A Bridge to a Secret Midwestern Mecca
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we’re all looking for the bridge that changes everything.
The drive between Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, is nearly a palindrome. As you leave each city on Interstate 65, south out of Indy or north out of Louisville, you drive through suburbs, then past warehouses and distribution centers and finally into the nothingness. The edges of the highways are flatter as you’re leaving Indy and more tree-lined outside of Louisville, but the feeling is identical — generic greenery (or brownery depending on the time of year) punctuated every so often with a gas station where you can fill up, empty out and get more of the caffeine necessary to complete the journey.
I know this drive well. For the two years I lived in Indianapolis, I made it at least once a month, sometimes more. Both my wife and I grew up in Louisville, and after living a plane ride away for nearly a decade, work took us to central Indiana. That put us two hours away from one grandmother, four parents, five siblings and a growing stable of nieces and nephews. For the first time in a long time, we were a part of birthdays, graduations and second-tier holidays — the type of casual get-togethers no one would expect us to fly home for but everyone would resent us for not driving to.
It has no doubt helped countless drivers by reminding them that the world is not a bleak, deserted bore …
But, oh, what a drive. Just over two hours at the speed limit and about 90 minutes if you’re really booking, sitting behind the wheel for the duration is like being stuck in a waiting room with no Wi-Fi. It feels endless. The radio helps, but does nothing to break up the visual monotony. And that’s why, over the course of my time making the drive, I developed a deep, irrational love for the one visually distinct structure on the route.
It’s called the Front Door Bridge, and it’s right at the exit for Columbus, Indiana. Rising weedlike out of the asphalt, the bridge is actually an overpass allowing the interstate to pass over the surface roads that lead into Columbus. From I-65, only the upper half is visible, its bright-red paint job making it pop on the boring green landscape. I came to love the Front Door Bridge not so much because it was a visual delight — sure, it looked nice, but after seeing it once there wasn’t much more to see — but because it was a signal that the journey was about half over.
The real purpose of the bridge is to entice people into Columbus. “Our community wanted to signal to those driving down the interstate that we are a unique community that values good design,” Erin Hawkins, the director of marketing for the Columbus Area Visitors Center, told me. That’s an understatement. Despite its location in what may seem like the middle of nowhere, Columbus is home to more than 60 buildings designed by modernist masters, including I. M. Pei, Richard Meier and Harry Weese. Credit for that goes to J. Irwin Miller, the founder and late CEO of Cummins, the massive engine company based in the small town. In the ’50s, Miller offered to subsidize building construction in Columbus with the caveat that they be designed by renowned architects.
I ventured into Columbus once and the buildings were striking. Still, as far as I could tell, the best thing about the city isn’t the world-class architecture. It’s that simple red bridge on the edge of town that has no doubt helped countless drivers by reminding them that the world is not the bleak, deserted bore laid out before their eyes, and if they keep driving a bit longer, they’ll once again reach civilization.