Project DescriptionFROM THE ARCHITECTS:
A unique character that might be cultivated as “heartland modernism” characterizes the strongest buildings of Columbus, Indiana, a town long known for its commitment to a modern, local architecture. The 60,000 SF Columbus City Hall is rooted firmly in this canon. Completed in 1981, the three-story brick and Indiana limestone building houses the Columbus municipal government and police department, and its low-slung form, unique plan geometry, and thoughtful detailing--including an art program--typify the town’s strong design sensibility.
Recognizing the need to expand responsibly, Columbus ratified a new master plan for the downtown in 1972. The plan—conceived and executed by the same firm that later designed City Hall—grouped buildings based upon primary functions in order to create zones of related activity and further suggested that new construction respect the scale and historic character already present throughout the town’s historic core. Columbus City Hall is located in this core and sits immediately southeast of the Bartholomew County Courthouse, a building completed in 1874 in the Second French Empire style. Each building occupies an entire block, and together they anchor Columbus’ municipal zone.
In keeping with the master plan, City Hall is sited in a manner that both defers to and complements the historic courthouse. The geometry of its unique, right triangle plan diagonally bisects the center of its site, orienting the building’s front façade to the hypotenuse. The building’s recessed main entrance is placed at the midpoint of the hypotenuse and is level with its second story. The entrance is framed by a semi-circular, double-story curtain wall whose geometry was chosen specifically to generate reflections of the adjacent historic courthouse. Two levels of wide, gently sloping stairs connect the corner of the site to the entrance. At their summit, two broad cantilevered brick walls extend along the hypotenuse. Reaching out toward one another yet not quite meeting, the two walls emphatically demarcate the entrance while also serving as a reinterpretation of the classical façade pediment. The building’s base is expressed as a plinth which visually counterbalances the strong cantilever. Finished in Indiana limestone, it is primarily occupied by the Columbus Police Department and runs parallel to the adjacent streets at ground level, making it easily accessible through separate entrances and surface parking lots oriented to the rear of the building.
The upper two floors contain various city departments, a public meeting hall, and the City Council chambers. Both floors open onto the double-height gallery that follows the sweeping curve of the entrance’s glass curtain wall. The upper level is accessible via two radial staircases anchoring each end of the gallery. Warm materials characterize the interior, including terrazzo flooring, oak doors and millwork, and bronze finishes. They are all in keeping with the civic character of a city hall and make the spaces feel inviting. They are also consistent with the materials palette shared by other modernist buildings found in downtown Columbus.
The building design included an art program that reflects both the state history of Indiana and the local history of Columbus. Works of contemporary art, placed in highly visible interior spaces, add visual interest to the architecture. Two of these pieces are of particular note.
The first, entitled C, was conceived by former Columbus resident and pop artist Robert Indiana. Indiana painted the bright, unofficial seal to both commemorate the opening of City Hall and give the town a logo in keeping with the forward style of the building and the architectural legacy of which it is a part. C hangs at the top of the west gallery stair and is immediately visible from City Hall’s front entrance. Inside the City Council chambers, a second piece, entitled History & Mystery, depicts the history of Columbus’ development. Executed by contemporary mixed-media artist William T. Wiley, the mural is painted on the tympanum above the council’s long communal desk and appears unfinished. Wiley intentionally left the piece this way in order to make explicit the fact that Columbus’ evolution is ongoing, and will therefore never be “complete.” Both pieces were commissioned for the building thanks to a Hard Hat Ball fundraiser that was held on site immediately before City Hall opened. Proceeds from the community event funded the majority of the building’s art program. The pieces are still in place today, attesting to the lasting value of the art.
33 years after its completion, Columbus’ City Hall continues to effectively facilitate the everyday activities of city governance while simultaneously establishing an architecture of civic presence in the city’s historic core. In the spirit of Louis Sullivan’s series of “jewel box” banks, City Hall stands as a simple yet purposeful structure that utilizes humble means and bold architectural forms in order to extend the legacy of the city’s singular design context. It is architecture that engages the community functionally, physically, and aesthetically, and it has continued to do so as growth and development have been refocused in the downtown core, making it one of Columbus’ finest modern buildings.