Before he helped bring the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen to his hometown to design one of the first contemporary churches in America; before he commissioned Eliel's son, Eero, to design an elegant midcentury modern house for his young family; and before he turned Columbus, Ind., into a living museum of striking 20th-century modern architecture, J. Irwin Miller lived in a large 19th-century house that could not have been more of a contrast to the Modernist buildings that have put this rural city on the map.
The Italianate brick Irwin-Sweeney-Miller House in which Mr. Miller grew up, built by his great-grandfather Joseph I. Irwin in 1864, is now a bed-and-breakfast called the Inn at Irwin Gardens (608 Fifth Street, 812-376-3663, irwingardens.com). Spending the night there, as my husband and I and several friends did last fall, is a physical immersion (with comfortable beds, chocolates on pillows and thick towels) into the contrasts and diversity that is Columbus.
Unless you are an architecture buff, when you think of Columbus, you are more likely to think of Ohio's capital, Columbus, not of a southern Indiana city ranked sixth among the nation's cities in 1991 for its architectural innovation and design by the American Institute of Architects.
For years the Columbus Area Visitors Center has offered bus tours of the city's innovative public buildings (the Visitors Center lists some 70 structures as "noteworthy"), many designed by a litany of important American architects: I. M. Pei, Harry Weese, Robert A. M. Stern, Richard Meier, Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli and others.
More recently, visitors can experience the architectural gems of this city of about 44,000 residents in two additional ways -- by staying at the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller House and by touring the white, marble and glass house, completed in 1957, that Eero Saarinen built for J. Irwin and Xenia Miller.
At the inn, heavily Victorian with paneled walls and Oriental rugs, some furnishings date back to when it was the family's home. On a small table in the hall off the library is an October 1967 issue of Esquire Magazine with J. Irwin Miller's photograph on the cover under the headline: "This man ought to be the next president of the United States." (Instead, Mr. Miller helped persuade Nelson Rockefeller to run.)
It was, in fact, J. Irwin Miller, scion of the Irwin-Miller family and arts patron, who transformed Columbus into an architectural mecca. As head of the Cummins Engine Company for 30 years, Mr. Miller reasoned that extraordinary buildings would help Cummins lure top talent to the rural Midwest. (The company was founded in 1919 by Clessie Cummins, the former driver and mechanic of William Irwin, with money put up by Mr. Irwin, J. Irwin Miller's great-uncle.)
J. Irwin Miller, who studied at Yale and Oxford, persuaded Eliel Saarinen to build a startlingly modern church, First Christian Church (formerly known as the Tabernacle Church of Christ), dedicated in 1942. Next came a new headquarters for the Irwin Union Bank, designed by Eero Saarinen. In 1957, the Cummins Engine Foundation began paying architectural fees for new schools and public buildings if distinguished architects were chosen from the foundation's list. This in turn influenced the design of other Columbus buildings.
The surprise that is Columbus often appears suddenly, interspersed among old buildings and houses. Some Modernist buildings are stark and sleek, others playful. Though many are concentrated in the historic downtown area, others like the angular or flat-roofed brick-and-glass elementary schools are scattered on the town's outskirts.
I. M. Pei's low, red-brick library on Fifth Street is just down the street and around the corner from the 139-year-old Bartholomew County Courthouse. A short walk from the courthouse is Paul Kennon's AT&T Switching Station, with red, blue and yellow curved tubular sections resembling giant, colorful crayons. A few blocks away is Kevin Roche's low, glass-walled Cummins Corporate Headquarters building with vine-covered trellises. A half-moon of glass is the three-story Columbus City Hall designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, also in the center of town.
On the eastern fringe of Columbus, Richard Meier's two-toned, white-and-gray Clifty Creek Elementary School is carved into a gentle slope. On the north side of the city is Cesar Pelli's Advanced Manufacturing Center -- long, low and functional, with exposed white structural columns. Back closer in town, the Columbus Regional Hospital, a beige brick structure with a green clay tile roof with renovations by Robert A. M. Stern, has a horizontal Prairie School feel, both inside and out.
In 1953, Mr. Miller and his wife had commissioned Eero Saarinen to design a new home for their growing family. This Miller House, considered to be one of the five most important midcentury modern houses still standing in the United States, was given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art after the couple's deaths. Irwin Miller died in 2004, Xenia in 2008. Now touring of the house is allowed twice daily, but only with small group tours arranged through the Visitors Center (506 Fifth Street, 800-468-6564, columbus.in.us).
Our party of eight, with $20 tickets reserved more than a month in advance, climbed into the van at the Visitors Center. After a five-minute drive, we pulled into the 13.5-acre property to view the work of Saarinen (and the principal design associate Kevin Roche), the interior designer Alexander Girard and the landscape architect Dan Kiley.
In the front entrance, past a small Eames settee, a large panel was strategically placed to initially conceal the living room. Once past the panel, though, we saw the room's iconic conversation pit with its riot of fuchsia, crimson and pink pillows. ("Stay on the runners, please," instructed our guide.)
Near the living room's grand piano is a sleek contemporary music stand, as if ready for an informal musicale. The white walls were a perfect foil for the Millers' colorful folk art and dazzling art collection that at one point included a Monet painting of waterlilies, which sold at auction for $80.45 million in 2008. Though much of the Millers' art and some of the furniture has been sold or reclaimed by family members, visitors still can see many of the original furnishings and collections.
After about an hour the Miller House tour was over and we were back at the Visitors Center, itself housed in a remodeled 1864 house. It sits next door to the I. M. Pei library and across the street from Eliel Saarinen's church. We had come full circle in this remarkable town.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.