A living, breathing open-air architecture museum, Columbus, Indiana, dazzles eyes and minds. Thanks to thoughtful urban planning over the past 100 years, it boasts an eclectic mix of architecturally significant buildings, historic storefronts, vibrant green spaces, kid-friendly fun and public art, all set against a backdrop of friendly Hoosier hospitality.
Henry Moore’s 'Large Arch' in the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library plaza is positioned to perfectly frame the First Christian Church bell tower across the street © Amy Lynch / Lonely Planet
Every architectural detail has been meticulously calculated with aesthetics and a greater purpose in mind, from the buildings and bridges to the bike racks. In Columbus, a bank isn’t just a bank. It’s an architectural marvel, and maybe even a National Historic Landmark. Visit to peel back the many layers of this mid-sized city 40 miles south of Indianapolis.
The engine that built Columbus
The Miller family founded Cummins Engine Company here in 1919. Now a major global employer known simply as Cummins, the company is still one of the region’s biggest economic drivers. Back in the 1950s, former chairman and CEO J Irwin Miller decided the way to lure top engineering talent from bigger, more prominent markets to his modest company in small-town Indiana was to make Columbus as visually appealing and cosmopolitan as possible. Inspired by a deep-seated belief that the spaces we spend time in influence our lives, Miller set out to build a utopia of sorts where the buildings 'reflect what a city thinks of itself, and what it aims to be.'
To that end, Miller created a corporate foundation tasked with commissioning the best and brightest architects of the era to design public buildings and structures. In 1957, the first Cummins Foundation grant awarded paid for Chicago architect Harry Weese’s fees to draft plans for the Lillian C Schmitt Elementary School. More schools followed. Then a golf course. Healthcare facilities. Fire stations. A jail. City Hall. Apartments. And as the city boomed through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, architects and designers began lobbying for opportunities to make a mark on Columbus, joining an illustrious roster of talent that includes the likes of IM Pei, Richard Meier, Eero Saarinen and Dan Kiley.
Since its inception, the Cummins Foundation has awarded $25 million to support the creation of more than 50 projects in Columbus alone, and the American Institute of Architects now ranks the city sixth in the nation for architectural innovation and design, in the same breath as Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, DC.
Built in 1985, even Cummins' Corporate Headquarters are beautifully landscaped © Holly Higgins / CC-by-2.0
Touring these architectural treasures
The Columbus Visitors Center hosts guided tours of more than 70 architectural treasures hidden in plain sight across the city. All excursions start with an introductory video followed by a short stroll into the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library plaza, anchored by Henry Moore’s distinctive Large Arch sculpture. Across the street, the soaring bell tower of the contemporary landmark First Christian Church, a collaboration between Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero (designer of the Gateway Arch), stands like a proud sentinel. Other highlights of the tour include the ahead-of-its-time Irwin Conference Center, built in 1954 by Eero Saarinen; the space-agey North Christian Church, another Eero design from 10 years later; and the majestic, mansard-roofed 19th-century Bartholomew County Courthouse. (Watch Columbus, an indie film shot on location here, before or after your tour to recognize many of the reference points and touchstones.)
Miller’s own spectacular mid-century modern home features the work of Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard and Dan Kiley. A tour of the house and grounds is worth taking, if for nothing more than to marvel at how Miller and his wife, Xenia, kept all that white furniture clean while raising five kids in the house.
If you’ve only got time for a quick spin through town, grab a map at the visitors center for a self-guided walk through the downtown corridor, paying special attention to 5th Street, aka 'Avenue of the Architects,' for a unique cross-section of styles and structures.
The Luckey Climber, inside Columbus Commons, is a favorite activity for kids © Amy Lynch / Lonely Planet
For all its grown-up architectural cache, Columbus is also surprisingly kid-friendly. Much of the public art along downtown’s walkable Washington Street invites touching, interaction and photo ops. Youngsters love scaling the netted Luckey Climber inside the glass-fronted Commons building, and 'flushing' themselves down the giant toilet at the Kidscommons children’s museum. Refuel on nostalgic hot fudge sundaes and root beer floats at the century-old Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor, boasting gleaming wood trim, a marble counter and a working orchestrion.
Mill Race Park, along the Flatrock River, offers plenty of clean green space to explore and burn off energy, and Lucabe Coffee Co maintains a play area to keep little guests happily occupied while mom and dad sip blackberry vanilla lattes. If you’re overnighting in town, children will get a kick out of greeting Miles, the resident poodle at Hotel Indigo.
The craft brewing scene is alive and well in Columbus; we like ZwanzigZ © Amy Lynch / Lonely Planet
Refuel with the city's diverse food scene
Thanks to Cummins’ international profile and the city’s highbrow architecture, Columbus attracts a rather worldly crowd of visitors, and the local food scene works hard to keep pace. The diverse local restaurant lineup offers Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Indian and Italian cuisines, along with date night-worthy destinations like the chic Henry Social Club. Still-emerging State Street near downtown is quickly becoming known for its collection of hole-in-the-wall taquerias.
Thirsty? Order up pints and pitchers of award-winning craft beer at Upland Pump House or ZwanzigZ Pizza and Brewing, which also has four caffeine-free craft sodas, made with pure cane sugar and no high fructose corn syrup, on tap. Fill a growler to take home as a souvenir of your trip.
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