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June 10, 2010 Mid-Century Modern

The Modern Mecca of Columbus, Indiana

Nelson lamps at Hotel Indigo in Columbus, Indiana.

A collection of Nelson lamps at Hotel Indigo in Columbus.

I’m headed this weekend to Columbus, Indiana, Middle America’s Modern Mecca. The town of 39,000 people located 40 miles south of Indianapolis has dozens of mid-century modern and modern buildings by the world’s leading architects. Think I.M. Pei, Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, Eliot Noyes, Cesar Pelli, Deborah Berke, Robert A.M. Stern and Robert Venturi.  You’re wondering:  How did this happen and why there? The reason is J. Irwin Miller, a wealthy industrialist and patron of modern art and architecture.

Miller, the longtime head of Cummins Engine Co., went to Yale and became interested in modern design during that time. In the post-war years, a foundation ran by Miller agreed to pay the architects’ fees of newly designed schools, but they had to come from the foundation’s list of architects. The program was later expanded to other buildings in the town.

Six buildings are designated as National Historic Landmarks, including Miller’s own house by Eero Saarinen, who Miller met while Saarinen was helping his dad, Eliel, on the First Christian Church (see below.) Alexander Girard did the interior while Dan Kiley did the landscape. The 1957 house, which was featured at the recent Saarinen retrospective at the National Building Museum, was donated by the Miller family to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It is now being renovated and the plan is to open it to the public for the first time next year. I think the highlight of the trip for me will be visiting the house and gardens Saturday evening. Saarinen also designed a bank (pictured below) for the family, which is a National Historic Landmark as well.

Irwin Union Bank

Saarinen's Irwin Union Bank is a National Historic Landmark.

The trip, which is bringing modern bloggers from around the country, is being hosted by the Columbus Area Visitors Center, which is picking up the hotel costs, meals and arranging the tours. I paid for my flight and rental car.

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook for highlights during the weekend and check back here next week for a more extensive post when I return.

Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian

Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church and Henry Moore's Large Arch. The elder Saarinen's 1942 design was one of the first modern church in the United States.