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Miller House And Gardens: A Gem Of Modernism

A jewel in the crown of Columbus, Indiana’s architecture scene is now open to the public.

Thank Heavens For Riding Lawn Mowers

Zachary Allan Bruning got his job mowing the lawn at the Miller House & Garden about a year ago. “I love my job, and I love this place,” he says, taking a momentary break from mowing the expansive section of grass on the nearly 14 acre lot. It’s a good thing he enjoys his work; it takes him nearly four hours twice a week to keep the lawn at a manageable height.

Earlier this month, the public had the opportunity to admire Bruning’s work when the house and gardens opened for tours through the summer.

An American Masterpiece

The grounds was a collaboration amongst three prominent American designers: architect Eero Saarinen, textile artist Alexander Girard, and landscape designer Dan Kiley. Commissioned in 1953 by industrialist J. Irwin Miller and his wife Xenia, the property was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000, the first location to be honored while one of its designers was still living (Kiley), and while the house was still occupied by its original owners.

The property is now owned and cared for by the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Family Touches

The IMA has been training volunteers to conduct tours of the grounds through the Columbus Area Visitors Center. Tour guides tell stories about the family that lived on the property, shared by the youngest of the family’s five children, Will Miller.

According to Bradley Brooks, the IMA’s Director of Historic Resources, Miller related the story of his sisters roller skating around the outside of the house, whipping the corners by grabbing the columns. “So, here you’ve got beautiful, high modernism at its finest,” Brooks says. “Children will find a way to extract fun from that landscape.”

A view of the landscape is a vital part of the beauty of the inside of the house as well. The grand room enjoys a view of the meadow to the west, a sight line the Millers did not want to be disrupted by Girard’s interior design. They wrote him with a request to find an alternative for the Eames sofa Girard had specified for the grand room, saying that sofa is not attractive when viewed from behind and was too tall for the sight lines of that room anyway.

Playing With Space

The Millers also worked closely with Girard to design the signature element of the house: the conversation pit, a square portion of the grand room that’s submerged a few feet and lined with cushions and pillows. The ‘pit’ allows for a number of people to sit without having to add more furniture to the space.

It also gives visitors a different view of items in the room, like the underside of the grand piano, which Girard painted red to match the conversation pit pillows.

The pillows are another example of the collaboration between Girard and the Millers. The cushions had interchangeable slipcovers, so that their colors could change with the seasons.

The idea for a rotating color scheme was one of the designer’s responses when Mrs. Miller said, “I want new interiors but I don’t want to move.”

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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