New Book Photographs Columbus, Indiana’s Modernist Landmarks

Even if you have visited the Midwestern Modernist Mecca, this new collection of fish-eyed photos beckons you to take another look.

The enduring company town—a place where a principal business has bolstered a community and shaped not only its employment but also its appearance—is a considerable rarity in our multi-national, post-industrial era. The story of small-town contemporary America goes mainly like this: If a local employer hasn’t gone under it’s gone to Redondo Beach or Ciudad Juarez, leaving only relics of good citizenship. Far rarer are circumstances in which a corporation’s continued local patronage hasn’t resulted in a physical environment that resembles an age of horseless carriages.

If the idea of physically investing in the wellbeing of a small town seems quaint, so often is its representative architecture. Consider Hershey, PA, which boasts a fine art deco windowless office building but otherwise derives its inspirations from the age of the soda fountain. Or Corning, New York; it contains a Gunnar Birkerts glass museum, and yet looks like it hasn’t taken much advantage of the possibilities of its signature product. Which makes one example, Columbus, Indiana—a town that doesn’t merely nod to Prairie Modernism but is defined by it—all the more exceptional.

This striking community is the subject of a compelling and extensive volume of architectural photography, Thomas R. Schiff’s handsome Columbus, Indiana: Midwestern Modernist Mecca (Rizzoli, 2013), displaying the town’s treasures to excellent and unexpected effect. Balthazar Khorab’s Columbus, Indiana: An American Landmark is still strongly recommended reading for the sake of greater background detail, floor plans and the like, but Schiff’s volume is the most visually toothsome offering yet. Here corporate patronage, that of Cummins Inc., a manufacturer of a range of engines spearheaded by its visionary executive Joseph Irwin Miller, has not only kept the town healthy, it’s rendered it a singular anomaly. Columbus is a town of 44,000 featuring six National Historic landmarks and dozens of buildings by a Top 40 list of modern-to-contemporary architects. It was ranked 6th in a 1991 AIA list of Top 10 American Cities for Architecture, along with such other little-known towns as Chicago and New York City. Justin Davidson, in a characteristically deft introduction to the book, notes that peering around in Columbus, “the puzzle acquires Easter Island proportions.”

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The Irwin Union Bank, Eastbrook Plaza Branch (1961), designed by Harry Weese.

Are we in Oz? How was all this possible? Obviously significant modernist works sprang up solo in other unnoticed places (Saarinen in Moline, Illinois, Wright all across the forgotten Midwest), but in this concentration? Irwin Miller, the man behind the curtain wall, extended a generous offer to the town of Columbus—he would cover the architects’ fees plus 10 percent of construction costs of any civic structures so long as they came from a pre-selected shortlist. In short, this was a traditionalist’s nightmare of corporate-modernist collusion. The early Miller commissions and subsidized public work led to more hires of modernists by private clients, leading to the fantastical coincidence of a town in which not only schools and fire stations but also churches and bank branches are designed by signature architects.

The book is a welcome arrival both for those familiar with the town as well as those who are not. Surely, Columbus is hardly new to many of you, but the Schiff volume offers the unique advantage of panoramic photos with arresting looks at buildings, both intriguing angles and a vast scale.

Here’s how Schiff explains the difference between his panoramic approach and most architectural photography: “With a more conventional camera, selective editing can be accomplished with the use of longer focal length lenses and cropping in the darkroom. The panoramic format demands a very different approach. Because everything in front and back and at the sides of the camera will be in the picture, the placement of the panoramic camera is crucial and it determines the composition.”

The Cummins Engine Company Corporate Headquarters (1985) by Roche Dinkeloo and Associates.

This makes for a series of photos that enriches the sense of the building forms for anyone, including me, who’s not been fortunate enough to visit. It seems difficult to get a panoramic photo of a great building’s exterior wrong, and Schiff gets them very much right—Harry Weese’s First Baptist Church floating in snow, Kevin Roche’s Cummins Midrange Engine Plant against a carpet of fall leaves. But the highlights of his work are some of the carefully calculated interior views. Photographs inside what might be Columbus’ most famous building, Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, offer a sense of how the building fits together. This would have been simply impossible with conventional format photography.

Eero Saarinen’s canonical Miller House (1957).

Views oriented often to the diagonal offer glimpses of two axes of the home at once: A stance from somewhat inside of the dining room gives a view of the home’s simple gardens out one floor-to-ceiling window; and another alluring perspective of the living room, piano, and recessed conversation nook on the right. Typical descriptions and photos of bedrooms as “small” rarely make spatial sense, as anyone who’s tried to let out a room knows; simply standing in a doorway and snapping away with your iPhone rarely provides a very clear sense of size. Here Schiff’s panorama avoids this, providing a feel for what a Saarinen bedroom actually feels like.

The North Christian Church (1964), another of Saarinen’s several contributions to the building stock of Columbus, Indiana.

The awesome scale of Saarinen’s North Christian Church, with its alabaster roof starting low, looms like a horizon just beyond the terraced pews. Churches have of course been designed to draw the eyes upwards since time immemorial; Schiff accentuates this with photos that aren’t merely immersive, but are visually impossible for the average human. A two-page spread of a photo taken directly upwards at the ceiling of Gunnar Birkerts’ St. Peters Lutheran Church also spans to encompass pews and sanctuary and organ loft to each side. Fish are a traditional Christian symbol; here, in church, we’re partway to the fish-eye view.

The First Baptist Church (1965) by Harry Weese.

Another great benefit of the volume is to showcase a variety of buildings that don’t make other, shorter accounts of Columbus. There’s a John Johansen school, reminiscent of his imminently imperiled Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, with slinky-like multicolored ramp-ways connecting concrete blocks, offering vertiginous fun both to viewers and students. James Polshek’s Columbus Regional Hospital: Mental Health Center seen as a tabletop easel of concrete supporting large-scale windows slung over a creek. There are structures from before and after Columbus’ golden era. A Leighton Bowers art deco fire station from 1941, a crustacean-like Jean Muller bridge from 1997.

Thanks to the panoramic format, we’re also reminded of the surroundings of these buildings; Columbus may be a modernist mecca but that’s not its only characteristic. In many cases modernism sits next to architecture about as southern-Indiana-small-town as you might imagine, from the anodyne to the entirely respectable. It’s an additional reminder of the distinct character of Columbus, which after all, is a business town without a university. (And the tendency to extrapolate some sort of countercultural character from its architecture seems actively mistaken.) This may prove the most encouraging fact of all: If a small-town engine tycoon could accomplish this in a place as implausible as Columbus, Indiana, where couldn’t it happen?

Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. He writes the “Spaces” column for the Wall Street Journal and has written otherwise for The Wall Street JournalThe Daily BeastThe Awl,Bookforum, and The Millions on urban policy, cinema, historic preservation, and literature, and Metropolis on Long Island Modernism, Boston city planning, the preservation of Brutalism, and a variety of other topics.

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