Discovering architecture in Cincinnati and southern Indiana, Nov. 5-11, 2019

Posted: November 21, 2019 in Midwest USA trips

High on my bucket list was to bicycle to Columbus, Indiana to see modern architecture.  More on that later.

Searching for a way to Columbus IN without taking the airplane, the Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati OH are an eight hour five hundred mile drive from Chapel Hill NC, about my limit for a car ride.   This would give me a starting point where we could bicycle the hundred miles further to Columbus IN.     Also, I had barely ever been to Cincinnati, I was sure there would be something to see there.

My favorite retired architect, Lyman, from Austin TX really wanted to go on this trip.   Purchased a month in advance, Lyman got a ticket from Austin TX to Cincinnati on Southwest Airlines for $ 134.00 round trip, luggage included, changing planes in Baltimore.  Amazing.   Some kind of fare war is going on.   Air fares are all over the map these days but that is an amazing deal.

It was a little late in the season to be bicycling in Ohio and Indiana but we had to hope that the weather would cooperate.

I got up early and left Chapel Hill NC before 6:00 AM, driving our Prius mostly through West Virginia with my Bike Friday in the back.   I picked up Lyman at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport at about 2:00 PM the same day.  (He had gotten up even earlier than me; his flight had taken off from Austin at 5:35 AM!)  We drove a few minutes to an airport parking lot where we would leave the car for a week.  He had already put together his folding Bike Friday which he had brought in a suitcase.    We left his suitcase in my car and pedaled away from the parking lot towards the Ohio River, about two miles away.   At the top of a hill we could see the river below.

Although we were only about ten miles from downtown Cincinnati the landscape felt like a backdrop for Huckleberry Finn.

We took the privately owned Anderson Ferry across to the Ohio side.  It costs five dollars per car, one dollar for a bicycle, cash only.  They claim to have been doing this since 1817!  The crossing takes about five minutes.

 

 

Once on the Ohio side the landscape became urban fairly quickly.   While Cincinnati is still a large city, back in 1850 it was the sixth largest city in America, right behind New Orleans.   Cincinnati has miles of nineteenth century buildings, including some here upriver before we had even gotten to the city limits.

We crossed into the city limits.

It was an industrial area along the river.

In that same area we stumbled onto our first big architectural find, the 1931 Cincinnati Union Terminal, done in the Art Deco style.

On several occasions in the late 1960’s my mother took her four children by train from Norfolk VA to Texas to visit family, each time changing trains at this station in Cincinnati.    I do remember the building.  It was nicely restored in 2018,  having been converted to the Cincinnati Museum Center, as well as serving the few Amtrak trains that still call.   We biked up to the building and walked around inside.

 

We were impressed.   Back on the bicycles, it was two miles further to the Over the Rhine neighborhood where we had booked an Airbnb.  On the way we passed through several modernist public housing complexes.  In talking to locals later I learned that much of Over the Rhine was semi-abandoned until as recently as 2009.  I do not know the effect the current gentrification has had on the lower income people who are being pushed out.

 

 

Even now, the northern part of the neighborhood is still undergoing renovations, seemingly block by block.   I have learned it is one of the largest concentrations of intact mid-nineteenth century buildings in America.

 

This was the block that contained our Airbnb, sitting across from Washington Park.

 

For less than $ 150.00 per night including tax we got a stylish two bedroom apartment, accessed by an intricate interior staircase.

 

By this time it had gotten dark, bicycling for the day was over.   We went out for a drink.   Just around the corner in this newly trendy neighborhood there was a pretentious place with $12.00 cocktails.  Why not?  Just one.

 

Finding dinner was more problematic.   There were lots of restaurants but we could not seem to find something that looked appealing.   We ended splitting a big hamburger seated at another newer bar, it was all quite good.

The next morning we headed out by bicycle, destination Columbus, Indiana.  We hoped to make it in two to three days.  First we had to cycle through older parts of Cincinnati.

 

Because of our route heading west we were skipping huge parts of the uptown parts of the city, such as the area around University of Cincinnati, the upscale parts of Cincinnati.  Instead we headed through several miles non-gentrified areas.

 

 

Just before crossing Mill Creek we passed this place.   It was not lunchtime and we did not stop.  Cincinnati chili is the most famous local dish.  On further reading I understand it is NOT the Tex-Mex dish eaten all over America.  It is more like tomato meat sauce, often eaten on spaghetti.

 

Cincinnati was originally built around the flood plain where where Mill Creek enters the Ohio River.   Once we crossed Mill Creek and a sea of railroad tracks the land quickly breaks into steep wooded hills, much of it the public park known as Mount Airy.  We climbed further uphill through rugged terrain and then through Ohio exurban countryside.

 

It was time for lunch as we approached the suburban town of Harrison just before the Indiana state line.   Businesses sometimes pay folks to stand on the sidewalk and wave a sign.   In the rows of strip malls we passed this guy.   Greek food, something vegetarian sounded great.   And it was!

 

After lunch we headed back on the road.   The town of Harrison OH was obviously not wealthy but attractive.

We crossed into the state of Indiana just beyond Harrison.   The countryside was lovely.

 

 

We had set as our destination that day the supposedly tourist town of Metamora IN.    We had cycled a long way that day and ten miles before Metamora we arrived in Brookville IN.  We found Coffee On Main off on a side street, in the lower level of a building functioning as a church.  Small independent coffee houses have been cropping up all over America.

The proprietor was friendly and professional, she runs the place with her three daughters, all of them working part-time while holding other full-time jobs.  I got my usual almond milk latte but she gave us free samples of her sweet coffee drinks.   There was Christian music playing on the video and the Boy Scout Oath on the wall.

We hung out a while enjoying the chairs and the coffee.   We pushed off because we needed to arrive at our day’s destination of Metamora IN before sundown.   We cycled through the darkening countryside.

Metamora IN bills itself to be a tourist town, the site of a nineteenth century stop on the Whitewater Canal.  It is a tiny town, lots of schlock gently spread around.

 

The Airbnb was right in town in an old building with an old fashioned decor.   What does a picture of a plantation home have to do with Indiana?   We got separate rooms; this was Lyman’s.

There were unusual reading materials on the shelf in my room.

 

There were only two other guests at the hotel, both of them bow hunters looking for deer.    The friendly father son team had driven from far upstate New York in their black Ford pickup, looking for different hunting grounds.

 

On the map this town of Metamora showed several restaurants, we found out on arrival that none are open after about 3:00 PM.   I had to bicycle in semi-darkness a quarter mile down the highway to a MiniMart for some sandwiches which I brought back to the hotel.

We were lucky that Lyman had brought along a bottle of expensive Scotch.   We broke that open and sat outside on the porch with our sandwiches.  It was raining outside.

 

The next morning it was cold and rainy.  The proprietor was going to cook us breakfast but we volunteered and cooked eggs and bacon for ourselves, using ingredients from her refrigerator.    We forced ourselves to go back to bed for most of the morning, waiting for the rain to stop.  I did some reading on my Kindle.

About noon the weather indicated we could push on and so we did!   Because of the rain we set our sights low, just somehow get twenty-five or thirty miles to the larger town of Greensburg where we knew there were actual motels.

The first part of the ride was climbing again through heavily wooded terrain, mostly uphill.  Eventually the land leveled out on what I presume is the start of the great American flatness.

 

 

 

Greensburg had a Quality Inn out by the highway with a very reasonably priced room with two double beds, so we settled in to get out of the cold.   We wanted to eat in downtown Greensburg that evening out of principle rather than eat near the motel at a chain restaurant.   We would have to bicycle a mile or two in the dark cold but it seemed worth the effort.   I have a new set of rechargeable bicycle lights that seem almost like those on a car.

 

The only restaurant open downtown that had anyone eating at it was the Beach Tiki Bar and Grill, in a turn of the (19th-20th) century building and nowhere near the ocean.  It fronted the courthouse on the main square, Greensburg IN.

 

We sat near the back at the bar.   I ordered their supposed specialty, the fried fish sandwich.   It was quite good, one of the best tasting pieces of fried fish I have had in a while.  I asked about its provenance, they queried the kitchen and were told it was Vietnamese catfish.

 

There were two other guys who sat alone at the bar.   The bartender, Lyman, those two guys, and I communally watched Family Feud on the TV, without the sound.

 

The next morning the rain had totally stopped but it was COLD!   Twenty-four degrees and sunny;  the weather was going to continue to be an issue.

Lyman is originally from New Orleans (not cold) and then moved to Austin TX (also not cold.)   He seemed mildly freaked out as he put on everything he had to stay warm.

 

 

The whole point of this trip was to visit Columbus Indiana, thirty miles to the west.

Columbus, Indiana is a small city (population 44,000) forty miles south of Indianapolis and a hundred miles west of Cincinnati.   It is the home of Cummins, a homegrown Fortune 500 company that is one of the largest manufacturers of Diesel engines in the world.

The man who brought Cummins into prominence was Irwin Miller (1909-2002), born and raised in Columbus IN but educated at Yale and Oxford.   As a hobby for fifty years, from the 1940’s to the 1990’s he funded the architectural fees for almost any public building in Columbus as long as the builder chose from his short list of world-class architects.

Columbus consequently has dozens of public buildings: schools, churches, bank branches that were designed by famous architects like I.M. Pei and Eero Saarinen.   People are now coming to Columbus IN from all over the world just to see the buildings.

Lyman and I biked off from Greensburg IN across mostly flat rural Indiana towards Columbus IN, trying to move quickly so we could stay warm.

At the Columbus city limits surrounded by strip malls we came upon our first distinctive building, this fire station designed in 1967 by Robert Venturi in early postmodern style.   It is notable enough that the building has a whole Wikipedia page written about it!

 

 

The largest concentration of interesting public buildings is in the downtown area.   My first shock was thinking about what was torn down so that these mostly modernist buildings could take their place.    This is one block that still exists.

 

This church across the street.

These are other notable buildings in the immediate area.

 

 

My personal favorite downtown is likely the first church built with contemporary architecture in America, the First Christian Church, from 1942; designed by Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero.

 

The Cummins corporate headquarters, designed by Kevin Roche, from 1984.

 

 

Later on after checking into the hotel and resting we walked away from downtown, looking for somewhere to eat.   We passed this interesting bank.

We had beers at a brewery pub surrounded by friendly locals.

 

The beer was excellent but we wanted different food.  We walked back towards downtown and ate an an excellent Thai restaurant.   In a town otherwise 90% white, many customers in the Thai restaurant looked South Asian, as in Indian.

Eero Saarinen was the Finnish-American architect who designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Washington Dulles Airport, and the JFK TWA Terminal.  On the way back to our hotel we passed this Eero Saarinen design from 1954, the Irwin Bank, likely the first glass encased bank in the world.  It is now used as a conference center.

 

 

The next morning I was impressed that our otherwise very normal Hotel Indigo downtown had a dog who had been living in the lobby for thirteen years, a much longer tenure than anyone on the office staff.

 

We biked several miles from downtown through a 1950’s looking suburban area.

Our destination was the North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarienen, from 1964.   In this open area the building really awakens, I could see God in this.

 

The building was unlocked because of for some kind of church event and we were able to walk around inside. The sanctuary has essentially no windows.

It was time to leave Columbus IN.   Did the semi-suburban nature of Columbus’ downtown sour me on contemporary architecture?   Absolutely not.  It did underscore how completely wrong the city planners of the 1950-60’s had been with their idea that dense downtowns should be REPLACED by suburban looking ones.   Contemporary architecture needs to fit in with existing buildings.

The day we left Columbus IN the weather was almost perfect, sunny, with wind at our backs and a high temperature near sixty.   The day after that SNOW was predicted followed by temperatures falling into the teens.   There was clearly only one full day left of decent bike riding; we should bike as far as possible.  We would be heading back across Indiana towards Cincinnati but taking different roads.

Leaving Columbus IN we cycled through conventional neighborhoods sprinkled with Modernist school buildings and churches.

 

 

 

Out of town we bicycled across flat landscapes.

We stopped for lunch in Greensburg but kept going on a long successful day, all the way to the town of Batesville IN, population 11,000.

 


Batesville seemed like a North Carolina textile town except that it looked prosperous; not full of abandoned buildings.   The secret is apparently its major industry Batesville Casket Company.  The business of death.

 

Likely because of the health of its businesses Batesville has a downtown hotel and restaurant called the Sherman House, a rarity in almost any small town.  It celebrates the town’s German heritage.  It has a large bar in the back where we met the hotel’s most recent owner, an actual German guy who followed his Batesville-born wife back to her hometown.

He let us store our bicycles in a former factory that backs up to the hotel.

 

 

 

The next day we had a couple of hours to take a ten or fifteen mile bicycle loop before the snow started.   I had bicycled in the Netherlands the previous summer and suddenly it felt just like that, bicycling on an empty road across flat fields with absolutely no car traffic.   We even saw this poetic looking crossroads.

About noon we bicycled up to an Enterprise rental car office near Batesville and got a car for the drive fifty miles back to Cincinnati.  It started to snow while we were driving.   We spend that night once more in Over the Rhine.  The next morning we drove to the airport, looking at the snowbound landscape.

 

I made it home to North Carolina in time for dinner the same evening.  It had turned cold there also.

 

 

 

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