Get Thee to Columbus: An Idea to Revitalize Seattle

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The North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and completed in 1964, is one of the city’s outstanding buildings. (Photo by Greg Hume-under CC license.)

My family recently toured Indianapolis and the nearby Indiana city of Columbus. The tour prompted an idea I would like to float and explain.

Our younger daughter, Anne, now lives and works in Springfield, Illinois, and during spring family vacations we like to tour the Mysterious Midwest, especially once-grand cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati. This year, we went to Indianapolis, a city reviving itself around the theme of amateur sports.

One thing you learn about these Midwestern cities is that local wealth tends to invest in the hometown, while in Seattle those mega-bucks quickly go to remote causes. An example in Indianapolis is the art museum, called Newfields. The museum is sited on spacious, landscaped property donated by the Eli Lilly family in 1996, which means beautiful gardens and strolls, and the old Lilly mansion is now used for visiting scholars.

The shining and unforgettable example of this local philanthropy is 60 miles south of Indianapolis in the small city of Columbus (population, 50,000), where the legacy of J. Irwin Miller is proudly on display: 70 or so examples of stunningly beautiful mid-century modern buildings.

Miller’s great grandfather was a store owner in Columbus, so the family is deeply rooted. From 1951 to 1977 J. Irwin Miller was chair of Cummins Engine Company, a diesel-engine manufacturer that now employs 55,000 people worldwide, but is still based (handsomely) in Columbus.

Miller House, 1953-57, designed by Eero Saarinen. (Photo: Balthazar Korab/Korab Collection/Library of Congress-under CC license.)

The worldly and cultivated Miller (educated at Yale and Oxford) early on recognized that he needed to attract top talent to his company in a smallish city. He went to the local school board with a proposal. The magnet for these imported employees, he figured, could be excellent public schools, so Miller told the school board that if they used one of the top American architects on his personal list for these new buildings, Miller would pay all the architects’ fees. Portland’s Pietro Belluschi, then dean at MIT School of Architecture, helped Eliel Saarinen of Cranbook Academy of Art draw up the list of several dozen top architects (I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Kevin Roche, Saarinen father and son, Harry Weese), many of them very young at the time.

Eventually many high-design public schools were built, along with a library, churches, a post office, conference center, corporate headquarters for Cummins, a firehouse, offices, and the Miller home. It’s a breathtaking collection of architecture. Miller himself, an impossibly admirable person, also led in racial integration, education, church reform, and business. True, the buildings by these architects were expensive, even if Miller paid the architects’ fees, but the town had agreed about the value of investing in beautiful and ennobling buildings. Maybe best of all: the three buildings by Eero Saarinen.

So now comes my Seattle suggestion. A donor inspired by Miller’s idea, or perhaps a group of donors, would help revive Seattle’s downtown and transit stations with fine buildings, with architect fees covered by philanthropy. Further, the city’s housing shortage might be solved by building variations of dormitories (for artists, newcomers, and struggling-for-rent populations), and they would all be designed from the list of leading architects (fees covered by the donors).

“Dorms” or these group houses would help defray costs thanks to common rooms. They would provide “house mothers” to ease the alienation of apartment living and nudge along careers. They would enhance a neighborhood through striking architecture, neighborhood meeting rooms and arts programs. And Seattle becomes a visitors’ Mecca, much like Columbus, as a Museum of Dorms.

Got doubts? Get thee to Columbus and see what fine, non-trophy architecture for ordinary buildings has done, together with an example of enlightened, locally focused philanthropy. Like me, you’ll be inspired to import the Miller-Midas touch.

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Transit-centric grandiose planning already pretty much destroyed Seattle’s downtown. More of it will not change anything for the better.

  2. How about we eliminate the graffiti and garbage first…….Before we replant us back to 1950 Seattle, we must uncover great architecture hidden behind street art, tents, and plywood.

  3. David. Hello! My son lives in Columbus, covers high school athletics. He loves it. As you might imagine the midwest is little bit of heaven for a sports journalist. In college he interned at King-5 and I thought he might return to Seattle. But Columbus called. It’s a young person city. Affordable and hip. Nearly impossible to get a start in Seattle.

    I enjoy keeping up to date on Seattle through your writing. Laura Penn

  4. It’s a great idea! There are just two things we need to happen.

    1. The City must clear the runway. Bill Gates isn’t going to build something crummy in Seattle. Stand aside and let his team just do it. It’s his money after all.

    2. Sometimes Liberals forget that there’s a natural pecking order in the world…. the Rich really don’t want to hear your input on a project. I think one of the reasons the Gates Foundation didn’t rebuild public education in Seattle is they didn’t want to hear the peanut gallery telling them they’re not doing it right. Many Seattle folks who think of themselves as journalists or activists are nothing but glorified crap slingers. Big civic projects need to generally fallow the Golden Rule… those with the gold make most of the rules.

  5. Nice idea but starchitecture ≠ good urban buildings.
    The Main Branch of the Public Library is a good example of why “famous architecture” & good design are not at all inherently related.

  6. I LOVE your idea about dormitory-style housing. It offers so much, and in so many ways, to so many people. Sadly, the Seattle City Council, who deserve so much blame for so much, affecting so many, squealed the brakes and skidded the tires on the closest housing vehicle to dormatories: apodments. By putting up numerous road blocks and spike strips to this clustered housing option, they forced developers to take the off ramp out of Seattle.

  7. My dad worked for Cummins so I grew up in Columbus. It was not only the wonderful architecture but the sculptures and landscaping as well. It influenced our trajectory in life . My brother became an architect and I pursued design. Thank you for your article.

  8. Paul Allen certainly tried this in Seattle.
    He was fortunate to get the Seahawks stadium built – an impressive example of sports architecture!
    However, the Commons – a potential outdoors gathering area – was voted down.
    Getting a billionaire-funded public area built now would be even more difficult.

  9. You forgot to mention that the multi-talented Miller played violin, on a Stradivarius, naturally. In 1967, Esquire magazine put a profile portrait of Miller on the cover with the headline: “This Man Should be the Next President of the United States.” The lengthy story by Steve Roberts shuffled through a short list of liberal Republicans, trying gently to persuade Miller, who demurred. We got Nixon, instead.

  10. I grew up in Columbus and benefited from the very good school system. Particularly the excellent art program. My Senior year I won a national scholastic art award and continued my relationship with the Saarinen’s by attending Cranbrook as a graduate student. Columbus is a wonderful example of what a visionary individual can provide for a community. Sadly Seattle has never had the the necessary group of visionaries to make it possible in a city of this size.

  11. I’m hesitant to offer anything here: I consider Columbus a great escape idea for those of us priced out of Seattle, despite its state politics. I visited from Cincinnati, as I found it in a day-trip book.

    Good design matters, and I am not suprised that 20-odd years later the population now stands at 50k, and is attracting young people.

    A lot of the interesting design of Seattle is muted out: what’s left becomes historic landmarks. The rash of hardibacker-clad apodments and 6 story block-encasing mixed-use buildings, often supplanting never-repurposed but lovely public structures tells a sad tale. We’ve lost a great deal of the dance floors that drew me to Seattle, as the decline of affiliative groups like Masons, etc have all kinds of structures falling into disrepair — and prey to redevelopment.

    I think it really took Miller’s vision — and deep pockets — at such a formative moment for Columbus to become, in time, what I think he hoped for. Now, indeed, it would take an assembly of deep pockets and public will to carve out space for a better Seattle via design.

    I assuredly do not think it will be in the form of dormitories. Seattle pretty much has gotten rid of all its residential hotels, from the few left in Ballard now destroyed by fire over the last decade or so, the ones that existed for decades longer on Pioneer Square, the ones never meant to be residential hotels on Aurora, a dwindling number. There are a very few such places in the International District that I’m aware of.

    I could better imagine residential hotels returning: but, where, is at issue. No one wants to live an indefinitely period of time in a dormitory room. Time was, elsewhere, in New York, such as Dorothy Parker lived nearly her entire life in hotels, paying for her room by the month. However, placing such structures, and assuring they are, indeed, liveable, near appropriate services and transportation, at rates that are affordable, needs proof of concept.

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