Indiana’s reputation to the world is one of fast cars and midwest hospitality, but when you look below the surface you’ll find one filled with a blooming art history, both past and present.
What most people don’t know about Southern Indiana is that it’s a beacon for artists working in so many different mediums. Brush and canvas, architecture, food, and performance; even the landscape is a natural work of art waiting to be explored. Southern Indiana’s ArtsRoad 46 was created to highlight all of these.
Just 40 miles long, Indiana Highway 46 connects three of the state’s most fascinating art communities. Bloomington, Nashville, and Columbus may be small in size but they are the homes to three of Indiana’s five state-designated Cultural districts waiting to be explored.
Driving Indiana’s ArtsRoad 46
Art and Architecture in Columbus, Indiana
A gem in Southern Indiana, Columbus is well known for their modern architecture and public sculptures. In fact, this modest city was named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the Top Historical Destinations worldwide! So, what makes it so special?
Columbus has many architecturally significant buildings because of one man: Joseph Irwin Miller. A local businessman and philanthropist, his family owned and operated Cummins, one of the countries largest engine companies. Through the Cummins Foundation, Miller made an offer to the city that the foundation would pay all the architects fees for new public buildings. They accepted.
Today, this small midwest city has public buildings designed by some of the world’s most prominent designers. Among them is Eliel Saarinen (First Christian Church), I. M. Pei (Cleo Rogers Memorial Library), Kevin Roche (United States Post Office and the Cummins Engine Company Corporate Headquarters), Harry Weese (First Baptist Church), and Gunnar Birkerts (Irwin Union Bank and Trust). These men are leaders in architecture and design and have designed some of the world’s most well-known buildings among them, the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport, Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, Time-Life Building (Chicago) and the reconstruction of Le Grand Louvre.
So important is the architectural work in Columbus that in 1991 the American Institute of Architects declared Columbus America’s sixth most important city in terms of architecture.
Start your trip in Columbus at the Miller House & Garden. The home of the Miller family until 2008, the Miller House is a near perfect example of modern architecture. Designed by renown Eero Saarinen, the building offers an open and flowing layout with features like a sunken conversation pit, glass walls, and cylindrical fire pit. Every detail is thought about, down to the positioning of cracks and the perfect cement pour on the floating table.
Combining this with unique pieces created for the home, like the carpet featuring emblems that represent the families history and interests, and trinkets from world travels; this National Historic Monument is truly an incredible place to explore.
Miller House & Garden
Be sure to check out Downtown Columbus. Join a 90-minute walking tour with a professional guide and discover some of the cities most prominent buildings and public art pieces. There’s also the opportunity to wander through the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and the First Christian Church (pictured above) to see the diverse blends of design the town holds. You’ll learn more about the Miller family and Cummins, which was once one of the biggest employers in the country.
If a walking tour isn’t quite your style, there’s also a 90-minute architecture tour by bus or free self-guided tours available from the Columbus Visitor Center.
Travelling with kids? Kidscommons is three floors of hands-on, interactive exhibits. Whether it’s climbing the playground, building the city of their dreams, or seeings the world’s biggest toilet – seriously – in ExploraHouse, there’s hours of fun to be had inside one of the cities iconic buildings.
For more things to see, read my Quick Guide to Columbus, Indiana (coming Friday).
Be sure to spend some time inside the Columbus Visitors Center. Located over the main staircase you’ll find the Yellow Neon Chandelier and adorning the windows Persians, ornately hand spun glass which almost look like flowers; both pieces by world-renown artist Dale Chihuly. These pieces are two of the many listed as part of the Indiana Glass Trail.
If Chihuly’s interest you, there are more to be found in Columbus. His prints are hanging in the visitors center and a piece named Sun Garden Panels – a beautiful skylight – is found in the Columbus Learning Center.
Columbus Visitors Center
506 5th Street
Columbus, Indiana USA
You’re sure to be feeling peckish by the time you’ve finished discovering Columbus. Step back in time at Zaharakos, a 1900’s style soda and ice cream parlor full of ornate stained glass, carved oak and marble. Zaharakos offers meals – think classic sandwiches, soups, burgers and hot dogs -, traditional soda fountains, ice cream and a museum.
Lovingly restored by a Tony Moravec, the man behind Blairex, a Columbus-based pharmaceutical company, after the parlor fell into disrepair. Zaharakos reopened in 2009 after two years of work to return it to its former glory. The restaurant will make you feel at home. From the bow-tie clad servers to the warmth the stain glass details exudes. It’s classic, it’s homely, and it’ll make you want to return no matter how the food tastes – it tastes good, trust me!
The most unique feature at Zaharakos is the 1908 Welte orchestrion (a self-playing pipe organ). The piece was sold to a collector when the original owners, The Zaharakos brothers, closed the parlour. Tony Moravec was determined to get the orchestron back, having grown up listening to it himself, and after months of negotiation was able to do so.
Today, you’ll find the orchestron lovingly resorted and sitting proudly in the main dining room. It might even play you a tune while you dine!
Now a National Historial Landmark, the parlour is the perfect place to have dinner with family or learn more about soda fountains – something I’d only ever seen in movies before my visit. If you do have a soda, be sure to try the lime flavoured Green River, a traditional favourite invented during the prohibition in Chicago.
Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlour and Museum
329 Washington Street
Columbus, Indiana USA
Naturally Beautiful Brown Country
Brown County is small. 15,000 people live in the entire county and the biggest city, Nashville, is home to just over 1,000. Don’t let that deter you. While it may not be full of big sights like sister cities Columbus and Bloomington, it still has its own unique vibe and is the gateway to some of the region’s most beautiful natural landscapes.
The area came to fame in the early twentieth century as a number of artists settled in the county, most notably the American Impressionist painter Theodore Clement Steel, better known as T. C. Steele. These artists helped form the Brown County Art Colony, known today as the Brown County Art Guild, and is how the region became to be known as the “Art Colony of the Midwest”.
As the entrance point to Brown County State Park – Indiana’s Largest State Park – and Hoosier National Forest, Brown County is best explored outdoors. One of the best times of year to visit is during the fall foliage. For the more adventurous, there are plenty of hiking, biking, kayaking or horse riding trails to be discovered.
Meet the artists inspired by regions natural beauty at the Brown County Art Gallery. The Gallery, celebrating 90 years in 2016, has over 400 paintings and artifacts by prominent Indiana artists as both part of their permanent collection and for sale.
Unlike your usual art galleries, local and visiting artists can work in the space. It’s a marvelous opportunity to speak to the painters and drawers about their stories, inspirations, and what they think is the best things to do in Nashville.
If you want to delve further into the County’s artistic heritage, stop by the T. C. Steele State Historic Site. As the first major artist to settle in Brown County, Steele was an important figure in helping establish the regions integrity for artists. Steele later became Indiana University’s first Artist in Residence but continued to spend summers in Brown County.
Guided tours of T. C. Steele’s studio, home, and gardens featuring displays of his work, are conducted year round.
You’ll spot community art and sculpture as you walk around town. The most famous would be the Soaring Leaf Sculpture by Jim Connor, based on Brown County’s iconic symbol, outside the Brown County Visitors Centre.
My favourite was a piece created by the local school during their welding class (pictured below). The piece, made from scrap metals, is a fun example of the creativity and personalities behind the county kids.
For an easy way to explore the town, take the Nashville Express. Running every 30 minutes, the train picks up passengers at Fearrin’s Ice Cream depot and select motels. The train will take you on a guided tour through Nashville, exploring the history, natural beauty and art around town.
Brown County Art Gallery
1 Artist Drive
Nashville, Indiana USA
While you are in Brown County, be sure to wander through Downtown Nashville. The town is small but quirky, filled with art, antique and speciality stores.
Built in 1886, the Olde Bartley House was originally the home of the local grocery store owner, Charley Gibson. Today, the grand home is a store specialising in American made home decor, and not that kitschy stuff you’ll want to throw out after two or three uses, but locally produced treasures you’ll keep for years.
Other stores worth stopping by include the Lawrence Family Glass Blowers, where you can watch the artists blowing the molten glass, Brown County Antique Mall, a family owned and operated business with over 7,000 square feet of ornaments, collectables and home decor to explore, or the Nashville Fudge Kitchen serving up home-made fudge and stocking old-fashioned candy and salt water taffy!
After a long day walking around the town, stop by the quirky Hillbilly Footwash. Rest your feet in barrel-style foot tubs with plunger cup holders and hillbilly hats – the perfect setting for a memorable Nashville photo. The sugar scrub will leave your feet feeling silky smooth and then sit back and let the massaging hillbilly balls work their magic.
For a treat that’s hard to beat, stop by the Millers Ice Cream House where you’ll find some of the best homemade ice cream I’ve had. Experience local flavours like Apple Butter, Butter Pecan, Peppermint Candy, Pumpkin Pie and Persimmon alongside traditional favourites.
Craft brews are a big deal in Brown County. The best place to taste them in Nashville is at Big Woods Brewery. What started as a passion for homebrewing grew and today the owners – Ed, Jeff and Tim – have created one of Indiana’s most well-known, and delicious, small batch beers.
If brewing is your passion, be sure to sign up for Beer School where you’ll learn the importance of ingredients and processes, tour the brewhouse and Hard Truth Distillery.
On site is a gourmet pub which serves both lunch and dinner. If you eat there you need to try Little Ricky’s Famous Ribs cooked inside the in-house smoker.
If pizza is more your style, the Big Woods Pizza is located next door to the brewery which is more of a family friendly option while still offering the freshest ingredients possible. Oh, and you’ll still be able to drink their signature brew, the Busted Knuckle Ale!
There’s really no better way to end a day – and your stay in Nashville – than with a cheeky drink at Big Woods Brewery!
Big Woods Brewery
60 Molly’s Lane
Nashville, Indiana USA
Feasts, Limestone and Contemporary Art in Bloomington
There’s more to Bloomington than being just a college town. A thriving arts scene, stunning limestone architecture on campus at Indiana University, and a blossoming food scene: there’s always something to see or do!
You might spot street art of Instagram Supercat Lil Bub while walking the B-Line Arts Trail, a converted railroad now used for walking and biking with plenty of public art along the way. Perhaps you want to hold an Oscar at the Lilly Library before having a drink – or two – and play the time honoured “Sink the Biz” at Nick’s English Hut.
Speaking of drinking, there’s plenty to be done. Explore Indiana’s oldest and longest running winery at Oliver Winery & Vineyard or tour craft distillery Cardinal Spirits known for making high-quality whisky, gin, vodka, rum, and liqueurs.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what you can do in Bloomington. For some of my favourites, check out my Quick Guide to Bloomington for more ideas on what to see, do, eat, drink and where to stay!
Now it’s over to you
Where was your most memorable road trip?
Wine or craft beer – which one is your first choice?
Let me know in the comments below! 🙂
Read more about Indiana:
I was in Southern Indiana for the TMS Bloomington Conference.
All thoughts and opinions are, as always, my own.