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Column: Giants appreciated Columbus as model of global architectural community

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Let me start by saying that I am honored The Republic included two quotes from me in a story on the life and his death at 91 of Balthazar Korab in the Jan. 17 edition of The Republic.

On Jan. 8, The Republic also ran a story on the life and her death at 91 of Ada Louise Huxtable, foremost pihoneer as both an author and newspaper critic at The New York Times who focused on architecture, design and the quality of city life.

Korab’s relationship — I believe I used the term “love affair” — with Columbus is well-known. However, I was also interested if Huxtable had ever dealt with Columbus, either its architecture or quality of life

I cannot verify if she ever visited Columbus. However, in an interview with David Green for the May 15, 1997, edition of the PBS program “Essays & Dialogues,” titled “The Unreal America,” the discussion turned to America’s fascination with the “make-believe architecture” we find in the American Main Street at Disneyland and her disdain for it.

Green asked her, and I am paraphrasing here, “ ... if, in addition to the architecture found in cities like Savannah and Charleston, are there examples in our nation’s smaller cities that include not only genuine historic architecture but also modernist buildings that people enjoy viewing and experiencing?”

Huxtable replied: “Yes, … places like Columbus, Ind., where Irwin Miller for many years has made it — I suppose you might call a model architectural community — because he has offered to pay the architect’s fees if they were selected as distinguished architect or an interesting architect, so there’s a great deal to see out there. And that should be an interesting tourist spot if people want to see real architecture.”

Their passing early in 2013 reminded me of the passing of John Johansen, FAIA, on Oct. 26, 2012, at the age of 96. He was the architect for Columbus’ L. Frances Smith Elementary School (1969) and his son, Christian, was the architect for the 1997 addition.

According to the story, “Remembering John Johansen,” that appeared in the December 2012 issue of ARCHITECT magazine, he was fully aware of the ongoing battles about the proposed demolition of two of his buildings, the Morris Mechanics Theatre (1967) in Baltimore, and the Mummers Theatre (1970) in Oklahoma City.

Thus, the historic significance of the L. Frances Elementary School in terms of these two threatened buildings is its chronology of being in his office during the design and construction phases of the two, but much more during the same time span as that of the Mummers Theatre that opened in 1970, and share the same design vocabulary.

With Johansen now deceased, these three buildings gain in their importance as scholars increase their interest in this chapter of the post-World War II Modernism known as Brutalism. Even without the potential of losing one or both theaters, his (and his son’s) school here in Columbus stands as an important example of a piece of architecture that explores and blurs the line between building and macro-scale sculpture as well as using common materials in uncommon ways.

It is a building that needs to be experienced — walked through, studied in, played in — to appreciate it, because two-dimensional photographs simply cannot capture the dynamics of its spatial quality. The children and teachers and staff who previously attended, who now attend and who will attend the L. Frances Elementary School are fortunate.

I have been asked many times about the importance of Columbus in terms of the history of post-World War II Modernist architecture in America. With the passing of each architect and landscape architect of one of the notable buildings and landscape architecture developments in Columbus from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, this city’s importance to scholars and educators


I also hope it reaffirms in the minds and hearts of all those who call Columbus their hometown, whether an elected official, elected or appointed commission or board member, or concerned citizen, that the legacy of Columbus’ architecture and cityscape is, in many ways, a national — actually, international — treasure. I sincerely hope you see yourselves as responsible stewards of this legacy and treasure.

Anthony Costello is a Muncie architect and a retired professor of architecture at Ball State University who has been involved in numerous local projects highlighting Columbus’ built environment.

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