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05.25.2011
Feature> Mid-Century Time Capsule
The Miller House in Columbus, Indiana is famed as the collaborative achievement of three great design talents of the 20th century. Open to the public for the first time, Alan G. Brake steps inside to see how it has endured.
Courtesy IMA
Miller House   Miller House   Miller House   Miller House
Clockwise from top: The exterior is faced in Virginia slate, washed in natural light from perimeter skylights; a column detail; the roof cantilevers over a terrace; the house as seen from the Kiley-designed grounds; a view of the gardens from the terrace.
[+ Click to enlarge.]
 

An invitation to the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana was something that architects coveted. Now the public can see what all the fuss was about. Following the death of Mrs. J. Irwin Miller in 2008, the Miller family donated the time capsule of a house, along with a partial endowment, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), giving public access to this master work of modernist residential architecture designed by Eero Saarinen, with gardens by Dan Kiley, and interior design by Alexander Girard.

The house commissioned in 1953 by J. Irwin Miller, industrialist and head of the Cummins Corporation, is now being operated in partnership with the Columbus Visitors Center, known for their informative architectural tours of the town’s more than 70 modern and contemporary buildings and landscapes. (In 1954, Miller offered to pay the architectural fees on all the town’s public buildings, provided the institutions selected designers from a preapproved list.)

The Miller House will open for two 13-person tours per day. Modeled on the now public Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut, tours depart from the Visitor’s Center in Downtown Columbus and arrive at the house by a small shuttle bus. Pull through the gates—added by the IMA to appease neighborhood concerns—through the Kiley-designed crenellated arbovitae hedge and you enter a serene 13-acre environment where landscape design, architecture, and interior design combine to create a modernist villa that balanced grandeur with domestic comforts and an active family environment.

A driveway with geometric pavers, flanked by a formal grid of apple trees, leads past a staggered translucent glass and white painted metal screen (echoing the hedge) set in a flowerbed toward the entrance of the house. The strong horizontal line of the house’s white-painted steel double cornice dominates the composition. The cantilevered porch shelters four facades—all of them roughly equal in importance—of glass window walls in steel frames, alternating with dark slab-panels of Virginia slate with inset white columns at the corners. A grid of 16 columns supports the roof, which is sliced through with skylights allowing filtered natural light all through the house.

Miller House

Miller House   Miller House   Miller House   Miller House
Clockwise from top: The fireplace and storage wall; the dining room features a monumental table with a fixed terrazo base; Detail of the column and skylights with white marble walls; a custom Eames compact sofa and detail of the sunken conversation pit; skylights bring natural illumination deep into the house. Expansive views of the garden are frames in every room.
 

The four corners of the house are divided into distinct functional zones: one is a den; one is a children’s wing with four dormitory-style bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a playroom (apparently following Scandinavian precedents); the third is the master suite, with a bedroom, sitting area, small office, two dressing rooms, and two bathrooms; the fourth corner includes the kitchen, powder room, coat closets, and other service areas. This highly rational plan allowed the family to entertain, raise five children, and find solitude or togetherness. The famous living room conversation pit was the site of both after dinner coffee and raucous pillow fights.

Through the glass front entrance, much like a storefront door, the visitor enters a serene foyer with white travertine floors, white marble walls, with an off-white upholstered Eames compact sofa placed against the right wall. A panel of a textured wall covering separates the space from the living areas beyond.

Immediately, it is evident how carefully the designers calibrated circulation sequences, managed views, and chose rich materials and warm decorative objects to create the effects they desired. Saarinen brought Girard in at the very beginning of the design process (Kiley became involved somewhat later), and the two worked in tandem. Girard channeled Saarinen’s Scandinavian love of craft and color—via Mexican cottons and folk art figurines—leaving Saarinen to mine high modernism.

Past the wall panel, the visitor enters the living room, with the pair of seating areas made famous by Ezra Stoller’s photographs: one on grade, arranged around the cylindrical tube chimney and terrazzo fire pit; the other, a sunken conversation pit, outfitted with a riot of colorful, patterned pillows by Girard. The quality of workmanship and attention to detail is evident throughout; this luxurious modernism is almost a complete departure from the austerity of the International Style. The fire pit plasterwork is so fine that its chimney curves seamlessly into the ceiling. A glass and metal accordion screen—which nearly disappears—hangs from the chimney and can fully enclose the fire pit.

Girard’s adjusting hand is very much on display, balancing Saarinen’s cool, almost corporate architecture, with warm, unexpected—even occasionally manic—decoration. But one never overwhelms the other.

Miller House   Miller House
Miller House
Clockwise from right: The kitchen is outfitted with Eames chairs and Girard textiles; the Millers' bed with his and her's phones; One of the dormitory-style children's rooms.
 

Among Kiley, Saarinen, and Girard, it is the interior designer’s work that was the most compromised in the process of turning the house over to the museum for public viewing. The family removed the house’s art collection—which included blue chip Impressionist and Modern paintings—along with a significant portion of its best furniture and objects. His spirit, though, remains. Girard and Mrs. Miller shared a love of collecting folk art, and the family maintained a relationship with Kiley, Girard, and Kevin Roche, following Saarinen’s early death, and consulted with them on changes to the décor, grounds, and maintenance of the house in the decades that followed.

On the wall behind the fireplace, a colorful storage wall runs the length of the room. Housing hundreds of books and objects, the unit includes handsome rosewood doors and white laminate and glass shelves backed with a variety of colored and textured papers, all selected by Girard. The large, colorful composition becomes a sort of visual landscape that counterbalances the views out to the gardens through the floor to ceiling sliding doors. According to Bradley Brooks, director of historic resources for the IMA, Saarinen sunk the conversation pit to keep the garden view unobstructed.

Off the living room, through a gauzy Indian print curtain, a large round table with a fixed terrazzo pedestal dominates the dining room. A fountain at the center of the table was frequently filled with flowers or a whimsical Girard-designed candelabra. An Italian colored glass chandelier hangs overhead. The custom table became the basis for the Saarinen pedestal tables and Tulip chairs (the table was originally surrounded by Eames chairs with Eiffel Tower bases, but the Millers later replaced them with Tulip chairs).

The house served as a crucible for innovative industrial design. Girard and Saarinen worked closely together and with the Millers, who were becoming well versed in modern design, as well as collaborated directly with Charles Eames on furnishings. According to Brooks, the Eames Aluminum Group was originally designed with outdoor furniture for the house in mind, and the Millers asked Saarinen to request a custom Eames compact sofa with a brass plated frame, fearing the standard model wasn’t handsome enough when viewed from behind.

Brooks and the IMA rank the Miller House among the top four modern houses in the country, along with the Glass House, the Farnsworth House, and the Eames House. While all the houses were completed within a ten-year period, the comparison with those acknowledged modern icons only goes so far. The 7,000 square foot Miller house, with seven bedrooms (including a guest room and a servant’s room) is a sumptuous villa for a small town patron of art, architecture, and industry. It is also a family house, where children were raised and the owners lived for nearly 50 years. Its atmosphere is worlds away from the chilly, high-art glamour of the Farnsworth and Glass Houses. Filled with cheery mid-century classic furniture, it is also something of a period piece.

Columbus, Indiana is known for its quotidian modernism, where schools, firehouses, churches, and parks are well designed and also accessible. The luxurious modernism of the Miller House was a private reserve where every detail was considered but only the family and their guests could experience it. Now open to all, it is a fascinating counterpoint to the everyday modernism that defines the town. The last of the Miller children has decamped for a job in New York, and the house has the slightly forlorn look so common to house museums. But the architecture program the family started is alive and well. Three new buildings by William Rawn, Cesar Pelli, and Koetter, Kim & Associates will be completed or break ground this year. The patrons may be gone, but the town remains their true legacy.

Alan G. Brake

Alan G. Brake is AN’s Midwest editor.