The heart of the structure was freed for an atrium-like open plan living-dining-entertaining area, white-on-white and illuminated by narrow perpendicular skylights. This free-flowing expanse is punctuated by Saarinen’s most innovative (and imitated) feature: a large square of upholstered banquettes recessed below floor level and dubbed “the conversation pit.” A later version, at the architect’s Vassar College dormitory (1954–1958) earned a more colorful nickname, “the passion pit.”
One component that has steadily improved with age is Kiley’s magnificent planting concept, an enthralling sequence of boldly architectural outdoor “rooms” delineated by high clipped hedges and interconnecting “corridors” defined by long rows of trees and elegant paving. Kiley drew on several historical sources—classical Japanese stroll gardens, English romantic parks, and French baroque alleés and parterres. Yet he transformed those borrowings into wholly contemporary expressions that reinforce Saarinen’s architecture and give it a resonance the recessive building would otherwise lack.
This classic of modern horticulture, unsurpassed in the United States, alone would justify the preservation effort (which is being overseen by the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s enterprising design arts curator, R. Craig Miller, no relation of Saarinen’s favorite patron). As for timeliness, there could be no more instructive example of money well spent than this.
In chastening contrast to the grotesque excesses of post-millennial domestic design, the Miller ensemble bears witness against flagrant crimes of taste and reason committed in recent years. If we are to open eyes unfamiliar with the beauty of restraint, we must have more examples of how things ought to be done. There is no better paragon of an endangered species than this quintessential modern dream house, which takes us back to the American century at its apogee.
1 Christopher Monkhouse, “The Miller House: A Private Residence in the Public Realm,” in Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, ed. Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and Donald Albrecht (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006), p. 240.
MARTIN FILLER is a regular contributor to Antiques.