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Escape Artist: Midwestern Culture Trips

Craving vacation plus inspiration? Hit the road for arts-themed adventures in three towns: Columbus, Indiana; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

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Sundaes at Zaharakos (left); the living room of the Miller House (top right); outside Miller House (bottom right)
Sundaes at Zaharakos (left); the living room of the Miller House (top right); outside Miller House (bottom right)


Drive time from Chicago: 4 hours

Forty-five miles southeast of Indianapolis, this sleepy town resembles many others in the rural Midwest, with one major exception: It’s a mecca for midcentury architecture and design. For that, the city has the late J. Irwin Miller, longtime chairman of the Columbus-based engine company Cummins, to thank. The industrialist used his fortune to lure world-renowned architects—including Pritzker Prize winners I. M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Kevin Roche—to build offices, schools, and community buildings (see page 72 for information on tours). For his own home, Miller commissioned a trifecta of modernist visionaries—the architect Eero Saarinen, the interior designer Alexander Girard, and the landscape architect Dan Kiley—who collaboratively created a clean-lined, brightly colored domestic masterpiece.

The meticulously preserved property—it looks almost exactly as it did in the 1950s, when the Miller family moved in—has been open to the public since last year. The Indianapolis Museum of Art, which acquired the home in 2009, offers guided tours that are surprisingly permissive. Nothing is roped off, and visitors see everything from the Millers’ master suite to their laundry room, where a custom print by Girard’s brother Tunsi hangs above the washing machine.

A Girard plate set
A plate set bears a pattern by Girard

Grab a seat on the patio and order a burger made from Indiana-raised beef at Scotty’s Burger Joint (310 Washington St.). Then cross the street to Zaharakos (329 Washington St.), a 112-year-old ice cream parlor that has old-timey charm without the kitsch. Nearby Fourth Street is home to a string of restaurants and bars, including Power House Brewing Co. (322 Fourth St.), which serves its own pleasantly bitter brews.

The modern yet comfy Hotel Indigo (400 Brown St.) is a short walk from Columbus’s hub of architectural landmarks and the business district. Also close to the action: the Inn at Irwin Gardens (608 Fifth St.), a bed and breakfast housed in the opulent 1910 mansion where Miller grew up.

Bus tours ($10 to $20) of Columbus’s architectural attractions leave daily from the Columbus Area Visitors Center (506 Fifth St.; columbus.in.us for times). New this year are walking tours ($15), which take off every first and third Saturday at 10:30 a.m. For another stroll, stop at the 85-acre Mill Race Park (Fifth Street and Lindsey Street). Home to modernist sculptures, its main attraction is Indiana’s oldest covered bridge, built in the 1840s.

At the Visitors Center, browse a polished collection of merchandise inspired by local architecture and design, including a plate set ($52, right) with a Girard pattern used by the Millers. Viewpoint Books (548 Washington St.) carries Indiana-themed volumes on prominent Columbus buildings.

Through November, 90-minute tours ($20) of the 6,838-square foot house and its 13-acre grounds are given Tuesday to Saturday at 1 and 3 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. (imamuseum.org/millerhouse for reservations). Book early: Each session caps out at 13 people. Tours leave from the Columbus Area Visitors Center (506 Fifth St.), which offers free parking.

NEXT: Grand Rapids, Michigan »


Photography: (Zaharakos) courtesy of Columbus Area Visitors Center; (Miller House, plates) courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art


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