Posted in education on July 15, 2015 2:38 pm EDT

Book Review: The Cathedral Builder

A review and summary of the book by Charles E. Mitchell Rentschler covering the architectural influences of J. Irwin Miller.

Images courtesy of the Columbus Area Visitor Center & The Indianapolis Museum of Art.











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TAGS: architecture, book, design, history, reading,


By Rachel Hayes

“Cathedral Builder” is the term Charles E. Mitchell Rentschler uses to describe the men that built the great cathedrals of Europe. They knew they would not see the completion in their lifetimes, but worked honorably anyway. They built, stored up and prepared for the benefit of the next generation. J. Irwin Miller (1909-2004) did his own cathedral building, leaving his mark in many places, but especially on the architecture of his hometown, Columbus, Ind.

In his book, The Cathedral Builder, Rentschler provides a layered, in-depth look at the character of industrialist and philanthropist, Miller, and how genetic, familial, educational and societal influences affected it.

Miller was the sole male heir of the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller family of Columbus – a Midwestern dynasty of sorts. By the time Miller was born, his relatives were active as business owners, bankers, ministers, politicians and humanitarian activists. It was no ordinary or under-achieving clan, and topics of Christian responsibility, gender and race equality, and business management were discussed openly.

The family’s heritage and the informal teachings of his parents, grandparents and extended family had profound impacts on Miller’s philosophy on life, and ultimately his legacy. Case in point, Cummins Engine Company, no doubt the most recognizable entity from the family’s conglomerate, was started by Miller’s uncle, W.G. Miller and a former family driver, Clessie Cummins, not as a money-making endeavor, but as a charity for the town of Columbus – a means of employing and benefiting its young men. Founded in 1919, Cummins lost money its first 19 years in operation.

Cummins Corporate Office Building, Kevin Roche, 1983.

The book has a technical and sometimes data-driven subject matter, but the author’s anecdotal style makes it easy to digest. He uses examples like the above to showcase for the reader how stewardship principles were instilled in Miller and how he then lived them out as an adult. Concurrently, he weaves in details from Miller’s childhood and teenage years, formal education, military service, and early career within the family businesses. These naturally occurring mentions of connections, principles and alliances inform the reader so that as the profile of Miller’s surprising and upright character unfolds, the reader can almost pinpoint why a particular conviction was present at all. Rentschler, who lives in Columbus and worked for and around Cummins in several capacities, shares a well-researched and careful account of Miller’s life, accomplishments and legacy.

Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, I.M. Pei, 1969.

That legacy includes Columbus’s claim to architectural fame. Miller acquired a fascination with architecture while attending Yale University. Rentschler devotes a chapter to Miller’s architectural bearing on Columbus and also speaks to his relationships with architects Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese and Kevin Roche throughout the book.

Known as the “Athens of the Prairie,” six of Columbus’s seven National Historic Landmarks were essentially commissioned by Miller or paid for in part by the Cummins Engine Foundation Plan, which he set up in 1954 to cover the architectural fees of Columbus schools and public buildings, so long as the project’s architect was selected from a list Miller curated. The list included but was not limited to:

- John Carl Warnecke

- Norman Fletcher

- Edward Larrabee Barnes

- Gunnar Birkerts

- John M. Johansen

- Eliot Noyes

- Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates

- Mitchell Giurgola

- Richard Meier

- Eero Saarinen

- Harry Weese

- Kevin Roche  continued >>