Columbus, just under 50 miles south of Indianapolis, was founded at about the same time as the state capital but did not develop as quickly. Joseph Ireland Irwin’s establishment in 1850 of a general store came near the beginning of a business dynasty that would grow to include banking, agricultural milling, and transportation networks, a foundation on which his son, William G. Irwin, would establish and support the Cummins Engine Company. Founded in 1919, the firm was named for Clessie Cummins, the Irwin family’s sometime chauffeur, a self-taught engineer and inventor who was convinced that the diesel engine’s potential for economy and durability would be fully realized if he could conquer some persistent and maddening technical problems. Cummins was correct, but his faith would be tested through years of unprofitability, and it would be William Irwin’s grand-nephew, J. Irwin Miller, who would lead Cummins to its position at the forefront of diesel engine manufacturing. The company’s success—and Irwin Miller’s interest in architecture—have left their lasting stamp on Columbus and surrounding communities.
Columbus grew rapidly in the years following World War II. In 1954, spurred by a desire to improve public schools in order to increase Cummins’ ability to recruit and retain employees, Miller established the Cummins Engine Foundation. Its purpose was to attract outstanding, young architectural talent to design a school in the small central Indiana community. The success of this project prompted a broadening of the program’s mission to include public buildings of all kinds in the county.
Today, Columbus is ranked sixth in the nation by the American Institute of Architects for architectural innovation and design. National Geographic Traveler ranked Columbus as America’s most significant historic place on the strength of its architectural heritage. There are more than 70 buildings by noted modern architects—such as I. M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, John Carl Warnecke and Harry Weese—in the city, as well as public art works by internationally renowned architects and artists.