Chances are, if you’re not from Columbus, Indiana, you’ve never heard of J. Irwin Miller.
It’s time I fixed that.
His company, Cummins, built diesel engines. They still do. Trucks, buses, tractors, and even cranes and drilling rigs use or have used Cummins’ diesel engines get the day’s work done. It was – no, is – America’s motor. I don’t know about now, but when Miller ran the company after World War II, Cummins didn’t check the engines just once. No, they took it apart, analyzed each part, put the motor back together, and tested it again.
Because Miller demanded excellence. He knew his engines were a reflection of him, and he stood for greatness. If you run a sweatshop that puts out disposable plastic toys, then that’s who you are: a person that abuses other people and fills the world with junk. Cummins engines ran, and ran for a long time.
But Miller was about more than engines.
He was an honorary member of the Diesel Workers Union. He helped out Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. He had Cummins pay world famous architects to design public buildings.
In fact, if you’ve heard of Columbus, Indiana, it’s probably because of the architecture. Before Miller, Columbus was a small town with a quaint main street a ways off the railroad stop. It was charming, but unremarkable.
That changed when Miller formed the The Cummins Foundation. Legendary names like Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pie were commissioned pro bono to design the city’s new churches and schools. He believed our environment influences our mindset, and he had a forward-thinking city forged out of brick, metal, steel, cement, and glass.
The results were infectious.
Open spaces. Simple shapes. Unpretentiousness. Those were the goals, executed to perfection in the glass jewelry box design of the Republic Newspaper Building, in the way speakers and analog clock on the First Christian Church’s mammoth brick tower replaced the bells of old. If you wanted banks that looked like Roman temples and churches that mimicked the Vatican, you could live in Detroit. This was the world of tomorrow.
“The future of Columbus depends on the attitudes of its people,” Miller told Architectural Forum. He was a stern-faced, serious man, but his big round glasses softened him up a bit somehow, made him look kind and understanding. “The impact of these buildings on them is subtle; it may take 100 years to show.”
It didn’t take that long. You can tell, just driving around Columbus, that this town has an unusual sense of pride. In the age of the disposable, Columbus builds to last.
Miller in his Saarinen designed house, wearing one of his trademark dark suits.
“Whether it’s architecture – or cooking, or drama, or music – the best is none too good for any of us.”