A historic downtown office building that has often been called “arguably the most famous address in Columbus” has changed hands, ushering in a new era for a landmark that was a center of influence and generosity in the community for over a century.
The building, located at 301 Washington St., which was previously owned by Cummins Inc., is the former site of Irwin’s Bank — which later became Irwin Union Bank and Trust — and includes the former office of the late J. Irwin Miller, a Cummins chairman and philanthropist who shaped the city’s economy, architecture and culture throughout the 20th century.
Cummins sold the building to Columbus-based Johnson Ventures on Nov. 13 for $767,700, according to public real estate records. Cummins, however, was unable to comment by press time on what prompted the decision to sell the building, which it had purchased to use as office space a little over a decade ago.
Rick Johnson, president and CEO of Johnson Ventures, told The Republic that he intends to use the building for his company’s offices and preserve Miller’s office with the possibility of restarting architectural tours that had been halted when the pandemic struck.
Johnson Ventures, a private investment group that acquires and grows companies, currently has an office just up the street at 417 Washington St., according to its website.
“It’s likely going to be offices for Johnson Ventures,” Johnson said. “We’re going to be designing a plan over the winter and be ready to execute in the spring. …Our goal would be to spend a little time looking at how we might best use it for an office.”
Additionally, Johnson Ventures is currently in talks with the Columbus Area Visitor Center to include the Irwin’s former office and conference room on architectural tours. Cummins had preserved Miller’s conference room and office, which includes an architecturally unique ceiling and lattice work, when it purchased the building from Irwin Management Co. Inc. in 2011.
Cummins previously leased the office and conference room to the visitor’s center for a minimal fee to hold tours, The Republic reported previously. At the time of Cummins’ purchase, the Irwin family had donated almost all the furnishings that were in the two rooms at the time Irwin’s death in 2004.
“(The visitor’s center) has expressed interest, but we haven’t really kind of put that together yet,” Johnson said. “But my assumption would be that likely there would be a relationship with the visitor’s center that would allow (them) to resume tours of that office.”
The building at 301 Washington St., made of brick with limestone lintels, cast-iron columns and an iron cornice, dates back to the late 19th century, with news coverage at the time describing it as a “palace,” according to a virtual exhibit called “301 Washington Street: Cornerstone of Columbus, Indiana” that is available through the Bartholomew County Public Library archives.
The exhibit draws upon materials from the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, Bartholomew County Public Library and Bartholomew County Historical Society.
In 1882, The Evening Republican newspaper said the building’s walls were made of “pressed brick with carved stone caps for windows and doors, iron columns support the upper front, while the front of the store and bank rooms are of heavy walnut, with French plate glass.” The building, however, has undergone some remodels since then.
Irwin’s Bank was located there for a few decades until 1928, when it merged with Union Trust to become Irwin-Union Trust Company, which was later renamed Irwin Union Bank & Trust as the banking portion of the business grew, according to the exhibit.
Other companies that occupied office space on the property over the years include Irwin’s Dry Goods, Joseph I. Irwin’s first business; the Indianapolis, Columbus & Southern Traction Company; and Union Starch and Refining Company; among others.
In 1958, the Irwin family founded Irwin Management Company and later located its offices at 301 Washington St. Four years later, J. Irwin Miller hired architect Alexander Girard to design an office suite in the building that featured a reception area, secretarial area, a small conference room and his private office.
The building stayed in the Miller family’s orbit until it was sold to Cummins for $665,000 in 2011.
Johnson said his company’s goal is to preserve the building’s legacy. The company expects to “freshen up the building overall,” which would potentially involve some painting that needs to be redone, he said.
“Our goal is to be a good steward of that building,” Johnson said, “…It has been a nice building for the downtown. It’s a gorgeous building. So, we just want to keep it in great shape, keep it an integral part of the downtown.”