Indiana Modern

Unlike Johnson and Whitney, the Miller heirs did not provide enough money to restore the half-century-old house or cover the long-term upkeep of its extensive grounds; the five million dollars they have pledged, while generous, is about half of what is needed. It goes without saying that this is the worst moment in living memory to launch a fundraising campaign, even for an amount that would have been readily achievable a year ago. Despite this, a good case can be made for preserving the Miller House because it is such an edifying embodiment of American optimism and idealism, qualities we should become reacquainted with.

The house was just one part of Miller’s far-reaching plan to turn Columbus into an international architectural mecca. Not all, or even most, of the architects who built under Miller’s aegis are as highly regarded now as they were back then—Harry Weese, John Carl Warnecke, and Gunnar Birkerts, for example. Nevertheless, Columbus also has buildings by four Pritzker Architecture Prize winners—I. M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi, and Richard Meier. Even if they did not all do their best work there, no other place offers a denser concentration of name-brand modernism than this unlikely heartland venue with fewer than forty thousand inhabitants.

Despite that eclectic architectural roster, Miller had one clear favorite: Eero Saarinen. His four diverse buildings for Miller—the others being a rambling but spartan lake retreat (1950–1952) in Ontario, Canada; a serene Miesian pavilion for the family’s Irwin Union Trust Company (1950–1954); and a flamboyant Space Age mother ship for the interdenominational North Christian Church (1959–1964)—summarize Saarinen’s wayward aesthetic, which bothered hardline modernists, though not Miller.

One of the last true believers in modernism as a high moral principle, Miller was fervent about the spiritual uplift of good design, the personal obligations of religious faith (he served as the first nonclerical head of the National Council of Churches), and the redemptive power of social activism (he helped organize the 1963 civil rights march on Washington). The scion of a locally prominent clan whose enterprises he took to new heights of success, Miller was taught from childhood not to lord it over the neighbors, a useful strategy in smalltown America. As he transformed his Cummins Engine Company into the world’s foremost independent maker of diesel engines, he wanted to create a domestic setting that conveyed the same progressive values he championed in all his endeavors.

Despite his family’s tenet that good fortune must never be flaunted, Miller believed that wealth could certainly be enjoyed. His seemingly modest house—in which rich materials like marble, travertine, and rosewood are deployed with exquisite discretion—has been aptly described by Christopher Monkhouse, the Eloise W. Martin Curator and Chair of European Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, as “an essay in modernist inconspicuous consumption.”1

Rather than choosing a high-profile, in-town lot like some latter-day Magnificent Ambersons, the Millers opted for a thirteen-acre site on the edge of Columbus, where their five young children could grow up in privacy. The family was so averse to unwanted attention that the project was carried out in strict secrecy, and at first they refused to have the results published. Eventually they relented, but that initial press blackout meant that Saarinen’s low-key scheme never lodged in the public consciousness, unlike Johnson’s glamorous Glass House and Mies’s ethereal Farnsworth House.

The Miller House—a low-slung, single-story box with an eighty by one-hundred-foot rectangular floor plan, deeply projecting flat roof, nine-part modular grid, and minimalist elevations—bears a definite if subliminal resemblance to Saarinen’s earlier Irwin Union Trust Company. Once inside the house, though, no one would confuse it with a bank. Saarinen “zoned” the interiors by consigning private functions to self-contained units in the outer corners: widely separated bedroom suites for the owners, their children, and guests, with the kitchen and other services in the fourth quadrant.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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