By Jennifer Billock
In 2014, an architecturally significant bank just outside Columbus, Indiana, met the wrecking ball. The sandstone and glass building was designed in 1966 by Fisher and Spillman Architects and was part of the city’s storied design legacy. But when the bank closed and no new owner had been found, the landmark — lacking any formal historic preservation designation — was razed. It was not only a failure of the local banking economy but also a sobering reminder to Columbus that this could happen, quite easily, to the many significant buildings within the city limits.Columbus, fifty miles south of Indianapolis with a population of about 45,000, is sixth in the nation for architectural innovation and design as ranked by the American Institute of Architects, with more than 70 buildings and public art pieces designed and created by internationally known architects. The city’s design story began in the 1960s, when J. Irwin Miller of Cummins Engine Company and Irwin Union Bank hired Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen to design both a bank branch and Miller’s home in Columbus. Miller wanted to use modern architecture and design to bring more people to the area and retain creative minds who would look at the city and think it was a great artistic place to be, so he created a dream team of architects to build or rebuild different properties around the city. As a result, Columbus is home to some of the country’s most innovative architecture, like the Eero Saarinen-designed North Christian Church and The Republic, Myron Goldsmith’s modernist newspaper office.
But now, Columbus is fighting an intangible foe: the city currently has no preservation program in place at all. How many I.M. Pei, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, and James Polshek buildings need to face destruction before the community pulls together to save them? Miller did not want a formal preservation program in the city — he didn’t want to restrict what Columbus could become; he wanted it the city to encourage growth and artistic expression. But following the economic downturn and Miller’s death in the early 2000s, Columbus’ landmarks are at risk. The community as a whole usually strives to keep the architectural landscape intact, but without the biggest financial supporter — Miller — anyone could come in, purchase a significant building, and tear it down for something depressingly more profitable, like a car dealership or parking lot.
“People assume we’ve been protecting our landmarks and we actually haven’t been,” said Erin Hawkins, director of marketing at the Columbus Area Visitors Center. “Honestly, we’ve been lucky. We are fortunate that the community really does value design and architecture. We’re fortunate that people want to do the right thing, but that certainly isn’t assured. Our architecture and design heritage is what sets Columbus apart. It’s so much a part of our identity. And if we no longer had those assets, we would have to be doing things very differently around here.”
Resistance to historic preservation in the name of flexibility doesn’t stop at Indiana’s borders — it’s an initiative sweeping the Midwest thanks to Republican lawmakers and sometimes-stodgy homeowners.
But help may soon be on the way. Landmark Columbus is a new nonprofit spearheaded by Richard McCoy, an arts and design consultant who helped with downtown Columbus’ revitalization. In a partnership with Columbus’ local Heritage Fund, the group has a mission to celebrate and care for the local design landmarks. That includes finding volunteers to help care for the buildings, creating awareness about these important locations, and providing resources for owners of historically significant properties.
“What’s interesting about Columbus is that it’s one of the few communities of its size in the state of Indiana that doesn’t have a historic preservation commission,” McCoy said. “This is because there’s always been such visionary community stewardship there with the legacy of the Irwin Miller family. The community is going through a transition now where some of the traditional supporters and funders are no longer as active or active at all. So they have smartly been looking at ways to rebuild some of those assets and rebuild that momentum.”
[blocktext align=”right”]“Buildings matter and
place matters…If you live in a remarkable place that visually represents excellence, I believe you’re more inclined to strive for excellence.”[/blocktext]An even more public effort to turn heads toward Columbus’ architecture happens in 2017, when the group will host a design biennial, selecting designers and pairing them with well-known downtown buildings to create site-specific installations. But until that point, until Landmark Columbus can truly make the community and others aware of the issues facing the city,
In the end, McCoy’s personal mission is to stay true to the heritage of the city, following J. Irwin Miller’s lead and allowing the community to express itself through unique architecture while keeping out overly strict historic preservation regulations.
“The community was always, in many ways, two steps ahead of historic preservation,” McCoy said. “It has a certain kind of civic culture that wouldn’t have wanted to be prescriptive about historic preservation. The citizens have always believed that the community in the private sector, working together in this unique way, would make it so that you wouldn’t need laws or ordinances or special zoning to dictate how things should happen. It’s not to say that there might have been benefits to that over time, it’s just that’s the way the community solved many of its problems.”And echoing Columbus’ early design story in the 60s with Miller, McCoy knows that the landmark buildings will continue to influence the community in a positive way.
“Buildings matter and place matters,” he said. “They affect our aspirations, they affect who we are and what we strive for. If you live in a remarkable place that visually represents excellence, I believe you’re more inclined to strive for excellence. So to me, it’s all about excellence and being the best community you can and celebrating the place that you call home.”
Jennifer Billock is is a freelance writer, author and editor, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture and history. She is currently dreaming of an around-the-world trip with her Boston terrier. Check her out at jenniferbillock.com and follow her on Twitter @jenniferbillock.
Banner photo of The Republic offices by Nyttend, via Wikimedia Commons.