There are 19 cities in the United States which go by the name ‘Columbus’. Of them, I’m sure you’ve heard of Columbus, Ohio – the largest city with its name – but I want to share with you a different Columbus. One which had manufacturing and engineering at its centre, but today, it’s the art, architecture and history which have people really talking about it.
This is Columbus, Indiana.
A Quick Guide to Columbus, Indiana
Less than an hour south of Indianapolis, you’ll find Columbus. Locally Columbus is well-known as the home to many manufacturing companies, including local engine manufacturing company Cummins, Inc – by far the region’s largest employer, but visitors come for another reason.
It’s a small city where big names built. Despite its population of around 46,000 people, the city is well-known for its modern architecture and public art with more than 60 buildings designed by some of the world’s most famous architects. In the area, you’ll find works by Eero Saarinen (known for the Gateway Arch in St Louis and TWA Flight Center, NY), I.M. Pei (John F. Kennedy Library and Hancock Tower in Massachusetts, Le Grand Louvre, Paris), and Richard Meier (Getty Center, California); and seven buildings are now listed on the National Historic Landmarks thanks to Cummins, Inc’s foundation who paid the architects fees, providing the client selected an architect from a list pre-approved by the company.
How to get to Columbus, Indiana
The best way to explore Columbus and all of Southern Indiana is by renting a car! Columbus is approximately an hours drive from Indianapolis airport and about an hour and a half drive from Louisville Airport.
Don’t stress about driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Indiana is a peaceful state and the roads between Indianapolis and Columbus are well maintained and mainly multi-laned roads – not crazy traffic-filled highways as seen in movies!
What to see & do in Columbus, Indiana (that isn’t just architecture!)
There’s so much to see and do in Columbus! Here are my top picks:
- Visit the Miller House & Gardens – one of the finest examples of Mid-Century modern architecture in the world and the family home of J. Irwin and Xenia Miller. Fitted with a 50-foot long storage wall – decorated by Xenia and her love of folk art from around the world, a cylindrical fireplace, and a sunken conversation pit; the Miller House and the surrounding Gardens are a must visit when in Columbus.
- Bring the family to The Commons – Set in downtown Columbus, whether it’s the indoor playground at The Commons (for free, I might add!) or a visit to the kidscommons, a three-storey children’s museum where you can get flushed away in the world’s largest toilet, among other displays; you’ll be sure to find something to please the youngest travellers.
- Enjoy the Irwin Home and Gardens – if you don’t manage to reserve a spot at the Inn next door to the gardens, there is still opportunity to experience the beautiful garden, including a maze, for the public. It’s open to the public on weekends during spring, summer, and autumn.
- Spot the Chihuly! – there are THREE original works by Dale Chihuly, a renown glass sculptor, in Columbus. A stunning 900-piece yellow neon chandelier, ‘Persians’ – also known as hand spun glass plates (I personally think they look a little like flowers!), and the Sun Glass Panels, a patchwork quilt of plexiglass drawings sitting snuggly in a skylight.
Click here for more information on where to find the Chihuly pieces in Columbus, Indiana.
- See how many flavours of popcorn you can try at Not Just Popcorn – with over 200 flavours of popcorn available, you might be there for a while!
- Drink a ‘Green River’ at Zaharakos – located in downtown Columbus, this recently restored, early 20th-century malt shop and museum is the perfect spot to stop for something to eat, enjoy the sounds of the Welte orchestrons, and try one of their delicious fountain sodas!
- Visit Indiana’s largest antique mall – You could spend hours, or even days, exploring everything that the Exit 76 Antique Mall has on show! Seriously, there is so much!
- Stop by ZwanzigZ – named the best small brewpub brewer at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival in Denver; come discover the award-winning brews and growing craft and microbrewery scene.
- Drive the ArtsRoad 46 – connecting three distinctly different art communities, there’s plenty to see and do when travelling on Indiana Highway 46. Stop in the college town of Bloomington, for peace and nature in Nashville, and architectural Columbus.
Where to Eat & Drink in Columbus, Indiana
No matter where you go it’s going to be fresh and delicious! Here are some of the best places to eat in Columbus:
- Zaharakos – this refitted 1900’s ice cream and soda parlour featured a classic American menu. Be sure to try the famous “Green River” fountain soda and enjoy an ice cream sundae!
- 4th Street Bar – a great spot for modern pub grub that’s both delicious and can be healthy.
- Columbus Bar – the home of the Powerhouse Brewing Company, Columbus Bar is the town’s oldest brewery.
- ZwanzigZ Pizza and Brewing – after the success of their pizza chain, they recently added a microbrewery which is home to award-winning wine and has been named the best small brewpub brewer at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival in Denver!
Architecture in Columbus, Indiana
It’s thanks to J. Irwin Miller, the co-founder of local diesel engine manufacturing company Cummins, Inc., that Columbus is known today as a mecca for architecture in the Midwest.
In the mid-1950s, J. Irwin Miller and the Cummins Foundation launched a program to subsidise public buildings in Columbus, providing they were designed from a pre-approved list of architects. Today, more than 60 public buildings have been built by architects considered ‘modern masters’ – I.M. Pei, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, Robert Venturi and James Polshek, to name a few. So important is the architecture in this city that the American Institute of Architects rated Columbus sixth on its list of the top 10 American cities for architectural quality and innovation, right up there with Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Pretty amazing considering that Columbus is home to just 45,000 people!
The best way to experience the incredible architecture of this city is by taking a guided bus tour. In 2-hours, you’ll see 40 of the cities iconic buildings all for US$25. More information on the tour can be found here.
I personally enjoyed the Downtown Landmarks Walking Tour (US$10), though it was hot come mid-June and I was glad for the respite inside the library and churches, and the Miller House and Gardens Tour ($25) is a must on a visit to Columbus.
If you prefer a DIY approach to tours, the Columbus Visitors Center has a wealth of information, maps and more at the office and online.
The Seven National Historial Landmarks
As of 2017, there are seven buildings within Columbus, Indiana which is listed as National Historic Landmarks. These are;
- First Baptist Church designed by Harry Weese. Opened in 1965, the most notable area is the Sanctuary, a windowless room which has been made from simple objects – a brick wall, a skylight, a beam – to make it feel equally dramatic and serene.
Address: 3300 Fairlawn Drive in Columbus, Indiana
- First Christian Church designed by Eliel Saarinen. Opened in 1942, it was one of the first modern religious buildings in America. Key features are the 160-ft (49m) tower, sunken terrace and a 900-person sanctuary.
Address: 521 Fifth St., Columbus, Indiana
- Irwin Union Bank designed by Eero Saarinen. Opened in 1954, it was the first financial institution in American to use glass walls and an open floor plan.
Address: 500 Washington Street, Columbus, Indiana
- The Mabel McDowell School designed by John Carl Warnecke. Opened in 1960, Warnecke said that his intention was to combine functionality with the characteristics of southern Indiana – flat terrain, a horizontal theme and groves of trees. It was one of Warnecke’s first major architectural projects.
Address: 2700 McKinley Ave., Columbus, Indiana
- The Miller House and Garden by Eero Saarinen and landscaped by Dan Kiley. Constructed in 1957, it is one of the finest examples of modern architecture in the United States encompassing symmetry, a cylindrical fireplace, a 50-foot long storage wall and sunken conversation pit.
Address: *The Miller House and Gardens can be visited as part of a tour only. You can book through the Columbus Visitor Center.*
- North Christian Church designed by Eero Saarinen. Opened in 1964, the hexagonal shaped buildings includes a 192-ft (59m) spire. It’s also home to a Holtkamp organ, one of the oldest pipe organ manufacturers in America.
Address: 850 Tipton Lane, Columbus, Indiana
- The Republic Newspaper Building designed by Myron Goldsmith. Constructed in 1971, the steel frame and brick building built-in a Modern Movement style building are well-known for its flat room, low concrete foundation and glass and white aluminium curtain wall. Today, it is still home to The Republic, the local daily newspaper.
Address: 2980 N. National Road, Columbus, Indiana
Where to stay in Columbus, Indiana
While I was there only for the day, I’ve been well advised that these are the best places to stay in Columbus:
- The Inn at Irwin Gardens – perfectly located in downtown Columbus, The Inn at Irwin Gardens offers guests a cosy bed and breakfast experience set inside a 1910 Edwardian mansion.
- Hotel Indigo Columbus Architectural Center – the spacious and very cool design of the Hotel Indigo will be a hit with this 3-star hotel in Downtown Columbus. Best of all, there’s free WiFi!
Let me know in the comments below
Where would you stop on a road trip in the United States?
Read more about Southern Indiana:
I visited Columbus as part of my Arts Route 46 Road Trip, part of the TMS Media Showcase.
All thoughts and opinions are, as always, my own.