Chances are, if you’re not from Columbus, Indiana, you’ve never heard of J. (short for Joseph) Irwin Miller. And you're probably not from Columbus, Indiana. The county seat of Bartholomew County, it's home to just 45,000 souls. The entire Columbus metropolitan area numbers just 75,000 people. That makes it only the third biggest Metropolitan Columbus in the U.S., behind Columbus, Ohio and Columbus, Georgia.
But you should know about J. Irwin Miller.
Let's start with his company, Cummins. They built diesel engines. They still do, in fact. Trucks, buses, tractors, and even cranes and drilling rigs use or have used Cummins’ diesel engines to get the job done and done well. It was – no, is – America’s motor. I don’t know about now, but when Miller took over the family business following 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 was a perfectionist. He knew his engines were a reflection of him, and he knew what he stood for. Something. Cummins engines ran, and ran for a long time. You could depend on 'em.
Of course, Miller was about more than engines. If he wasn't, I doubt I'd have written this or that you'd be reading it.
For starters, he was an honorary member of the Diesel Workers Union and was renowned for his close relationship with his workers. Employees respected him. Unlike some CEOs, he didn't want to run sweatshops. He believed in community, in the brotherhood of man. He aided Martin Luther King, Jr’s March on Washington. He was a Christian first, a businessman second.
In what was perhaps Miller's most enduring act, he had Cummins pay world famous architects to design public buildings in Columbus. He wanted Columbus to have the best schools, churches, and commercial and industrial buildings. He believed that good architecture could uplift the soul and made that the expressed goal of The Cummins Foundation.
When Miller was born in 1909, Columbus was your prototypical small town with a Main Street a ways off from a railroad stop. By the time he died in 2004, the city was recognized as a leader in civic planning.
Beginning in the 1950s, work from legends like Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pie was commissioned and provided to the city pro bono. Miller dreamed of forging a modern, forward-thinking American city out of brick, metal, steel, cement, and glass, with one eye to preserving the past.
The goal was simple. Open spaces. Simple shapes. Unpretentiousness. Today we can see those tenants carried out in the glass jewelry box design of the city's Republic Newspaper Building, in the way the speakers and analog clock on the First Christian Church’s mammoth brick tower replaced the moldy carillon of old.
If you wanted banks that looked like Roman temples and churches that mimicked the Vatican, you could live in one of those decaying big cities where an apartment the size of a suburban closet set you back a fortune. This was the world of tomorrow, a world of clean lines and plenty.
“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 when you drive around Columbus that this a town with an unusually strong sense of pride. In the age of the disposable, Columbus builds to last. An ornate Second Empire courthouse overlooks a state of the art community center. An interactive children's science museum is a few doors down from a circa 1900 soda shop.
A town this small isn't supposed to be this nice. But, as Miller said:
“Whether it’s architecture – or cooking, or drama, or music – the best is none too good for any of us.”