city quite a deal.

Today, the city boasts seven National Historic Landmarked buildings. Additional structures not landmarked include a library by I.M. Pei, a downtown facility called The Commons by César Pelli, and several other modernist schools, post offices, fire stations, and government buildings.

In addition to the Eliel Saarinen church, three additional Saarinen buildings were designed by Eero. These include the North Christian Church, Irwin Union Bank, and Miller’s personal home. All three are National Historic Landmarks.

For more information on the Miller House, check out the Miller House blog.

Eero Saarinen's Irwin Union Bank interior

Other unique homes in the Columbus area are pictured below.

Jeb ArpComment