The city of Columbus lies around 40 miles south of Indianapolis and has a worldwide reputation for its mid-Century Modernist architecture.
In the 1950s the industrialist J. Irwin Miller set up a foundation in Columbus to pay the fees of architects who designed new public buildings in the city.
This has left Columbus with many Modernist masterpieces, some by Miller’s friend Eero Saarinen, the renowned designer of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
In downtown Columbus these works mingle with preserved Victorian storefronts and public art by the likes of Henry Moore and Jean Tinguely. Here, even every day street furniture, like the city’s bike racks, has a certain finesse.
1. City Tours
To appreciate Columbus’ Modernist landmarks and find out just how this small city in Indiana became a reference point for architecture, it’s well worth taking a tour.
These set off from the Columbus Area Visitors Center, and for an introduction you can take the Iconic Columbus Walking Tour (90 minutes) or the Architecture Highlights Tour (2 hours).
During the fall you’ll be in time for Exhibit Columbus, a cycle of programming dedicated to Columbus’ design legacy, producing exciting installations around the city.
You can learn more about this exhibition on the Exhibit Columbus Walking Tour, or by downloading the Exhibit Columbus Tour App.
And if you’d like to see Columbus at your own speed, the Explore the Architecture guide is available at the Visitors Center.
2. The Miller House and Garden
The leading patron of modern architecture in Columbus was the industrialist and philanthropist J. Irwin Miller (1909-2004).
Miller established the Cummins Foundation in 1954, which would pay the architects’ fees for all new public buildings in Columbus.
In 1953 he and his wife Xenia Simmons Miller commissioned their friend Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) to design their home by the Flatrock River in Columbus.
The result is one of the most significant mid-century Modernist residences in the country, with cutting-edge interior design by Alexander Girard (1907-1993) and landscape architecture by Dan Kiley (1912-2004).
The latter created a Modernist take on formal European garden design, with allées and gridded blocks of trees and hedges.
After Xenia Miller passed away in 2008 the Miller House was donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and you can visit for a 90-minute guided tour of this extraordinary residence and its garden.
3. Columbus Public Art Collection
Columbus has the quantity and quality of public art you might expect from a much larger city, to the extent that it’s worth tracking many of the pieces down on a self-guided tour.
Some essential stops to get you started are Large Arch by Henry Moore (next to the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library), Chaos I by Jean Tinguely (at the Commons) and Exploded Engine by Rudolph de Harak (at the Cummins Corporate Headquarters).
There are also three dazzling works by Dale Chihuly, two at the Columbus Area Visitors Center and one the Columbus Learning Center.
Downtown, on the 400 block between Washington and Jackson streets, is Friendship Way, a landscaped alley enhanced by an untitled neon sculpture by Cork Mareschi.
4. Downtown Columbus
Heightened by that spellbinding architecture and public art, downtown Columbus is a fine hangout, filled with restaurants, craft breweries, cafes, boutiques, galleries and shops.
With more than two dozen dining options, it’s no exaggeration to say that there’s something for all tastes.
A couple of veteran picks are the Columbus Bar, Indiana’s oldest bar and restaurant, dating back to 1939, and Zaharakos, an ice cream parlor that has been part of scenery for more than 120 years.
Mostly focussed on Washington Street is a contingent of independent shops for designer homewares, handmade gifts, jewelry, fashion accessories and sports equipment.
To get the background on downtown’s Victorian storefronts and Modernist landmarks you could download the Downtown Audio Tour app.
5. Columbus Area Visitors Center
With more than 80 notable buildings and a treasure trove of public art ready to be discovered, it makes sense to start your visit to Columbus at the visitors center, where you can arm yourself with everything you need to get the best out of the city.
This is where you can sign up for tours, and you can get help selecting the one that’s right for you. There are free videos to watch about Columbus and its unique story and a giant gift shop packed with Columbus-themed art, fashion, books, jewelry and more.
If you prefer to see Columbus at your own speed, you can get hold of maps and guides, as well as advice and inspiration from the center’s friendly staff.
Don’t leave without admiring Yellow Neon Chandelier and Persians, two works by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly from 1995.
6. Mill Race Park
Close to downtown on an oxbow in the Flatrock River, Mill Race Park has been recognized by Landscape Management as one of the top 100 parks in the country for design, accessibility and reputation.
This is all a far cry from the early 20th century when this piece of the floodplain, often under water, had a health and rodent problem, earning the nickname “Death Valley”.
Linked to downtown by the People Trails, the park’s current layout dates to a redesign by Michael Van Valkenburgh, with eye-catching structures by Stanley Saitowitz.
One of these is an observation tower, 84 feet tall. There’s a pair of man-made lakes, a covered bridge, a playground, an interpretive wetland boardwalk and an earthen amphitheater inspired by historic Native American earthworks in the region, and hosting summer concerts.
7. North Christian Church
Arguably the most notable single building in Columbus is this striking Modernist church, designed by Eero Saarinen and inaugurated in 1964.
With a hexagonal footprint, the North Christian Church has a central metal spire, 192 feet high. At the base of the tower is an oculus lighting the magnificent sanctuary, which has rows of pews centering on the Communion Table, directly underneath the tower.
This space was intended to kindle a sense of awe, using otherworldly natural lighting, set off by the dark slate floors and dark mahogany pews.
Another key part of Saarinen’s plan was to emphasize the role of the sanctuary as the most important part of the church, moving secondary spaces like an auditorium, meeting rooms, school and kitchen to a lower level.
8. First Christian Church
Even now, you can imagine the sensation that one of the country’s first contemporary-style churches caused when it was built in 1942.
Clad with brick and limestone, and featuring clear, floor-to-ceiling windows in the nave and chancel, The First Christian Church was designed by Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950).
The interior fittings like the furniture and light fixtures were the work of Eliel’s son, Eero, as well as Charles Eames.
Instead of trying to copy historic styles, Eliel chose this rectangular, International Modernist plan to embody the fundamentals of the Christian faith and try to unite the various denominations in Columbus.
The separate bell tower rises from the terrace to 166 feet, with a perforated section at the top where the organ chimes are broadcast.
Inside, above the choir, check out the 35 x 11.5-foot tapestry, designed by Eliel and produced by Scandinavian weavers under the direction of his wife, Loja.
9. The Commons
Based on a design by the Argentine architect César Pelli (1926-2019) is a class-clad, indoor community and event space for the city.
The Commons is a venue for concerts, exhibitions, lectures and gala events, but is also a day-to-day resource for residents and visitors.
One reason to step inside is to behold Jean Tinguely’s 30-ton kinetic sculpture, Chaos I (1974), in the lobby. This work is composed of local scrap metal and is designed to be erratic, sometimes with only a few elements working, and at other times in noisy full flow.
A family favorite at the Commons is the whimsical 5,000-square-foot indoor playground, containing the tree-like, 35-foot “Luckey Climber”, with interconnecting platforms all wrapped in netting.
Across the road from the Commons is a children’s museum with three floors of interactive exhibits smartly designed to introduce kids to scientific ideas and bring out their creativity.
Along those lines there’s a “pluckable” Laser Harp designed like Columbus’ Gateway Bridge, a genuine robotic arm that you can control, an art studio using recycled materials and ExploraHouse, where kids can learn about the functions of a modern home, including a gigantic toilet.
Apt for Columbus, City by Design is an intro to architecture and urban design, and Early Childhood Garden is a multisensory exhibit where kids can get to know the many sights and sounds of Indiana’s natural world.
11. People Trails
More than 27 miles and still growing, the People Trail system makes it easier to navigate Columbus on foot or by bicycle.
These paved paths are usually between 8 and 12 feet wide, and are separated from the street and closed to motor vehicles. Favored by many commuters on Columbus, the network is also a convenient way for visitors to experience almost all of the city’s assets.
You can use the trails for a walk or ride next to the Flatrock River and Haw Creek, pausing at one of several parks. These paths carry you past some of the city’s most eye-catching architecture and into attractive residential neighborhoods.
12. Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum
Not to be missed downtown is a historic ice cream parlor dating back to 1900. Zaharakos has served sundaes and sodas since 1900, and stepping inside is like entering a time warp.
The opulent Art Nouveau interior abounds with marble, carved oak, stained glass and intricate tin ceiling.
Of course this is somewhere to indulge in premium sweet treats, from home-made ice cream to old-fashioned fountain soda, but there’s also a lunch and dinner menu with burgers, sandwiches, soups and salads.
Take a moment to browse the museum, with rare artifacts including an orchestrion from the 1870s and the largest collection of pre-1900s marble soda fountains on public display.
13. Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum
Columbus Municipal Airport (CLU), just north of the city, is on the site of the WWII-era Atterbury Army Field.
That U.S. Army Air Forces facility later became a U.S. Air Force installation during the Cold War, and was the host base for the 434th Troop Carrier Wing up to 1969.
If you want to find out more about the airport’s military past there’s a museum in a building near the control tower.
This has free admission and presents an absorbing array of photographs, models, uniforms, footlockers, ground vehicles and aircraft components.
Close by, to mark the exact location of the former base there’s a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber on display.
14. Blue’s Canoe Livery
This outdoor recreation center a few minutes out of Columbus arranges unforgettable paddling trips on the picturesque Driftwood River.
The two main trips (seven miles and nine miles) involve a shuttle bus to the departure point and you’ll float back to the livery, taking between three and six hours.
The nine-mile option is the most popular, as the first part of this trip takes you through a remote state wildlife preserve and a piece of the Camp Atterbury wilderness area.
On this stretch you may catch sight of beavers, great blue herons, deer, wild turkey and ospreys. You can rent solo and tandem kayaks and canoes, and there are campsites, suitable for tents, at the livery.
15. Donner Park
North of downtown Columbus is the city’s oldest park, dating back more than a century and connected to the People Trails.
The appeal of Donner Park is undeniable in summer because of the Aquatic Center, featuring an eight-lane, 50 meter pool, a leisure pool with fountains and a play structure, as well as a diving well and water slide 20 feet high and 160 feet long.
The Donner Center houses the parks & recreation administration offices, and offers room rentals for events and meetings. Elsewhere in the park are barbecue areas, tennis courts, a playground, picnic tables, pickleball courts and tennis courts.