Indiana: Columbus Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The capital of Bartholomew County, Columbus had a population of 31,802 in 1990. The principal employers are the Cummins Engine Company (diesel engines), Arvin Industries (automotive parts, metal laminates), and Cosco, Incorporated (furniture and housewares). The city is best known for its architecture.

Site Office

Bartholomew County Historical Society

524 Third Street

Columbus, IN 47201

ph.: (812) 372-3541

The history of Columbus, Indiana, is similar to that of many other midwestern towns. The original village was founded during the westward drive of the nineteenth century. Columbus is organized according to the U.S. surveyors’ grid plan, and its streets bear the names of the U.S. presidents. Given this rather typical profile, it may be surprising to learn that the American Institute of Architects rated Columbus sixth in the United States for the design quality and innovation of its buildings. Because of its citizens’ dedication to architecture, Columbus is not only a typical midwestern town but also a historical place visited by thousands of tourists every year.

Early History

The area surrounding Columbus was covered with forests and inhabited by the Delaware Indians when Generals John Tipton and Joseph Bartholomew arrived in 1813 to put down an Indian uprising. Soon after, some of the first white settlers, including Joseph Cox and his family, arrived from Kentucky to live in the area. Official notice was taken of the area a few years later when the question of a state capital arose; General Tipton and General Bartholomew, impressed by the natural beauty of the countryside, suggested the site that would become Columbus. Although the capital would ultimately be located in Indianapolis, the state legislature conferred the status of county on the Columbus area on January 12, 1821. When a seat for the county was chosen, it seemed logical to name it Tiptona after the general. When political problems arose between Tipton and the new county commissioners, the name was changed to Columbus and an angry Tipton left the town for good.

The citizens of Columbus petitioned for incorporation of the town in 1835, but they did not receive it until 1837. Columbus was not made a city until 1864. By this time, however, the town and its surroundings were already prospering. Settlers were attracted to the fertile ground they found at the meeting of the Driftwood, Flatrock, Hawcreek, and Hawpatch Rivers. The early 1820’s saw the emergence of several gristmills, sawmills, woolen mills, and distilleries, all of which encouraged the flatboat trade with places as far south as New Orleans.

At first, education in Bartholomew County was limited to meetings between students and teachers in private homes. Then the Liberty School and Meeting House was created in 1829. The public school system was founded in 1851, and higher education was available at Hartsville College and the Moravian Center for Young Ladies.

Arrival of the Railroad

The arrival of the first railroad in 1844 ushered in a new era of prosperity for the region. Many lines were built connecting Columbus to other parts of Indiana. As a result of the increasing importance of the area, the Kentucky Stock Bank was established in 1853. Even the Civil War contributed to the success of the region. The nearby Camp Rendezvous was a center for troops and supplies and thus fueled the local economy.

This economy was seriously damaged, though, with the failure of the McEwan and Sons Bank in 1871. Its successor, Irwin’s Bank, would become the Irwin Union Trust Company, an important institution in Columbus to this day.

The first sign of modern industry was the Hoosier Boy Plow Company, which arrived in 1875. Heavier industry came with Cummins, Arvin, and Cosco, firms which now employ more than ten thousand people.

Cummins Engine Company has played a large part in transforming Columbus into the center of art that it is. Through the joint efforts of Cummins and J. Irwin Miller, the chairman of the board of the Irwin Bank, and through the efforts of those who have followed in their path, Columbus now boasts of buildings designed by the Saarinens, I. M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, and Harry Weese.

Unique Architecture

The town’s architectural daring originated with the decision by the community of the First Christian Church to hire modernist architect Eliel Saarinen to build its new church. The community thus made a daring choice for modernism, an ideological and cultural movement expressed in architecture through such elements as rectilinear design and the use of glass, steel, and concrete. Despite the occasional harshness of modernist architecture, Saarinen’s church emphasizes harmony. A founder and teacher at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Saarinen helped shape its humanistic interpretation of modernism. In fact, Saarinen was chosen over Frank Lloyd Wright by the Columbus church because of Saarinen’s belief in adaptation rather than domination. Because collaboration and personal expression were also important to Saarinen, the church’s design includes contributions from his wife (the tapestry of the “Sermon on the Mount”) and from his son Eero who, with Charles Eames, designed the furniture. The overwhelming impression of the church, dedicated in 1942, is one of power tempered by the warmth of a spiritual community.

Soon afterward, J. Irwin Miller called upon Eero Saarinen to design the new Irwin Union Bank, one of the first banks ever to be built in glass with an open plan. The influence of the Bauhaus movement, brought to Chicago by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is clear in the bank’s design. In 1957, Saarinen worked again for the Millers to design their home in Columbus. Balthazar Korab, who worked as an architect under Eero Saarinen, describes the house: “Subtle use of light, the white and marble and travertine contrasted with Girard’s [the interior designer] rich, colorful textures and Kiley’s [the landscape architect] formal landscaping makes this a serenely classical home.” Thus, J. Irwin Miller’s dedication to modernist architecture was already firmly established when he decided to seize upon an opportunity to bring modernism to the whole town.

Experiments in Education

Postwar prosperity required the building of new schools in Columbus. Miller suggested that these schools be designed by well-known and respected architects. To accomplish his goal, he enlisted the aid of the Cummins Engine Company, which agreed to pay the architect’s fees provided that the community would choose from a list of top-notch architects drawn up by Cummins.

The first school to come out of this experiment was the Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School, designed in 1957 by Harry Weese. The school is surprising in its discreetness. The low ceilings of its classrooms blend superbly with the surrounding residential neighborhood. Weese’s contribution to Columbus’s profile is indeed substantial. Along with the Schmitt school, he designed the Lincoln Center (1958), the Northside Middle School(1961), the Otter Creek Clubhouse (1964), and the First Baptist Church (1965), among other buildings.

Postmodern School Architecture

In his book Columbus, Indiana, Korab posits some postmodernist elements in Weese’s work. Postmodernism in architecture relies, in part, on “quoting” from the history of architecture as well as from the surroundings of the building being designed. Weese’s incipient postmodernism seems clear in the design of the Otter Creek Clubhouse, which is modernist in shape but, built of local timber, blends in with the surroundings. Another example of his postmodernist tendencies is the First Baptist Church, which has been described as romanesque. Whatever label one might apply, Weese’s buildings continue, but expand, Saarinen’s tradition of harmony and adaptation.

Several other schools were to come out of the Cummins program. Among the architects who participated were John Carl Warnecke (Mabel McDowell Adult Education Center, 1960), Norman Fletcher (Parkside Elementary School, 1962), Edward Larrabee Barnes (W. D. Richards Elementary School, 1965), Gunmar Birkerts (Lincoln Elementary School, 1967), John M. Johansen (L. Frances Smith Elementary School, 1969), Eliot Noyes (Southside Elementary School 1969), Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer (Mount Healthy Elementary School, 1972), Mitchell-Giurgola (Columbus East High School, 1972), Paul Kennon and Truitt Garrison (Fodrea Community School, 1973), and Richard Meier (Clifty Creek Elementary School, 1982). The Fodrea School is particularly interesting; the parents and the students contributed to the design. This participation is but one indication of the involvement of Columbus’s citizens in the aesthetic development of their town.

The list of impressive architecture goes far beyond the school system. Eero Saarinen made another important contribution to Columbus with his Northside Christian Church. Similar to the preparations for the Fodrea School, the preparations for this church involved communication between the architect and the church community. While he was working on the design, he wrote to the members, stating that he wanted to make a great building “so that as an architect when I face St. Peter I am able to say that out of the buildings I did during my lifetime, one of the best was this little church.” Tragically, Saarinen died before his church was completed.

Other Architectural Projects

Aside from its commissioning of schools, Cummins Engine Company is responsible for several other architectural projects. Within the context of Cummins’s own facilities there are the Walesboro plant, the Technical Center (designed by Harry Weese in 1968), and the company’s new headquarters. Each of these buildings received thoughtful attention. When designing the corporate headquarters in the early 1980’s, Kevin Roche took several issues into consideration: a desire to incorporate the landscape, a desire to adopt a monument from the past (the Cerealine Building), and a desire to keep the headquarters downtown to stimulate life at the center of town. In a small town with daring projects, such careful consideration protects Columbus from a feeling of artificiality.

Other famous architects have worked in Columbus. I. M. Pei lent his famous skills to the design of the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library in 1969. Roche convinced the U.S. Postal Service to depart from its standard design pattern so that he could create the Columbus Post Office with its colonnade in 1970. In 1971, Myron Goldsmith designed the headquarters for the local newspaper, the Republic. The building has glass walls that allow a view of the printing presses. In an article for the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin described the experience of seeing it: “When the press runs, it resembles kinetic sculpture, great gobs of newsprint spinning through the yellow machine, emerging black and white.” Perhaps one of the most outstanding buildings of the town, in both its design and its location, is the Commons-Courthouse complex created by Cesar Pelli in 1973; it is a combination shopping mall and community center, and it includes a motion-picture theater, a restaurant, an art gallery, and a playground. The whole provides an interesting but not shocking contrast to the Victorian buildings of downtown Columbus.

Attention to aesthetics has not been limited to new buildings in the history of Columbus. Renovation has also played an important part. The town decided that the older elements had to keep pace with the innovative architecture. Among the buildings that were restored are Franklin Square, the Visitors’ Center, and the old Irwin Bank.


Modernist sculpture has also left its mark on Columbus. One of the outstanding examples is the Large Arch created by Henry Moore in 1971. The sculpture, which weighs five and one-half tons, is located in the same square as I. M. Pei’s library. Jean Tinguely contributed Chaos 1 to the Commons in 1974. It is described by Balthazar Korab as a “magical kinetic sculpture” and delighted the public immediately upon its unveiling. Other artists who have designed pieces for local buildings include Ivan Chermayeff, Harris Barron, Alexander Girard, Robert Indiana, and Constantino Nivola.

Amid overall admiration, a dissenting voice is to be heard from Blair Kamin. While respecting Columbus as a whole, he is critical of the town’s more recent developments. For instance, he finds the City Hall (designed by Charles Bassett in 1981) out of touch with a relatively small community. According to Kamin, the design record is uneven. He attributes its unevenness to conservative clients who are hesitant to place their faith in rising architectural talents and to the declining influence of J. Irwin Miller.


It is important to note certain other features of modern-day Columbus that could be overshadowed by the impressive architecture. Several museums are located in the area, including a branch of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The Bartholomew Historical Society operates a historical museum and sponsors tours of selected local homes. The town also supports an orchestra and a theater. Outdoor activities abound, and the town is only sixteen miles from Brown County State Park.

What is most remarkable about Columbus is that such a small town can contain so much impressive architecture without losing its own character. This distinctiveness comes from the residents’ dedication to the project and to the fact that it extends to every facet of their community. Also, the plan has received excellent guidance and support. A sign that Columbus is keeping up with the changing face of architecture, postmodernism is gaining ground. Like its residents, the town is changing and growing.

For Further Information
  • Akerson, Alan W. “Columbus, Indiana: An Architectural Treasure Trove.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat Sunday Magazine, June 3, 1979. Older, but still worth consulting.
  • Bartholomew County Historical Society. History of Bartholomew County–1888. Columbus, Ind.: Bartholomew County Historical Society, 1976. A complete history of the town itself.
  • Columbus Area Visitors Center. A Look at Architecture: Columbus, Indiana. 7th ed. Columbus, Ind.: Author, 1998. An architectural guidebook.
  • Jeffery, David. “A Most Uncommon Town.” National Geographic, September, 1978. Another older piece that is worth consulting.
  • Kamin, Blair. “Exploring Columbus.” Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1993. One of the most up-to-date discussions of the town’s recent architecture.
  • Korab, Balthazar. Columbus, Indiana. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Documan Press, 1989. One of the best, most beautifully illustrated books on the city’s architecture. Korab worked as an architect under Eero Saarinen.
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