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.
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.