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Architecture put this town on the map
Deep in the belly of Indiana off Interstate Highway 65 pops out a marvel of a town molded by eminent architects.
It was hard-core industry, specifically diesel engine manufacturing, that helped put this town on the map. That, along with invention and ingenuity.
In Columbus, schools, churches, parks, libraries, even golf courses are all the work of celebrated names. These names -- including Cesar Pelli, I.M. Pei and Harry Weese -- have also left their imprints on such landmarks as the World Financial Center in New York City, the Louvre in Paris and the Time-Life Building in Chicago.
The difference is that Columbus is a mere town of 37,000 folks.
The name instrumental in giving the town a boost is Clessie Cummins. He is credited with fine-tuning the German-invented diesel engine, which paid off both economically and, eventually, architecturally for Columbus. In 1919, Cummins Engine Co. set up its headquarters in town, growing into the world's largest independent manufacturer of diesel engines, employing 28,500 worldwide.
The crusade to bring in architectural talent took shape in 1957 under J. Irwin Miller, general manager of Cummins Engine at the time. The deal was simple: The company offered to cover design costs for much needed public schools -- as long as it was able to approve the architect selection.
For Cummins, what began with the Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School, designed by Chicago's Weese, who was an indelible force in shaping a chunk of the Windy City's skyline, still continues today. Thus far, more than 30 buildings and additions, ranging from schools to the post office to city hall, have been constructed under the Cummins Engine Foundation Architecture Program. Many of them are part of the architectural tour my boyfriend and I took while on our three-day weekend getaway to Columbus.
While getting here from Chicago may be a bit of a drive -- we clocked about four hours with traffic -- once downtown, you can ditch driving, as many of Columbus' main sights are within walking distance.
We chose lodging downtown in the historic Columbus Inn, a bed-and-breakfast that used to serve as City Hall. The Romanesque revival inn was built in 1895 and still has its intricate tin ceiling and 10-foot-tall Federal-style windows throughout. Our corner room, it turned out, was many a former mayor's office.
The inn is also conveniently located near the Columbus Visitors Center, which conducts architectural tours March through November. Call ahead to make reservations as space fills up mighty fast. The center also showcases the works of glass artist Dale Chihuly. Peer upstairs at the fiery "Yellow Neon Chandelier," a 1,200-pound, nine-foot-long light composed of 900 pieces of hand-blown glass with 50 feet of neon tubing.
The Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, crafted by Pei in 1969, was a starting point on our tour. Its large plaza houses a Henry Moore sculpture titled "Large Arch."
About a dozen schools boasting Weese, Richard Meier and Gunnar Birkerts as their designers are on the route as is Pelli's The Commons, a public playground that houses a mall, eateries and the Indianapolis Museum of Art Columbus Gallery.
The private sector, too, has been behind such works in town, including the First Christian Church designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen in 1942. It is considered to be one of the first churches of contemporary architecture in the United States.
So impressive are the buildings here that, in 1991, Columbus was voted sixth for design and innovation among United States cities in an American Institute of Architects reader survey. (Chicago ranked first.) Columbus still retains its sixth-place crown and is ranked fourth in the nation after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago in the number of buildings designed by famous architects.
One of the few non-buildings on our tour was Mill Race Park, an 85-acre riverfront oasis that once was a flood plain and a shanty town in the '70s. The ultramodern Stanley Saitowitz-designed restrooms seemed to stir up a lot of attention on the tour for their clever interchangeable M and W signs, but the park's most impressive feature is manmade Round Lake.
Take the two-hour tour (one hour tours are also offered) if you want to see the North Christian Church designed in 1964 by Eero Saarinen, the son of Eliel Saarinen. It's worth the wait. Hidden among groves of magnolia trees is a startling circular church topped with a 192-foot spire. It's also one of the only buildings on the tour that you'll actually enter. Note that Saturday afternoon and Sunday tour groups won't be able to enter the church at all.
For a quick architecture fix, walk down 5th Street. Locals call it the "arch axis," since it is lined with works by many of the famous architects featured on the tour. Also on the strip is the immaculate Irwin Home and Gardens. The gardens are open to the public April through September.
Not every nook and cranny of the town has been awarded a modern touch, and thankfully so. Older centerpieces in Columbus include the Bartholomew County Courthouse. Arvin Industries, a huge auto parts manufacturer in town, has a glorious turn-of-the-century schoolhouse that was renovated for its headquarters.
In our personal guide book, "tea time" and "tee time" are also well on the way to making Columbus famous. The combination actually turned out to make for a pleasant weekend afternoon. Before hitting one of six golf courses around town, we first visited The Columbus Inn's British-style tea room, heralded by locals as "the best tea room this side of the Atlantic."
"You won't find bagels and muffins accompanying your tea here," said proprietor Lalith Paranavitana, "That's definitely not authentic," he said.
Paranavitana, a native of Sri Lanka who used to run a tea plantation there, now imports teas from his country, specifically an impeccable Ceylon. A box of his tea, named Guy's Teas after his late father, runs about $3 and comes in a keepsake wooden box.
We tried the grandest service of them all -- high tea -- which includes a pot of your choice accompanied by a platter full of finger sandwiches followed by an array of desserts. The eats -- at $10 a person -- were enough to substitute for lunch.
And it was enough to take us through nine holes of golf. On the green, the masters of design worldwide are duo Robert Trent Jones and his son Rees Jones.
Here, the Joneses shaped Otter Creek, a 27-hole championship public golf course. The course, which winds through 300 acres of hilly terrain and more than 3,000 trees, is ranked among the top 25 public courses in the United States by Golf Digest magazine. The fairways are Jones' trademark bent grass. The bunkers are filled with nothing less than white sand imported from North Carolina.
True golfers will want to play more than nine holes; the elder Jones supposedly called the 13th hole one of the best he ever designed, dubbing it "Alcatraz," a 185-yard, par 3, with its green on an island.
Locals call Columbus a "tenderloin town," and if it's not tenderloin it's rib-eye, sirloin or T-bone.
Rib-eye, specifically 18-ounce rib-eye, is the specialty at Smith's Row Food & Spirits, a newer establishment. Smith's wine list includes 80 different reds and whites. Don't be shy about asking to taste the wines offered by the glass. Our waitress suggested it and brought us servings that were above generous.
Restaurant manager and native Lance Stacy recommended the Californian Gundlach-Bunschu Merlot and Far Niente Chardonnay, two wines we indulged in while the rest of the town slept. Columbus dies after dark; when all the shops on the main drag, Washington Street, close their curtains, so does the town. The few bars in the area stay open until about midnight.
Plus, the wine suggestions were so good that we that we ended up grilling Stacy on some town tidbits.
Best place for coffee and espresso drinks: The Daily Ritual on Washington Street; best bar: The Columbus Bar on 4th Street, which has a succulent fish sandwich special on Fridays; best small town secret: Zaharako's Confectionary, and ice cream parlor on Washington Street, built in 1900 and still with a working pipe organ; and best side trip: Story, Ind.
Before heading home, we decided to juxtapose our Columbus stay by venturing off the beaten path to Story, a village of 10 that is devoid of modern architecture and reeks of ghost stories.
The hilly 20-mile drive there takes a bit of braving the blacktop; the road (Indiana Highway 46 to Indiana Highway 135), lined with cattle farms, dilapidated barns and clapboard churches, is extremely lithe and curly.
If you make it there, Story's former general store, which is now the Story Inn and Restaurant, is a hearty stop for lunch before the drive home. And why not mill about a little longer and see if the rumors are true: Guests say the upstairs of the inn is inhabited by a ghost (or two).
THE BOTTOM LINE
Weekend expenses for two
Lodging (two nights)........ $220
Tours and entertainment ..... $43
Gas, tolls .................. $50
Total ...................... $488
IF YOU GO
Columbus is about 230 miles from Chicago. Take Interstate Highway 90 East via the Chicago Skyway to Interstate Highway 65 South. Just before Indianapolis, take the Interstate Highway 465 South bypass around Indianapolis and then back onto Interstate 65 South. Then, exit Indiana Highway 46 West to Columbus. This route, which is the fastest, takes you right to downtown Columbus.
Here are four eateries and watering holes:
Smith's Row Food & Spirits (418 4th St.) offers good food at moderate prices. Try the house favorites: Pork chop ($16.95) or rib-eye ($23.95). Crabmeat au gratin is to rave for too. The sizable wine selection, spanning California to South Africa to Australia, includes a surprisingly cheap and well-liked Greg Norman Chardonnay and Merlot for about $28 a bottle. Reservations usually not needed.
The Columbus Inn Tea Room (445 5th St.; www.guystea.com) is an authentic British-style tea room in the basement of the Columbus Inn. Sri Lankan owner Lalith Paranavitana specializes in Ceylon tea and a namesake Columbus Breakfast Tea. High tea ($9.95) includes choice of tea and a platter of finger sandwiches from roast beef to cucumber and desserts from lemon cake to chocolate torte.
The Columbus Bar (322 4th St.) is a downtown pub with a corner sports bar feel. Locals come here to watch games on TV and chow down. The Friday Alaskan whitefish and chips ($4.95) is a fave as is the hungry-man size fish dinner ($6.95) that comes with a baked potato and salad.
Zaharako's Confectionary (329 Washington St.) is a turn-of-the-century ice cream parlor that still has its original marble, onyx and stained glass soda fountain. In addition to its German concert pipe organ, locals dig the sundaes topped with homemade fudge and the Cheese-br-ger sandwich, which is not a hamburger but grilled cheese with meat sauce.
While accommodations are somewhat sparse right in downtown Columbus, there is a strip of hotels off Interstate 65 on the outskirts of town.
Columbus Inn bed-and-breakfast (445 5th St.; 812-378-4289) is the former City Hall now converted into 34 elegant rooms dressed in vintage pieces. Five loft-like suites, some with kitchenettes, are also available. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Full buffet breakfast included, $90-$190. Senior citizen discounts.
Ruddick-Nugent House (1210 16th St.; 800-814-7478; www.ruddick-nugent-house.com) is an 1884 Victorian house converted to Colonial Revival in 1924. It houses four guest rooms. The grounds occupies an entire city block. Includes breakfast in the formal dining room, $65-$95. Smoke-free and alcohol-free facility.
The following accommodations are about 20 miles from Columbus and offer a more secluded stay.
Story Inn and Restaurant (6404 S. State Rd. 135, Story; 800-881-1183; www.storyinn.com) is for those who seek the spirit of a bygone era. The building was a general store in the 1800s and still has its potbelly stove and cracker barrel; on the porch are Red and Gold Crown gas pumps. Doubles, suites and cottages, $87.25-$125.75. Note: In keeping with the turn-of-the-century theme, rooms do not have a phone or television. The downstairs restaurant, adorned with apothecary bottles and other antiques, serves gourmet cuisine. Try the warm artichoke dip -- big enough for two.
The Artist's Colony Inn & Restaurant (Franklin and Van Buren Streets, Nashville, Ind. 800-737 0255; www.artistscolonyinn.com) was built as a tribute to the area's art community that flourished at the turn of the century. The 20 rooms, some with balconies, are outfitted in furnishings created by local craftsmen. Each pays homage to a famous Brown County artist such as painter Theodore Clementine Steele. Try to get one of three suites with a whirlpool tub near the live-in artist's studio. Casual restaurant, $70-$220. Check the Web site for Internet specials.
Mill Race Park (5th Street and Lindsey Street) is a riverfront park with an 84-foot viewing tower, covered bridge, two lakes and performing arts amphitheater.
The park's most popular events are July's Columbus Scottish Festival (the 15th and 16th this year) complete with Highland Dancers and a sheepdog herding competition; and September's Chautauqua of the Arts festival (the 16th and 17th), which includes works by stained glass and wood sculpture artists from the surrounding areas.
Otter Creek Golf Course (11522 E. 50 N.) is 4 miles east of Columbus. The championship golf course is Indiana's No. 1 public course. It gets busy here, so reserve your tee times for both weekends as well as weekdays in advance at 812-579-5227. Pro shop, snack bar, practice range.
Brown County State Park in nearby Nashville, Ind., is the state's largest park and draws crowds, especially in autumn when gorgeous hues hit the hilly countryside. The nearly 16,000-acre facility has a nature preserve and an array of hiking trails as well as camping, fishing, hiking and horseback riding. 812-988-6406; www.browncountystatepark.com. The Web site contains many links to area attractions and accommodations.
The downtown Columbus Visitor's Center (506 5th St., 800-468-6564) has a wealth of information on the history of the town as well as upcoming events. Pick up a free city map in the gift shop. The center gives guided architectural bus and walking tours March through November. Visit its Web site at www.columbus.in.us, where you can sign up to go on a tour and print out a tour map. Send e-mail inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Nashville's Web site at www.nashvilleindiana.com contains a wealth of information, including an overview of the historic Hoosier artists colony.