Columbus Update: Civic Inspiration at the Right Scale


Image details

By Richard McCoy

The last time Docomomo US checked in on Columbus, Indiana, T. Kelly Wilson gave us an update on the establishment of the Indiana University Center for Art+Design (IUCA+D) and his efforts to leverage the design heritage and seven modern National Historic Landmarks in the community to create a ‘laboratory for design’ and to teach a new generation of students how to work at the intersection of art and design in the middle of America -- “Notes on Columbus, Indiana” (August 2013 Newsletter). 

Photo (left): Entrance to Columbus City Hall. Photo Courtesy Hadley Fruits

Since Wilson’s article, Columbus has hosted ‘Field Sessions’ as part of the 2014 National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Annaul Meeting, and participated twice in Docomomo US' Tour Day.  As part of 2014 Tour Day, Indiana Landmarks presented “Landmarks Experience: Columbus” in partnership with the Columbus Area Visitors Center, a day long tour that featured a luncheon in the newly restored Eero Saarinen bank building (1954), which is now the Cummins Irwin Conference Center.

Along the way, IUCA+D has hosted many students and a number of significant events and exhibitions that continue to help unpack the challenges of interpreting and caring for the remarkable design heritage of Columbus.  A highlight from last year included an exhibition and symposium on the work of Harry Weese; ‘Creative Syncretism; The Early Architectural Works of Harry Weese’. Speakers at the symposium explored the notion of a regional modernism that grew from Eliel Saarinen and the Cranbrook School and emerged in Columbus.  Lectures were given by Ben and Cynthia Weese and other significant designers working today, including Maryann Thompson who took a time out from the proceedings to talk to us about the making of the Bartholomew County Veterans Memorial in this video.

Photo (left): Docomomo US Tour Day Luncheon in Former Eero Saarinen Bank Building. Photo Courtesy Hadley Fruits.

As a way to connect these efforts to Docomomo US and to formally consider new ways to care for the Modern masterpieces sprinkled through the community, last May, the City of Columbus, in partnership with IUCA+D, and with sponsorship from the Efroymson Family Fund, a two day community conversation featured a keynote lecture by Docomomo US president, Theodore Prudon, and included a presentation by Indiana Landmarks president, Marsh Davis, among others.  Prudon’s lecture, ‘Modern Architecture as Heritage,’ is available online in this video.

Also last year,  the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives hired a full-time archivist and curator, Tricia Gilson, to grow its capacity within community and around the country as a valuble repository for information about Columbus design projects. Gilson, who holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from University of Southern California, has made an immediate impact in the community. The first significant, while modest, exhibit that Gilson has been working on will explore the creation of Columbus City Hall and the notions of democracy that were built into its design. This building project was completed in 1981 and designed primarily by Edward Charles Bassett who worked out the San Francisco office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill. 

Photo (left): 2014 Columbus Conversation Flyer

The exhibit, ‘Columbus City Hall: Center for Civic Inspiration,’ is being produced in partnership with IUCA+D and will be on view this year from April 17 through June 27. “This is a fantastic opportunity for us to showcase the high quality of design and community thinking that went into the city’s most important civic structure,” said Gilson. 

The exhibition will take a holistic look at the building project by focusing on the design of the architecture, the remarkable public art program that was created for the building, and the interior and landscape design. Along with the exhibit, a number of public programs aimed to engage the community and visitors will be presented.  The timing for this exhibition coincides with a mayoral and city council election cycle, which will surely generate new discussions around the role architecture plays in the democratic process.

Columbus City Hall has twice been recognized for its design: in 1989 it was awarded the California Council American Institute of Architects’ Design Award and just last year it was give the AIA Indiana 25-Year Award. The AIA Indiana  jury described Columbus City Hall as “A great civic building with a bold design that continues to radiate a community presence in the city’s historic core.” In the design, Bassett sought to create a space that serves as a metaphor for democracy and community involvement.  For him, nearly every decision about the building’s design – from its site to its form, from its landscaping to its public art, from its budget to its materials – had to work together to achieve this lofty goal.

Photo (left): Tricia Gilson in the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives. Photo courtesy The Republic Newspaper


Columbus City Hall was built with financial support from the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program, which was created by former CEO and visionary leader, J. Irwin Miller. The building is a highlight on a long list of projects supported  this program which aimed to make Columbus a great place to live and work. Miller’s unprecedented support for modern design through the Cummins Foundation was based on the idea that corporations work best when they invest in their communities. In his famous 1964 speech, when on behalf of Cummins, he gifted to the City of Columbus Otter Creek Golf Course -- the course designed by Robert Trent Jones with a club house designed by Harry Weese -- Miller explained why his company would make such a generous gift to the community, 

“The answer is that we would like to see this community come to be not the cheapest community in America, but the very best community of its size in the country.  We would like to see it become the city in which the smartest, the ablest, the best young families anywhere would like to live...a community that is open in every single respect to persons of every race, color and opinion; that makes them feel welcome and at home here ...“

Photo (left): Looking out of Columbus City Hall. Photo Courtesy Hadley Fruits