The formal name of the one-story brick building at 13th and Sycamore streets is the Richard Johnson Early Education Center.
It’s named in honor of the late Columbus businessman who was so instrumental in educational development in Bartholomew County throughout his adult life.
The honor is well deserved, but to many long-time residents of Columbus the unassuming structure still goes by its original name: Jefferson.
It’s one of the oldest buildings in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. It’s been used for a variety of educational purposes, starting as an elementary school in 1953, evolving into a special-use facility deigned to keep potential dropout students in school, and now it serves as an early education center.
Jefferson has one other claim to fame — or notoriety — in the folklore of Columbus. For many, the school’s uninspiring appearance inspired the creation of the architectural program that funded the design of dozens of Columbus buildings and put the city on the nation’s tourist maps.
In other words, Jefferson looked so bad that the late chairman of the Cummins Engine Co., J. Irwin Miller, is said to have vowed to do better by paying outstanding architects from around the world to design buildings in Columbus.
The development even has a setting in word of mouth Columbus history. According to many accounts, Miller attended the dedication of the first new school to be built in Columbus in decades with Richard Stoner, a Cummins executive who would later become a major figure on the local school board. Depending on which version is recounted, the two men are said to have looked at the “prosaic” building and come to the mutual conclusion that we can do better than this.
That story has stuck over the past 62 years. It was even recounted by Stoner in an interview with the authors of “The Engine That Could,” the authorized history of Cummins Inc. and repeated in “The Columbus Way,” a 15-chapter treatise on outstanding undertakings in Columbus history.
Widespread though the story has become, it might just be a bad rap, according to Jim Nickoll, a volunteer with the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives. He is about to conclude work on an in-depth paper about the origins of the architectural program and posits that the offensive inspiration might not have been Jefferson but two other schools which since have disappeared into local history: Booth Setser and Clifty elementary schools.
All three schools — Jefferson, Booth Setser and Clifty — were opened at the same time in 1953. Construction on Booth Setser and Clifty was authorized by Columbus Township. The Jefferson project was under the direction of Columbus city schools.
There was a kind of panicked rush to get the schools opened. The first wave in the baby boom generation had already descended on local schools. It had been more than 30 years since a new school had been erected and members of the Columbus Township board elected to accelerate their program by authorizing the construction of two “prefab” buildings.
City school board members took a more measured approach, electing to build a more substantial structure. They faced one major roadblock: a shortage of money with which to pay the contractors. Instead of relying on tax funds however, community leaders elected to take a more direct approach. They launched a community-wide fund drive and raised more than $350,000 in less than a month, receiving 108 individual contributions including $100,000 from an unnamed corporate donor. It would only be speculation in hindsight but a good bet would be that that donor was Cummins Engine Co. Although $350,000 wouldn’t pay for construction of many classrooms these days, that much spent on a school in the early 1950s would have been deemed grandiose.
Jim Nickoll really did his homework on tracing J. Irwin Miller’s decision to establish the Cummins Foundation’s architectural program. He came across four different instances in which the industrial leader and philanthropist talked about the genesis of the program. None of them were about Jefferson. All four — such as an unpublished 1979 interview in which he said, “The first two schools that were built were Clifty and Booth Setser, which were pre-fab schools. I said we’ve got to do something better than that. So that really got us interested in good design” — centered on the Columbus Township schools.
It might be that Jefferson — or the Richard Johnson Early Education Center — looks ordinary or prosaic, but it’s still serving an educational purpose 63 years after it opened its doors.
It’s had to suffer the indignity of that “we can do better” anecdote for almost the entire time, but thanks to Jim Nickoll, it just might be getting some of the respect it deserves.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.