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Thursday, June 2, 2005 04:48 am

An architectural wonderland

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A resident walks past “Large Arch,” the Henry Moore sculpture in front of the Cleo Rogers Memorial County Library in downtown Columbus
PHOTO BY JOHN SMIERCIAK/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/KRT

It’s only a three-hour drive to the other side of the looking glass. Just 40 miles south of Indianapolis is the small (36,000) manufacturing town of Columbus, Ind. Just like Springfield, this lovely town is set amid fields of corn and soybeans, but in terms of its art and architecture, it might as well be on another planet.

This small town has been honored by the American Institute of Architects for its preeminent collection of architecturally significant buildings. The AIA ranks Columbus sixth in the nation after Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. The National Park Service has designated six of its modern buildings National Historic Landmarks.

Imagine this: Within a single square block downtown is the First Christian Church, designed by Eliel Saarinen, and the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, designed by I.M. Pei. And in the plaza between these two gems is “Large Arch,” a sculpture by Henry Moore. Just next door is the Columbus Visitors Center, a restored 1864 mansion that was renovated and expanded by architect Kevin Roche. Inside you can secure the usual brochures but also admire a 9-foot chandelier and four “Persian” flowers by the famed glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.

Within easy walking distance are Lincoln Elementary School and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, both designed by Gunnar Birkerts. Other churches of note in Columbus are North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen, and the First Baptist Church, by Harry Weese. Several other schools in town were designed by such eminent American architects as Weese, John Carl Warnecke, Norman Fletcher, E.L. Barnes, J.M. Johansen, and Eliot Noyes. The fact that these many schools have been designed by such luminaries of 20th-century American architecture is due totally to the wisdom and generosity of the Cummins Foundation.

Set up as the philanthropic arm of the Cummins Engine Company, the foundation has worked since the mid-1950s with the local school board to fully fund the design work for any new school building. The only qualification required by the foundation is that the school board must agree to choose from a list of prominent American architects recommended by a panel of senior architects. To date, 12 schools have been so designed and built in the Columbus district.

This commitment to first-class design in Columbus is not limited to public buildings. Many businesses have also followed such a path. With its corporate headquarters, manufacturing and testing facilities in Columbus, the Cummins Diesel Engine Co. has led the way with many of its buildings designed by the likes of Weese and Roche. The Irwin Union Bank and Trust Co.’s downtown location is the product of the genius of Eero Saarinen. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has designed several commercial buildings here as well. The commercial center of town, the Commons and the Commons Mall, is the work of Cesar Pelli. This local favorite was designed to serve many functions: It is the commercial hub of downtown, and it is the home of the Columbus branch of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The Commons also serves as a formal and informal gathering space. Columbusites often choose to meet at “Chaos I,” Jean Tinguely’s colossal “in motion” sculpture, which lives in the Common’s four story atrium.

It seems that there is a modern architectural prize at every turn in Columbus. However, one of the most striking visual gems greets you as you drive into town from Interstate 65 on State Road 46. As you cross the East Fork of the White River, the modernistic superstructure of the bridge perfectly frames the 1874 Bartholomew County Courthouse. This building has been lovingly preserved and is still in daily use. The sight is breathtaking.

A final architectural jewel not to be missed is located on the courthouse grounds. The Bartholomew County Veterans Memorial is a touching tribute to the deceased servicemen and servicewomen of this central Indiana county. Twenty-five limestone monoliths each stand 40 feet high, and ample space between them allows a visitor to walk among these pillars. The outside stones bear the names of the fallen. On nearby interior pillars, excerpts from the last letters home of these men and women are inscribed. This is truly a place of reverence and honor.

Treat yourself to a weekend spin soon and enjoy this hidden jewel on the prairie. The town’s visitors center provides directions for an architectural tour, or you can sign up for a guided tour of many of these sights.

Take I-72 and I-74 to Indianapolis, then I-465 and I-65 south to Columbus.

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