Editor’s Note: This story is part of a continuing series on the architecture of Columbus, its importance to the community and the challenges in maintaining the city’s treasures.
Standing in the center of the Miller House, a glance west through the floor-to-ceiling glass exterior reveals an expanse of neatly manicured lawn that rests on a lower plane. The slope toward that plane cannot be seen from inside, giving the home’s occupant a sense of mystery and lightness, as if floating above the other plane, or perhaps above all the worries of the world.
The relationship between home and garden, the flawless fusion of architecture and landscape design make the Miller House and Garden a one-of-a-kind modernist marvel, said Anthony J. Costello, principal of Muncie-based architects Costello + Associates and the Irving Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Ball State University.
The Miller House is the kind of marvel that Travel + Leisure magazine calls America’s most significant modernist house. It’s the kind of marvel that is among fewer than 2,500 National Historic Landmarks, identifying it as a nationally significant historic place that possesses exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.
Commissioned by industrialist and Cummins Engine Co. Chairman J. Irwin Miller and his wife, Xenia, in 1953 and completed in 1957, the home was designed by Eero Saarinen, who also conceived North Christian Church and the Cummins Inc. Irwin Office Building in Columbus, the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York City, the Main Terminal of Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. His father, Eliel Saarinen, designed First Christian Church in Columbus.
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The Millers’ children donated the house to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which has opened the home for public tours.
From the entrance on the home’s east side, a hallway leads into the dominant living area — but a free-standing wall blocks the visitor’s view of the west window, the one that reveals the green expanse.
Saarinen built the wall to heighten the visitor’s mystery, to guide the sequence of views revealed to the visitor’s eye, said Bradley C. Brooks, director of historic resources at Indianapolis Museum of Art.
The home “doesn’t reveal itself all at once,” he said.
“Saarinen makes you walk and engage the space,” Costello said.
Stepping beyond the wall reveals, in four directions, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors beyond which guests can glimpse the landscapes, designed by Dan Kiley.
A further encroachment brings the visitor’s focus to the main living space’s centerpiece, the conversation pit, a rectangular couch recessed into the floor and covered by colorful pillows.
The focus on the pit is enhanced by the building’s soft light and architectural restraint, according to Costello and Brooks.
Natural light filters in from all four major compass points and through opaque skylights. It reflects off the marble walls and is diffused and softened by their matte finish.
No matter where people stand in the main living area, they cannot see their shadow, Brooks said. Everything is awash in soft light.
Costello said he also enjoys the home’s many subtle design details, which enhance its overall impact.
The small pool on the home’s west side is off-center, just like the conversation pit inside, perhaps recalling the asymmetry of Saarinen’s father’s work at First Christian Church.
Light fixtures are set at the same source as the natural light, so that at night the lighting scheme recalls the natural light from the daytime. Drapery tracks are set into the ceiling, so as not to interrupt the flatness of the ceiling or the occupants’ views of the gardens.
Joints on the indoor floor tiles line up exactly with the lines in the terrazzo outside, a “jaw-dropping bit of elegance” that requires planning and precise instructions to the quarries, Brooks said.
Heating/air conditioning vents line the entire edge of the glass windows and doors — rather than being scattered here and there.
The home’s fireplace differs from traditional ones by its conical shape and because it is in a non-central location several feet away from the living room’s eastern wall.
‘Elegance of good detailing’
Typically, Brooks said, people have to place themselves in one specific spot of a home to get the experience of the fireplace. In the Miller House, the fireplace can be seen from everywhere in the room. The experience of the fireplace is not diminished depending on where one stands, Brooks said.
“There’s balance without symmetry ... without ornamentation,” he said. “That’s very difficult to achieve.”
Saarinen expended tremendous design energy into making things disappear, Brooks said.
Costello calls that “the elegance of good detailing.”
“That level of detail takes an incredible amount of time, an incredible amount of expertise,” he said.
It’s the kind of expertise that impresses even seasoned architects.
In April, about 140 members of the American Institute of Architects met in Columbus and toured a lot of buildings, including the Miller House.
“This was the highlight,” Costello said. “They were awed.”
The Miller property differs from many of the city’s architectural assets because it is a home: Columbus’ seven national landmarks also include three churches, two offices and a school.
And unlike other famous modernist homes, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, which provided respite for weekends or vacations, the Miller House served as the main residence for a family and provided functionality while remaining true to one of the modernist movement’s main mantras: Form follows function.
Costello recalled being told anecdotes by the Miller children: They played in the home, had parties at the pool and screamed with delight as their mittens held onto sleighs that zipped down the property’s western slope.
“This was really a house for a family that lived in it,” he said.
And that, Brooks said, makes it even more compelling that the Millers left in the home many of their personal belongings, including photos, books and artifacts picked up on travels.
‘Family gift was a godsend’
The master bedroom’s south wall is filled with items, including a thank-you note to the patriarch from Jean Tinguely, designer of the “Chaos” sculpture in The Commons; an autograph of American poet Walt Whitman; and the cover of a 1976 Esquire magazine that implored that Miller “ought to be the next president of the United States.”
The wall’s top left displays a copy of English artist William Hogarth’s 1741 etching “The Enraged Musician,” showing a violinist looking out a window as he holds his hands to his ears to block the noise coming from outside, where a child is beating a drum, a young girl is playing with a noisy toy and an infant is screaming in its mother’s arms.
Brooks said he likes to think that J. Irwin Miller, an accomplished violinist, sometimes felt like Hogarth’s enraged musician, with all the children and their friends playing in and around the Miller House.
The master bedroom also includes a shelf with horse statues and books such as “The Caine Mutiny,” “The Lopsided Ape” and “Brideshead Revisited.” Next to the shelf hangs a photo showing a young J. Irwin Miller at Balliol College at Oxford University. Nearby is the Balliol crest his mother made in the 1930s.
Brooks called the items left by the family “a pearl beyond price,” because they communicate powerfully about the people who lived in the home.
The Miller family also provided an endowment of $5 million to allow the museum to pay for upkeep and maintenance of the house and garden.
Costello said that many public institutions have accepted gifts of architecturally significant homes without any endowment or realization of the annual maintenance costs.
“The family gift was a godsend,” Costello said.
The home, for much of its life, was not well-known, Costello said, because it was in use and not accessible by the public. Thanks to the IMA and the Miller family, it is experiencing a rebirth.
“It’s almost like finding this (lost) treasure,” Costello said. “These things don’t happen very often.”
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