August 8, 2017 — Would this checklist for a great place to retire work for you?
– All public buildings have world class modern architecture – Triple check!
– Plenty of parks and open spaces – double check!
– Community-minded town with extremely active library, senior center, recreation – triple check!
– Public art is all around – check!
– Home prices must be below national median – check!
– Walkable, interesting downtown – check!
We are talking about the fascinating town of Columbus, Indiana – just south of Indianapolis with a population of 45,000. On our recent two day visit your Topretirments editor was blown away by what a great place to live and retire this is. Yet when we mention it to people of no little sophistication, they say, Columbus….Indiana …. never heard of it. This is your opportunity to learn more.
It all started
Columbus is known for being the home of Cummins, Inc., the Fortune 500 corporation started in 1919 that designs, manufactures, and distributes engines, filtration, and power generation products. The company has an enormous presence with its giant headquarters downtown and colossal plants and facilities spread across the city. J. Irwin Miller was the long time head of the company who helped turn Columbus into an architectural and cultural powerhouse. Largely as a result of his efforts and an involved citizenry, the city has arguably the greatest collection of architecturally significant public buildings in the world on a block by block basis. Not to mention having recreational and cultural facilities of the first order.
The story started when the members of the First Christian Church commissioned the architect Eliel Saarinen to design its new church in 1941.
The result, the first American church built with modernist principles and now a National Historic Landmark, was so successful that J. Irwin Miller decided to take the idea further. Cummins, Inc. offered to pay the architectural fees for any public building in the city – provided they select an architect from a list of approved choices. Results were so spectacular that the company later expanded the offer to any non-profit enterprise in the city.
Now, more than 75 years later, the city is brimming with architecturally significant buildings (60 have been designed by notable architects). Every school, jail, police and fire station, church, library, parking garage, etc. is a work of some distinction. People interested in architecture come here from all over the world to see the work of I.M. Pei (he designed the huge Cleo Rogers library across the street from the First Christian Church while still an unknown architect) , Kevin Roche, Harry Weese, Ralph Johnson, Henry Moore, Michael Van Valkenburgh, and Eero Saarinen (son of Eliel). Many of their famous buildings can be visited along a 7 block area called the Avenue of the Architects. You can reserve fascinating guided tours at the Columbus Visitors Center downtown, including hard to book tours of the Miller House by Eero Saarinen (book that one before you come so you are sure to see this masterpiece and its gardens, another National Historic Landmark). The buildings you will visit on the general tour are stunning, particularly the churches like North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen with a neck-craning 192′ spire.
A stunning town for retirement
Public art and culture are all around you in Columbus too. There are 60 pieces on public display, including the giant Henry Moore sculpture shown above, and the “Exploded Engine” by Rudolph de Harak in the Cummins Corporate Headquarters lobby (worth a visit!). Dale Chihuly has a very large and interesting sculpture in the Visitors Center.
Our visit to town was great fun. The architecture was obviously a top draw, with eye popping designs awaiting you around every corner. There are so many gems that many do not even get notice in the tourist materials. We also wanted to get a sense of what it might like to be retired here. Sure, the Midwest and Indiana might not be the first place you would think about retiring to. But if you go back to the checklist at the beginning of the article, you can begin to see that there are many, many attractions here.
Where to Live
The city has neighborhoods of all types and costs. It is possible to live an easy walk from downtown, or further out. There are some active adult communities and other developments suitable for retirees in the town. There are rental apartments like the Riverstone Apartments (1-3 bedrooms for between $902 and $1591). The Four Seasons Retirement Center offers independent living and supportive services. Zillow Home Value in mid 2017 was $138,900 – and that will vary greatly by neighborhood.
What the town has to offer
The popular Peoples Trails circle the city with 27 miles of bike trail. The downtown has a boutique hotel, cool shops, restaurants, and sidewalk cafes. Mill Race Park, located in and taking advantage of a flood plain, has a staggering array of playful structures that attract people of all ages. In fact that is where the Mill Race Center is, a nationally recognized model for dynamic programming for the 50-plus population. It offers health and fitness programs, learning, travel, social groups, support services, employment and fun to Columbus area residents. Elsewhere in town there is an indoor skating rink, plenty of golf courses such as Otter Creek, and many other parks.
What retirees think
We had a chance to talk with several Columbus residents, most of whom were retired. Two sisters who guided our architectural tour were retired teachers who have lived their whole life here, they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. The owner of a local coffee shop says he has plenty of regular customers who are retired; they come in for regular meetings and discuss the state of the world in a friendly way. We met three others while biking through a Columbus Park. Seeing them playing pickleball and thinking they might want a fourth, we asked if we could join. The trio, two retired and one nearing, couldn’t have been nicer. After a few sets we chatted. One of new friends had recently moved back to town for family reasons. All of them loved living here, and cited the friendly people, affordable cost of living, and the many programs offered at the Mill Race Center as some of the great reasons to retire here.
We know from our surveys that the Midwest is not a retirement beacon. But if being a snowbird isn’t a “must” (or you can snowbird), Columbus is worth a look. We have never seen a town of this size with such a strong infrastructure. Or a place where art and culture are valued so highly. At a minimum, plan a trip here to see what it is all about.
Comments? Does a town like this have what it takes as a place to retire? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.