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Exploring Indiana: Columbus, Architecture and Patronage

This week my husband and I celebrated seven years together (three years since we began to accrue benefits and privileges from the state’s recognition of our relationship).  To commemorate our anniversary, we went to Columbus, Indiana.  Columbus is a small town of just over 44,ooo residents a little under two hours from Crawfordsville.  It’s famous for the many buildings of impressive architecture.  Columbus became a place of impressive architecture mainly because of the patronage of the Irwin family.  We stayed at the Inn at Irwin Gardens, the Irwin home that was originally built in 1864 by Joseph I. Irwin and remodeled in 1910 by William G. Irwin.  It’s an Italianate home that feels ornate and important.  It was the Irwin’s chauffeur, Clessie Cummins, who invented the high-speed diesel engine and founded Cummins Inc.  J. Irwin Miller was born in the house that is now the Inn at Irwin Gardens, and it was he and his wife Xenia who were the creative and financial force behind the modern architectural surge of creativity that occurred in Columbus from the 1950s onward.

The Inn of Irwin Gardens


J. Irwin Miller, the son of Hugh Thomas Miller and Nettie Irwin Sweeney grew up in Columbus and then went off to Yale where he majored in Greek and Latin and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.  The classical influences permeate the architecture of the town (and paintings of Homer can be found in the Irwin home as well as Pope’s translation of Homer’s work at the Miller home).  I was particularly struck by how the war memorial looked like the pillars of a Greek ruin.  The modern Miller home (the first picture above) also had the sense of creating geometric lines that disrupt the natural world while working in concert with it like Greek temples do.  DSCN2550After Yale, Miller earned a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College at Oxford.  He came back to Columbus to work at Cummins after Oxford, married Xenia, had five children, and began to think they needed better digs.  So Miller hired Eero Saarinen to design what is today called the Miller house in Columbus along with Alexander Girard to do the interior design and Dan Kiley to do the landscape architecture.

Architecture and Civic Engagement

DSCN2539Miller wanted to fund architecture that would help create civic engagement.  He hired I.M. Pei to design the library and Eero Saarinen to design the bank, his home, and the North Christian Church.  Miller met Eero when Eero’s father, Eliel Saarinen, was designing the First Christian Church in downtown Columbus.  Miller first hired Saarinen to design the Irwin bank building in 1954, which is similar in modernist style to the Miller house.  I.M.Pei designed the library after Saarinen had designed the church across from it, and Pei took pains to design the library to complement the church.  You can see the church tower rise from the bottom of the outside steps of the library.

 DSCN2537 DSCN2536When the Miller’s hired Eero Saarinen to design their house they said they wanted something that would address the needs of a big family without looking ostentatious.  One thing I was struck by reading architect’s statements through Columbus was how much they talk about architecture as solving a problem and about successful architecture as beginning from getting clear about what the problem is.  That helped me see why people think about architecture as such a fertile place for thinking — the notion that there is a problem that is not in itself obvious from the outset and creative thinkers are successful because of the way they perceive the problem.  That didn’t sound that different from philosophy to me.

The Miller House

DSCN2495At the Miller house, we were forbidden to take pictures inside, so I don’t have any interior photographs, though you can view some here.  (One old guy on our tour had his camera around his neck and kept taking photographs secretly, but not really because everyone but the docent realized he was doing it, by just clicking on the camera at his stomach.  Oh did this offend the rule-keeper in me (the rule-keeper that I try hard to repress)!  I was somewhat aghast at my desire to see him forced to acknowledge the law of the house, though he never was.)  I did take a certain pleasure in seeing water damage at one place in the house, which I’m also slightly embarrassed to admit.  The modernists were showing off when they created flat-roofed houses–they were showing that modern engineering could overcome the water drainage problems solved by slanted roofs.  I love that.  But sometimes, I also think, ha, I guess that was a little harder than you thought, huh?  Like when I see water damage.

DSCN2502Two things I liked in particular about the Miller house: the built-in bookshelves, art wall, place for hidden speaker and air conditioning units (that is all one thing) and the open design that made the separate ‘problems’ the house was solving (a place for cooking, a place for the parents to work, a place for the kids to play, a place for the cars) joined by a central solution that brought everyone together in the living space.  And a third: the house is amazingly fluid between the inside and the outside and I would love to live somewhere that had the same effect.  What I didn’t love was what was in some places so very kitsch.  It surprised me a bit that a modernist home would have dozens of glass weights set out together on a table and all sorts of other little things about the house in that way.

Churches in Columbus

Much of the funding support for architecture was to build public spaces: the post office, the courthouse, city hall, and also and perhaps especially, churches.  I discussed the First Christian Church above, the first church that followed the modernist style.  In fact, that church was originally planned to be more traditional but the original architect couldn’t complete the job so the Irwin’s recommended Eliel Saarinen.  The North Christian Church was the third of three buildings that Eero Saarinen designed in Columbus.

DSCN2578DSCN2580It struck me as particularly Protestant in its interior design and yet still holding to almost Gothic standards of a point that reaches to the sky.  That point reaches to the sky but the sanctuary remains strikingly equal with a focal point in the middle or even across to one another rather than to some place beyond, or rather than setting up as higher or more worthy one particularly place within the sanctuary, except perhaps the center which also gives way to the periphery (I know many people hated it, but it reminded me of what the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in Philadelphia did in the early aughts).

Benevolent Patronage

So finally, a word about patronage.  Miller genuinely cared about improving the community with his money.  Martin Luther King, Jr. called him “the most socially responsible business man in the country.”  Columbus, Indiana is a town full of interesting architecture in large part because of the patronage of J. Irwin Miller and his family.  Miller wanted to use architecture to foster civic engagement, which puts him in a long line of those who thought that the poetics of space were political.  But all of this didn’t keep me from having the sneaking sad sense that Miller was perpetuating the impulse that I have become familiar with in Indiana–that civic efforts from providing health care to the poor to creating public spaces that foster community should be privately funded.  A benevolent patron might do good in that community, but that isn’t fostering a shared investment in the community or a shared communal project based on communal decisions about how we want to live in relation to one another.  It’s nice, but it’s decidedly undemocratic.  The people with more money determine what the community will look like, even if we judge it as being good for the community.  Instead of donating millions of dollars to the town, Miller made decisions about what would be good for the town.  From my position as a tourist who can drop in and enjoy it for a day, it seems good for the town (and I don’t know well enough, perhaps the funding structure involved more of the township’s input).  But how much has it made the town a stronger, more democratic place of mutual investment in shared projects?  We have come to a place in American life where we rely more on rich people to do something good for the community than we ask or enable the community to make good decisions for itself.

J. Irwin Miller himself seemed to recognize these questions even as he kept funding these projects.  He supported Nelson Rockefeller’s bid for the presidency in 1972.  He thought businesses needed to think beyond their bottom line and that addressing public concerns might require raising taxes.   Miller is quoted around Columbus as saying:

…we would like to see this community come to be not the cheapest community in America, but the very best community of it’s size in the country. We would like to see it become the city in which the smartest, the ablest, the best young families would like to live…a community which will offer their children the best education available anywhere…a community whose citizens are themselves well-paid and who will not tolerate poverty for others, or slums in their midst.

This sentiment could be taken to mean that we need to make of the community the smartest, best and ablest.  We need to pay our workers well and address poverty where we see it.  Conversely, it could mean that we should drive out those who are not smart or able or those who are poor so that they do not tarnish the community. I think Miller meant the former.  We too often mean the latter.

See more of my photographs.

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