The fate of the Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Indiana, one of the greatest residential ensemble works of midcentury modernism, is in limbo. Restoration efforts by its owner, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), have been put on hold due to sluggish fundraising.
The museum acquired the Miller House and Gardens in 2008, soon after Mrs. Miller’s death; her husband, J. Irwin Miller, died in 2004. From 1957 onward, the couple were renowned patrons of modern architecture following the underwriting of architectural fees by their foundation, the Cummins Foundation, for public buildings in their hometown of Columbus. Some 42 of the town’s civic buildings and malls were designed by architects such as I.M. Pei (library), Kevin Roche (post office), and Cesar Pelli (shopping center).
The Millers continued in this vein for their personal home, selecting Eero Saarinen for one of the rare residential commissions of the architect’s later period. Landscape architect Dan Kiley designed the gardens, and Alexander Girard the interiors. The Miller House is one of six National Historic Landmarks in Columbus.
Significant not only to Columbus, the Miller House is also one of the most important modern houses in the country. R. Craig Miller, the IMA’s senior curator of Design Arts and director of Design Initiatives (and no relation) said, “You had these three extraordinary designers at the peak of their careers, working for two exceptional and discerning clients with almost unlimited means.” The house is not as well known as others because it was the primary residence of the Millers for decades and seldom available to be shown or photographed—another point of rarity.
The IMA is no stranger to custody of historic properties. It also owns the Oldsfield Estate, a 26-acre country house on its own grounds that is also a National Historic Landmark, and includes the Lilly Home and Gardens from the 1920s.
The public will have to wait for a good look at the place. The IMA plans standing tours, but these can’t be done until after conservation and restoration is complete. That work is on hold pending fundraising. When Mrs. Miller died, her heirs donated the house to the IMA, along with $5 million for a maintenance endowment, but the museum is required to match the amount within 18 months. Fundraising for that is only now getting underway in a challenging economic environment.
Leaders in Columbus are eager to see the work complete. “We’re excited about the reach and reputation of the IMA,” said Lynn Lucas, executive director of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau. Lucas believes the IMA brings both expertise and an expanded audience for Columbus’ architectural treasures.
While the museum wants to move quickly, speed is not its overriding goal. “We want to do everything as close to perfection as possible, because that’s how the Millers did it,” IMA’s Miller said.
A version of this article appeared in AN 01_10.14.2009_MW.