In Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’s well-known that such pioneering industrialists as Dayton, Pillsbury, and Washburn (and later Cowles) not only drove the businesses that grew the cities, but also created a culture of philanthropy—both of which resulted in arts institutions, corporate facilities, public buildings and private homes in an array of architectural styles. In Columbus, Indiana, arguably one person accomplished all of that: J. Irwin Miller. While growing up in Columbus during the early 1900s, Miller lived in a small Midwestern town; by the time he passed in 2004, after living in Columbus for decades with his wife Xenia and their five children, Miller had created an international site of pilgrimage for enthusiasts of Modern architecture.
During Docomomo US’s 2018 National Symposium at the end of September, Miller’s architectural legacy was on full display—and fully indulged in by hundreds of mid-century architecture enthusiasts, architectural thought leaders and preservationists, architects and designers, and a contingent from the Docomomo US/MN chapter. Docomomo defines itself as the “international working party for the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the modern movement.” The symposium was also programmed in collaboration with Exhibit Columbus, the AIA’s Indiana and Kentucky chapters, and Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art).
For the symposium’s early birds, festivities started at Newfields, where we were guided through the museum’s brand-new Design Gallery, which featured a virtual reality tour of the Miller House. Designed by Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard (with landscape by Dan Kiley) in 1953, the Miller House is now owned by Newfields, which offers guided tours of the iconic residence. Only through the virtual reality tour, however, is one allowed to “sit” in the famous conversation pit or in an Eames pedestal chair at the dining room table, or venture into the dollhouse.
The day also included a visit to the Newfields library where curators had created a display, from the Miller House archives, of correspondence between Miller, Saarinen and Girard; Girard’s colorful palettes and fabric samples for the home—including the M’s he designed for each family member’s dining room chair cushion and the color schemes for the conversation pit and storage wall; and blueprints, plans and other memorabilia. So who was Miller anyway?
Yale and Oxford educated, Miller was a Columbus industrialist and patron of modern architecture. CEO of the Cummins Engine Company, Miller helped establish the Cummins Foundation, which paid the architects’ fees for new public buildings in Columbus. Many of those buildings, including schools and Cummins manufacturing, office and wellness buildings—designed by the likes of Eero Saarinen, Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, César Pelli, Gunnar Birkerts, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—were available to tour during the symposium.
“Some people have a tombstone at the head of their gravesite or at the foot of it,” Columbus resident William Beaver famously wrote. “Mr. Miller had the whole town as a monument.” Most notably, perhaps, are the Saarinens’ First Christian Church and North Christian Church (both which Miller had built, as a member of the congregation); Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Bank and Trust and Deborah Berke’s 2006 Irwin Union Bank Branch (the star of the Columbus film); I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library; Myron Goldsmith’s Republic Newspaper building, now the home of the J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program; and of course the Miller family’s own house.
For your own remote tour of the Miller House, go here. Meanwhile, several fun facts about the house, as relayed during the symposium, follow:
- The plan actually creates a “house” for the parents, the children, guests, the mechanicals, the kitchen and the cars: All of them are connected by the fabulous open living and dining area, with the conversation pit and storage wall.
- Girard’s color scheme adds lushness, humanity and character to the otherwise severe, modernist architecture.
- Mrs. Miller loved collecting dishware, paper weights and creches—among other housewares and tchotchkes. An additional cabinet in the kitchen was installed to hold many of these items.
- Kiley’s allée of honey locust trees along the house was originally planted into limestone, which killed the trees. They were replanted into a bed topped with crushed granite.
- Many aspects of the house seem to “float,” especially while standing outside the back of the structure facing the lawn to the woodland and the Flat Rock River.
- Kiley chose the gray slate for the exterior and pink blooms of the magnolias as those colors were a popular scheme in the 1950s.
- Inside the house are steel columns terminating in skylights.
- The dining room’s pedestal table is built into the floor; the glass disk at its center can be illuminated; previously, it held a fountain. Girard’s rug, underneath the table, features a colorful pattern that becomes denser toward its center—to help disguise food stains. The rug has a zipper so the material can be removed for cleaning. The floating sideboard is a slab of cantilevered marble.
- The master bedroom has metal grids on one wall for hanging pictures and memorabilia. The master closet is lined with built-in teak shelves and storage.
- Woven into the family room rug are 89 emblems or symbols Girard created from talking with the Miller family, which represent their interests.
- The steel kitchen cabinetry is St. Charles. Above a hidden charcoal grill, adjacent to the blue-tile wall, is an extensive ventilation system.
- The house was built for $468,765—excluding architect and landscape fees.
None of that, of course, compares to the experience of actually being inside the Miller House. Or in any of the other iconic buildings for which Columbus, Indiana, is known. As architect and preservationist Jorge Otero-Pailos discussed during one morning conversation, titled “Interpreting Residential Modern,” houses that have been preserved as museums, whatever their architectural style, allow us to “explore our attachment to things, to come with expectations, to fantasize” about who lived there and how they lived. As “places of culture,” they also allow us to reflect on the communities that have preserved them, what exactly makes them historic, and how material and memory change over time.