From where we stand, the curved gray and green surfaces of Henry Moore’s Large Arch seem to enfold architect Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church. The 1942 building, with its starkly upright, rectangular design, appears much more contemporary than it really is. “Too bad Saarinen didn’t design us,” I say. My wife, Melissa, raises an eyebrow, then relents with a smile.
Saarinen’s church foreshadowed a revolution instigated by J. Irwin Miller, longtime head of locally based Cummins Engine Company. In the 1950s, he launched a program to subsidize public buildings with the stipulation that they be designed by great architects. He wanted to foster a world-class community, and he helped fund the investment in the town because he believed that, ultimately, “Mediocrity is expensive.”
The result is a town filled with more than 70 buildings created by famed architects, giving Columbus (a city of 45,000) a skyline that mixes 20th-century masterpieces with 19th-century structures. That means the anchor of any weekend in Columbus (45 miles south of Indianapolis) should be a tour of the most notable buildings. Walking tours explore downtown, and the visitors center hauls busloads of camera--snapping guests around to see roughly 50 art and architectural treasures. Other tours explore the Miller House and Garden, a 1950s icon designed by Eero Saarinen.
But like the girders supporting monuments, Columbus’ many restaurants and shops bolster the headlining buildings and round out a getaway.
Want an example? The Simmons family has spent 120 years farming the land now occupied by 450 North Brewing Company and Simmons Winery. Twelve of those acres currently produce grapes for the Chardonel, Chambourcin and other wines they serve. It’s their microbrews like Copperhead Road ale that pair best with pizzas hot from the brick oven, and the garlic knots are irresistible. The steamy bread coils weep melted butter and garlic goodness. In the dining room, families hail friends across the room. Vintage agriculture tools and old farm photos reference the rural address. You don’t feel a bit guilty licking butter off your fingers after eating a garlic knot.
A friendly welcome awaits anyone who meets Hotel Indigo’s resident pooch, Miles. The bichon frise presides over the intriguing lobby, watching guests check in. We take turns exclaiming over the framed vintage textiles, rugged old fence posts and Eero Saarinen Womb Chairs. Our room is just about as extraordinary; its panel-separated foyer and curving bathroom walls help create a fresh, modern feel.
For travelers staying two nights, the Inn at Irwin Gardens’ lustrous English oak interiors, vintage furniture and hand-carved ceiling perfectly balance a stay at the modern Hotel Indigo. Equally impressive are the bed-and-breakfast’s Pompeii-inspired sunken gardens, with statues and water features from around the world.
Another stop not to miss before heading home: Mill Race Park, just west of downtown. A covered bridge reflects in the circular pond, and a riverfront deck makes an ideal spot for listening to birds and the burbling confluence of the Driftwood and Flatrock rivers, joining here as seamlessly as old and new do in town.
Where to start
Columbus Area Visitors Center Get maps, pamphlets, advice and required reservations for tours. Dale Chihuly works decorate the lobby, and the gift shop sells an extensive collection of keepsakes. (812) 378-2622; columbus.in.us
What to do
Architectural tours On the Architecture Tour, experts on the bus share details about dozens of stops, and participants get off to see several buildings’ interiors. Victorian buildings fill the Downtown Walking Tour. Learn about Eero Saarinen’s modernist style during the Miller House and Garden Tour. Get tickets at the visitors center. (812) 378-2622; columbus.in.us
The Commons This glass-enclosed community space includes a huge children’s climbing structure and the moving sculpture Chaos I. (812) 376-2681; thecommonscolumbus.com
Mill Race Park Explore the 85-acre riverfront park with trails and a covered bridge. columbus.in.gov
Not Just Popcorn Choose from 376 flavors, including fireball, s’mores and even dill pickle. (812) 526-8256; notjustpopcorn.com
Step Back In Time Antiques and Tea Room The small antiques store in nearby Edinburgh also has a tiny tearoom in the back. (812) 526-5409
Strawberry Fields Mercantile The well-stocked antiques store sits on the town square of Hope, 25 minutes northeast. Have lunch in the back at Auntie Aimee’s Country Tearoom. (812) 546-0640
Washington Street Stroll the tree-lined downtown shopping area.
Where to eat
240sweet Airy artisanal marshmallows await. Try the triple berry or chocolate-chocolate chip. (812) 372-9898; 240sweet.com
450 North Brewing Company/Simmons Winery What a combo! A winery and microbrewery that also turns out great pizzas. (812) 546-0091; 450northbrewing.com
Bistro 310 Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s housed on the ground floor of a parking garage; this place is sophisticated. (812) 418-8212; bistro310.com
4th Street Bar and Grill Adventure beyond the tasty tenderloin at this local’s hangout. (812) 376-7063; 4thstreetbar.com
The Garage Pub and Grill Enjoy live entertainment with your standout pub food and 14 beers on tap. (812) 418-8918; thegaragepubandgrill.com
Smith’s Row A Columbus-based haven of fine dining. (812) 373-9382; smithsrow.com
Tre Bicchieri The name translates to three glasses, but there is more than a large selection of wine to this delicious Italian eatery. (812) 372-1962; trebicchieri-columbus.com
Zaharakos The restored 1900 ice cream and soda shop gleams with polished mahogany, onyx and marble countertops, and a functioning 1907 Werke Orchestrion (a self-playing pipe organ). (812) 378-1900; zaharakos.com
Where to stay
Hotel Indigo From $139. (812) 375-9100; hotelindigo.com
Inn at Irwin Gardens From $195 (812) 376-3663; irwingardens.com