In the 1970s I was a project architect for the New York–based architectural firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, (HHPA) and worked on a medical clinic for the Cummins Engine Company called the Columbus Occupational Health Association (COHA). It won a national AIA Honor Award in 1976 and served its client for over 40 years. Now the building is for sale.
In the 1960s, in a small town in Indiana, a seed of design excellence was planted.
As a patron of modern architecture, J. Irwin Miller had a goal to make Columbus, “the very best community of its size in the country.” “We would like to see it become the city in which the smartest, the ablest, the best young families anywhere would like to live,” he said.
The result was a small Midwestern city filled with buildings designed by a who’s who of American architecture including, Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, César Pelli, Gunnar Birkerts, Robert Venturi, Robert Stern, and many others.
Columbus Occupational Health Association
In 1969, HHPA was selected for an outpatient medical clinic to serve Cummins Engine Company and several other industrial firms in the Columbus area.
At that time medical clinics and hospitals were intimidating environments, typically a collection of enclosed rooms off of long sterile corridors—places most people were not enthusiastic about visiting.
Cummins wanted something new and innovative and commissioned a study by the Kaiser Foundation, which recommended a cooperative health center. The study suggested that the new building might serve as a national model, so Cummins encouraged the architects to contemplate what environments would be appropriate for healthcare delivery in the future. HHPA sought to create an atmosphere of openness, hope, and healing. It analyzed the program and developed spaces organized around open, sloped walkways bathed in natural light from skylights above.
Ultimately COHA offered a new paradigm for outpatient healthcare delivery that welcomed patients and staff in a fresh, expressive environment. Instead of hiding technology behind walls and ceilings, the structure and mechanical systems were exposed and celebrated in bright colors. Visitors experienced the whole building giving them an awareness of place.
The building, completed in 1973, was selected in 1976 for a national AIA Honor Award. The jury commented: “Careful organization of the ordinary mechanical and structural elements brings interest and excitement to this small health center… a well-organized plan exposes routine medical functions to both patient and technician which relieves the tedium of clinical work and the anxiety of patients.”
I visited the building in 2012, and met with several staff members. They were enthusiastic about working there and told me that patients and staff found that most of the original design was still serving their needs.
Now the building is for sale. COHA has moved to new quarters, the Columbus Occupational Health Association has evolved, and in mid-June it relocated to downtown Columbus and is now called the Cummins LiveWell Center.
An Uncertain Future
What does the future hold for the COHA building and why should we care? Besides people’s affection and pleasant memories, why should COHA be saved and why is it important in architectural history? At the time it broke new ground in many ways. It celebrated the functions and technology that made the building work. More importantly, it showed all of us that going to the doctor doesn’t have to be a scary thing. By opening up the inside, bringing in natural light, and allowing patients to see inside technical spaces like the laboratory, COHA taught us that being healthy and caring for our well-being can be an uplifting experience.
There’s a famous quote from Winston Churchill, “First we shape our buildings, thereafter, they shape us.” HHPA shaped COHA to be a simple black glass box on the outside with a bold sloped skylight and a dynamic inside, that treated visitors to a potpourri of shapes, colors and spaces.
The philosophy of challenging the status quo and reinventing how healthcare is delivered helped make COHA unique. It has influenced how architects design medical buildings and how medical providers interact with their patients.
Unfortunately there are no preservation laws in the city of Columbus, Indiana. COHA could be sold and demolished. Or it could be saved and adapted to a new use.
Columbus has a strong sense of community and respects its legacy of design excellence. It has created Landmark Columbus, whose mission is, “To care for and celebrate the world-renowned design heritage of the Columbus, Indiana, area.” Richard McCoy, executive director of Landmark Columbus, told me that, “while there is no law to prevent demolition, the community has a voice and it has influence.”
The legacy of Miller is now in the hands of Cummins, Inc. Katie Zarich, manager of external communications for Cummins, said: “COHA served Cummins well for several decades… Architecture remains important to Cummins. We are looking for a buyer that will maintain the architectural integrity of the facility.”
It is possible to extend the useful life of buildings. It takes energy, vision and commitment. Let’s hope COHA finds itself the recipient of respect from its new owner.