Indiana Modern

Editorial Staff Art

April 2009 | The cleverest exponents of modern architecture and design have furthered their cause by playing to a deep-seated human obsession: curiosity about how people live at home. Modernism’s radical reformation of the built environment would never have succeeded without the show houses, model rooms, and design journals that gave a broad audience tips on modern living. Persuasive as those methods were, though, nothing can make architecture more understandable and immediate than a visit to an actual house, even when its residents are long gone.The first director of the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design department, Philip Johnson (1906–2005), knew a thing or two about promoting modernism (and himself). To secure his place in history, he offered his much publicized country place in New Canaan, Connecticut, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But that underfunded organization could accept the bequest only if it came with an endowment to maintain the forty-seven-acre spread and its fourteen structures in perpetuity. Whereupon Johnson and his lover of forty-five years, the curator and collector David Whitney (1939–2005), adjusted their wills to seal the deal.

Now, another mid-century architectural treasure faces a more difficult transition from personal domain to historic landmark. The Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, is virtually unknown in comparison to the canonical Glass House and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s (1886–1969) Farnsworth House (1945–1951) in Plano, Illinois. (In 2003 the National Trust helped the preservation group Landmarks Illinois buy the Farnsworth House, for a reported $7.5 million.) But as a tour de force of totally integrated modernism, the Miller House—designed by Eero Saarinen, decorated by Alexander Girard and landscaped by Dan Kiley—is in a class all its own, and will be hailed as a major revelation when it finally opens to the public.

Commissioned by J. Irwin Miller (1909–2004), an industrialist, banker, and arguably the most committed American architecture patron of the postwar period—whose widow, Xenia Simons Miller (1917–2008), lived in the house until her death last February—this was among the few houses undertaken by Saarinen. By the 1950s he was so preoccupied with large public commissions that despite his belief in total design, he delegated many details he once would have handled himself. He begged off decorating  for the Millers, which led to a surprising departure from high modernist conventions.

The severely minimalist interiors of the Glass House and Farnsworth House suited their unmarried middle-aged owners just fine. But the Millers sought a warmer, more playful atmosphere for their large family, and Girard was the perfect choice. As the director of the textile design division at Herman Miller, Girard had worked closely with Charles and Ray Eames. Although all three adhered to modernist principles in architecture, they shared a passion for colorful folkloric objects and delighted in accenting their interiors with naive artifacts in Victorian profusion.

This revival of clutter seemed heretical to many, but Girard never tipped the balance away from a dominant modernist theme. He devised a sweeping, floor-to-ceiling “storage wall” that gave a carefully composed mélange of books, art objects, and personal mementos the imposing presence of a wall sculpture by Louise Nevelson (1899–1988).

Soon after Xenia Miller died, her children offered Saarinen’s international style structure, its still-intact (if well-worn) Girard interiors, and Kiley’s surrounding landscape to the Indian-apolis Museum of Art, forty-five miles north of Columbus. The museum’s di-rector, Maxwell Anderson, accepted the gift with a mixture of alacrity and alarm. The deal was formalized just two months after the economic collapse of  last September, but even at that frightening juncture there was no doubting this as a cultural priority of singular urgency.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. 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.