HIGH-STYLE IN COLUMBUS, IND. A town designed by the best

MAYBE you grew up, as I did, in a small town with a Main Street soda fountain-and-candy store affectionately known as ``The Greek's.'' Maybe you acquired a taste for ``phosphates'' served at a marble bar to patrons on twirling stainless-steel stools. And maybe you've also worried that Progress, in the form of shopping malls and fast-food strips, has left such places in the dust. If so, you'll be delighted to know about Columbus, Ind. In some ways, it's a typical Midwest city, whose 32,000 people live 45 minutes south of I-70 in the middle of southern Indiana cornfields. By my count, however, it has at least 48 reasons for being one of the most astonishing communities in America.

The first 47 are the ones most people who know Columbus talk about - a collection of buildings designed by a Who's Who of architects that includes I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Gunnar Birkerts, Harry Weese, and the Saarinens, father and son. More on that later.

First, though, the 48th reason: Zaharako's, a real ice cream parlor really run by Greeks (two brothers whose grandfather opened the establishment in 1900) and really situated on the town's main street. Here, in a kind of tin-ceilinged time warp that Hollywood couldn't even dream of inventing, you can still order phosphates mixed on a 50-foot backbar built of mahogany and Italian marble and displaying two Mexican onyx soda fountains, manufactured (according to their nameplates) by something called the Liquid Carbonic Company. If you drink your phosphate in the back room, you can ask the waitress to turn on the 185-pipe German pipe organ - a honking, cymbal-clashing, drum-whamming contraption from 1908, playing 1890s tunes with a determination that makes up in decibels what it lacks in subtlety.

Finish your phosphate and step out the door, however, and it will take you about a century to cross the street - or so it might seem when, 30 seconds later, you're strolling through The Commons, a soaring, glass-sheathed kind of indoor park designed by Cesar Pelli in 1973. Here you discover that the good citizens of Columbus are not without a sense of humor: In curious counterpoint with Zaharako's extraordinary organ is a towering, noisy motion sculpture constructed in 1974 by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Named ``Chaos I,'' it was assembled out of old farm machinery and industrial parts from local junkyards. Motor-driven, it clanks and rattles in hilarious imitation of the machinery that made America great.

But as you step outside again, it quickly becomes apparent that there's plenty of present-day greatness left. Within an easily walked five-block square you can see:

The Cleo Rogers Library (1969), by I. M. Pei, with sculptor Henry Moore's imposing ``Large Arch'' (1971) in its plaza.

The Lincoln Elementary School (1967), by Gunnar Birkerts.

First Christian Church (1942) by Eliel Saarinen, the Irwin Union Bank and Trust Company (1954) by his son, Eero Saarinen, and a vast, glassed-in supplement to the latter building known as the Arcade (1973), by Kevin Roche.

A collection of utilitarian buildings that are anything but commonplace: Kevin Roche's inviting Post Office (1970), Charles Bassett's imposing City Hall (1981), and Myron Goldsmith's glass-walled home for the local newspaper, the Republic (1971). Even a building housing no people - the local electronic switching center for the Indiana Bell Telephone Company - is an engaging piece of work by Paul Kennon (1978).

And that's just the beginning. Climbing back into the car - or into a minibus for a two-hour architectural tour leaving from the downtown Visitors Center - you'll find the lines of Harry Weese's First Baptist Church (1965) echoing a thatched-roof Norman shed, and Eero Saarinen's North Christian Church (1964) thrusting its needle-sharp spire into the heavens. You'll find a junior high school that resembles a New England shoe factory, a fire station imitating the lines of a cow barn, and surely one of the most architecturally interesting tire dealerships in the nation. And then there are all the rehabs, including the 1864 Visitors Center, the 1874 Bartholomew County Courthouse, and an 1871 waterworks transformed into a Senior Citizens Center. Particularly interesting is the Columbus Inn, built in 1895 as the City Hall and now (following a recently completed $1.7 restoration) an elegant bed-and-breakfast offering 30 rooms and five suites at prices from $57 to $145 a night, breakfast and afternoon tea included.

Sooner or later, of course, the question arises, ``Why is all this here?'' The answer is to be found in the person of J.Irwin Miller, a former chief executive officer of Cummins Engine Company - which, with Arvin Industries, is one of two Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Columbus.

``It was sort of an accident,'' chuckles Mr. Miller, who recalls the beginning of the city's architectural enthusiasm. In the mid-1950s, appalled by the ugly school buildings sprouting up to handle the flood of baby-boom children, Miller reasoned that well-designed public buildings should cost little more to build than badly designed ones, if only you had the plans. So he offered to pay architects' fees, stipulating only that a well-known architect be chosen. The result was Harry Weese's Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School (1957) - and a precedent so powerful that, to date, the Cummins Engine Foundation has spent $10 million in architects' fees and in refurbishing downtown Columbus.

The effect on the city? ``It's contagious,'' says Bev Baker, who with her husband, Jim (chairman and chief executive officer of Arvin Industries), has recently renovated several of the town's 19th-century brick Italianate houses. She points to case after case of well-designed private homes and churches - as well as to growing numbers of restorations - that have sprung up, not because somebody paid the architects' fees (the Cummins Foundation project was set up to cover only public buildings), but because of the community's level of architectural sophistication.

At last count, that sophistication was bringing 40,000 visitors a year to Columbus. They come, by and large, for the architecture - and for Otter Creek, one of the few world-class golf courses (designed by Robert Trent Jones) open to the public. But you have a feeling they linger because of something else. Not Zaharako's, exactly, but something that Zaharako's represents - a sense of a community that has found a way to preserve its past without foreclosing its future. Content with itself, friendly toward outsiders, Columbus seems to have found a graceful point of balance between its simple Midwestern roots and the finest of contemporary design.

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