Few small American towns punch quite as far above their architectural weight as Columbus, Indiana. The city of about 47,000 people may well have the most important modern buildings per capita of any place in the world. Between Eero Saarinen’s glorious Miller House and Garden with a landscape design by Dan Kiley, his North Christian Church, First Christian Church by his father Eliel Saarinen, and buildings by Harry Weese, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Robert Venturi, and others, Columbus runs long in modernist heritage. Alexander Girard is another designer who looms, if not exactly large, then deep. His work ranges from a downtown masterplan from the 1960s, to the gesamtkunstwerk-like interiors for the Miller House, to assorted ceremonial artifacts for North Christian, to work on several buildings downtown. Earlier this summer, WHY visited Columbus—dinner at the Miller House was a highlight—with Girard’s son Marshall Girard, his grandchildren Kori Girard and Aleishall Girard Maxon, and photographer Nicholas Calcott. We went to make sense of Girard’s legacy and to see what’s next for Columbus’s current crop of designers, archivists, and historians.
Here’s what we saw and what we learned.