Modern Family: The Miller Home

Once-private archives for the residence—a modernist masterpiece in Columbus opening to the public this month—reveal a landmark designed for living.

The vibrant photos splayed on the glossy pages of the February 1959 issue of House & Garden show an otherworldly home, one where the colors and knickknacks are chaotic yet contained, and the living spaces so perfectly proportioned that the furniture’s form seems to march obediently in line with each room’s function. Floorplan drawings map out the home, and photographs lure readers to pause, step in, and imagine warming themselves at the cylindrical fireplace, running their fingers along the rosewood panels of the 50-foot-long storage wall, and lounging on garnet, deep fuchsia, and cardinal-red throw pillows atop a couch that is sunken into the floor.

Over 20 pages, the magazine declares that the design of this home promotes “family unity and tranquility,” and that this astonishing “new concept of beauty” blends “exotic and native, ancient and modern, rich and austere.” It devotes a spread to the interior, “decorated as few have been in our generation”; another to the living room’s “brilliantly cushioned well”—the conversation pit, as it would come to be known—that does away with the “unsightly tangles of chair and sofa legs, the ubiquitous end tables”; another to the dining room, with a table featuring a built-in fountain centerpiece. The master bedroom is “the parents’ private preserve,” and in the children’s wing, with four spartan dorm-style bedrooms that spill into a playroom, the occupants “can feel free to develop their own tastes and pursue their own interests within the framework of family life.”

The story, illustrated with pictures by noted architectural photographer Ezra Stoller, fawns over the three-headed design team—architect Eero Saarinen, fresh off of his commission designing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; decorator Alexander Girard, who brought his sense of humor and punchy taste for color to the streamlined, neutral backdrop of the house; and Dan Kiley, an emerging landscape designer who used the vast property to experiment with applying modern design to the flat canvas of a Midwestern home spread.

Indeed, the only details left uncovered are the homeowners’ identities and the whereabouts of the house itself. The lone hint of life appears in a small photo of the storage wall as seen from the den, with a view of the dining room in the background, where two shadowed figures can be seen, seated facing each other on chairs designed by Charles Eames. She sits up straight, ankles crossed; he is more relaxed, leaning on an armrest, with one shoulder slumped lower than the other.

The mystery location of the house did little to stem the tide of attention for it. In Minneapolis, Ken and Judy Dayton, of the family that owned Dayton’s Department Stores, marked “Keep” on their House & Garden issue and called Saarinen’s office, hoping to commission a modernist house. From the other side of the world, the ruling family of Bahrain also contacted him. “They wanted a house just like it,” says Christopher Monkhouse, curator and chair of European decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, who has studied Saarinen’s work extensively. “It shows you just how far afield, even in that age, the ripple effect of this house went.”

Saarinen declined both jobs. He designed few homes and had made an exception for this one because its owner, J. Irwin Miller of Columbus, was a friend and already a leader of efforts to bring forward-thinking design to his hometown. And although the Millers had limited publicity of the home, allowing it to be featured in just two publications—Architectural Forum, which called the house “pristine and delightful,” and the House & Garden splash—Saarinen was a celebrity architect by then, and most everything he touched in those years was a media event. From the moment it was completed, the project was heralded by the design world as a marvel of modernism.

Until now, Stoller’s photos had provided the only significant views of a private home that has been dissected by architectural historians, studied by pupils of mid-century America, and ogled by modern-design devotees. But beginning this month, the public will be able to tour the Miller house—now in the hands of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which was gifted the home and many of its original contents following the death of Miller’s wife, Xenia, in 2008. As they prepared the house over the past 18 months, IMA staff turned away both architecture professors and curiosity-seekers who showed up unannounced, hoping for an early tour.

Last year, the Miller family and a family foundation delivered the house (and a $5 million endowment to help maintain it) to the IMA with another gift: dozens of boxes containing the Millers’ personal files on the construction and maintenance of the home. Today, many of the files—which include everything from early correspondence between the famous architect and his famous clients to a rudimentary owner’s manual for a compact disc player purchased in 1987—rest in some five dozen Tiffany-blue archival boxes in the stacks of the IMA library. Down the hall, a storage room holds architectural plans and three-dimensional mementos, such as fabric samples and a chunk of wood used to show the Millers the rosewood envisioned for the storage wall.

Altogether, the archive enlivens the story of how this home was loved and lived in over 50-plus years. It sheds light on how a great mid-century architect at the pinnacle of his career worked with a great patron of architecture on his most personal purchase. It divulges a few secrets, including the closely guarded number for how much was spent on the residence. And it contains a few sweet surprises: Mrs. Miller, for instance, was concerned about which modern-style bedroom furniture would enable her children to make their own beds.

Construction of the miller house began in 1953 and was completed in 1957. But the roots of the friendship that spawned the house began in 1935, when Irwin Miller—fresh from an undergraduate degree at Yale and a master’s from Oxford—returned to Columbus during the Depression and was named general manager of the Cummins plant, a piece of the family business that had existed since 1919 but had never turned a profit.

“About … 1935, the First Christian Church wanted to build a new building,” Miller told Town & Country magazine when it profiled him in 1974. “My father was on the building committee, and I started yakking at him: ‘Why don’t you guys pioneer? Why don’t you take a chance?’ And they said, ‘What do you mean?’ ” The church interviewed several architects, and their serendipitous choice was Eliel Saarinen, a Finnish-born architecture professor at the University of Michigan. The church’s approach to Saarinen suggested the kind of open-mindedness that Columbus would become known for. “In essence,” Miller explained to Town & Country, “they said: We don’t know anything about modern architecture. But we do know something about people, and this is a great man. We’re willing to go wherever he might lead us, even though we might not like it, because we really trust this guy.’ ”

The church’s collaboration with the senior Saarinen brought Columbus its first modern-architecture commission, a boxy, glass-fronted building with a corresponding bell tower. Just as important, however, were the people Eliel brought to town: Eero, his son, and Charles Eames, one of his architecture students. Miller was given the responsibility of entertaining the younger men, and their friendship blossomed. “Eero used to come down … and Charlie Eames used to come down, and if the old men were busy we all had lots of time and we used to go out at night for hamburgers,” he told Town & Country. “We would have endless conversations about everything. We never had so much time or leisure again.” In the long evenings spent at Zaharako’s, the soda fountain in downtown Columbus and a mainstay since 1900, the men discussed everything from modern architecture to Finnish politics—and cemented a friendship.

At the time, Miller had only recently returned to his hometown. But over his lifetime, he would build a reputation as a principled businessman who was a well-reasoned, soft-spoken Renaissance man. In fact, in October 1967, Esquire went in search of someone—anyone—who might be able to beat Richard Nixon for the Republican nomination for president and came up with Irwin Miller, featuring him that month in a story, “Is It Too Late for a Man of Honesty, High Purpose and Intelligence to Be Elected President of the United States in 1968?” The story noted his accomplishments: He built the struggling Cummins Engine into a company that controlled half of the American market in diesel engines for trucks. He supported civil rights and was even an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. He was a generous supporter of Republican candidates but had been known, from time to time, to vote for Democrats. In 1943, he had married a local girl and former Cummins employee. He had five charming children. He was the first layman to assume leadership of the powerful National Council of Churches. And even his outside interests were endearing: When he read the New Testament, he read the Greek translation, and for relaxation, Esquire noted, he played Bach on his Stradivarius. The story also noted that Miller was a patron of art and architecture, and that he had a longstanding friendship with Eero Saarinen. Ten years after they first met, when Miller had in mind a new summer cottage for his family property in Ontario, he turned to his friend Eero, who brought along a collaborator, Alexander Girard, as a designer. That same year, Miller also commissioned Saarinen to design a new headquarters for the Irwin Union Bank and Trust Company. And the Canadian cottage was barely complete when Miller began talking to his old friend about working with him yet again—and perhaps bringing Girard back onto the scene, too—for a year-round home for his family in Columbus.

In the stacks of the Indianapolis Museum of Art Library, in the Tiffany-blue box labeled “Box 1, Correspondence, ‘New House,’ 5/12/1953–7/21/1955,” is a barely worn yellow carbon copy of a letter—dated May 25, 1953— from Miller to Girard.

Dear Sandro:
Last night, Xenia and I acquired the piece of property for which we have been negotiating for the past year and a half, and would like to talk with you and Eero. I suggest that, if possible, you join Eero on his next trip to Columbus, which I should hope would be in the not too distant future. I think we will have a good deal of fun working this out. Our best to you and Susan.
Sincerely yours,

The property consisted of 13 acres of former tobacco fields, just off a busy street. The land was essentially flat, leading west to a 12-foot drop that sloped toward the Flatrock River. The Millers had hoped that their architect friends would visit right away, so they could begin landscaping the property and the plants might have an extra season to start growing. But problems with the survey meant that the property didn’t even change hands until two months later—when Mr. Miller wrote a check for $30,000 to buy the 13 acres—and Saarinen and Girard didn’t visit until fall. A few weeks after that, Saarinen delivered a design—but it failed to impress. “A third of the land is up out of the flood plain,” says Will Miller, the couple’s younger son, the only Miller child who still lives in Columbus. “And then the land drops down, and two-thirds runs between the slope and the river. The first house proposal was a house on stilts on the edge of the river, and my mother’s first response was, ‘And when it rains each spring, do you expect me to row my children to school?’ ”

Saarinen went back to the drawing board, and in March 1954 he returned to Columbus to present a new design: concrete-block walls covered with dark-gray slate panels, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a flat slab roof. A 10-foot-wide terrace surrounded the house. And inside, a sparsely furnished central room was surrounded by the four other components of the home: a master bedroom, with its own bath and his-and-hers dressing rooms; a kitchen area, which included a dining room open to the large entertaining space in the center of the house; a children’s quadrant, with four small bedrooms (just big enough for a bed, closet, and desk) that opened into a large playroom, for socializing; and a zone for a guest room and nanny’s quarters.

After the get-together, Saarinen sent a relieved letter to Girard. “I am on my way back from Columbus,” he wrote. “The Millers liked the general scheme of the house. They liked the one-story concept … They liked the general degree of formality-informality inherent in the house.” The couple liked the “low, unmonumental character” of the home, Saarinen continued, but the price tag—approaching $200,000, even without furnishings—gave them pause. The Millers began suggesting ways to cut costs, such as reducing the garage capacity from four cars to three, and decreasing the size of the entrance hall. Overall, though, Saarinen noted that he was “enthusiastic about their response because I feel there is a genuine feeling on their part that it is for them, and I have a feeling also that nothing is ‘put over’ on them, but simply right for them.”

The design included two signatures in the interior. The first was a long storage wall that extended through the central area and into a family den, which would be used for watching television. The wall contained storage for books, art, and other collections, plus cabinet storage for some of the Millers’ belongings, such as Mr. Miller’s beloved Stradivarius violin and a record player. The other signature was sunken seating, alternately called the lounge pit or conversation pit, intended to encourage socializing without marring the flow of the room with furniture legs. The pit was accessed by four steps, with no railing.

Just a few days after Saarinen left Columbus, Miller wrote a seven-page letter to Girard. “We are delighted with the general scheme and congratulate both of you on expressing so well what we want in our house,” he says. But the letter goes on to note some concerns, the biggest of which involved the conversation pit. “Xenia is still skeptical about the steps down into the living room,” Miller wrote, “and I agree that these may appear formidable to older ladies.”

Saarinen, in a letter written at about the same time, told Girard: “I think she will grow to like them.”

In the archive, the questions about the conversation pit seem to melt away. Miller noted years later in a story about Girard in The New York Times that the designer constructed a model of the pit at a shop in New York; that might have settled the questions. “We sat in it and asked ladies in the shop to walk by, to see if their skirts exposed too much,” Miller told the Times. One thing that was too exposed: the plain underside of the piano near the pit. It was painted a vibrant red so it would look finished from the view from below.  But mostly over the next two years—as construction began; as Saarinen hooked up the Millers with Kiley, the young landscape architect; and as the couple began looking more closely at some of the fabrics and furniture Girard had selected for them—the Millers revealed themselves to be exactly what they were: concerned parents, looking not to just live in a work of art, but to raise a family in one. They wanted bicycle parking near the kitchen so the children could easily race in for a snack after getting home from school. So, of the kitchen yard, Saarinen wrote to Girard: “Perhaps here is where we should provide the storage for various streamlined, kids’ transportation devices.”

Continuing their role as engaged clients, the Millers were concerned that the skylights might bleach the rugs. That the Herman Miller beds selected by Girard would be difficult for the children to make by themselves. That the fabric used for the kitchen curtains didn’t seem appropriate for a food-prep area. And that the storage wall didn’t contain a specific spot for putting away card tables and chairs; Mrs. Miller’s bridge club, “The Old Maids,” as they called themselves, had been together since high school, and the tables needed a home of their own so they would be readily accessible whenever it was her turn to host. (Will Miller reports that this question was eventually settled with a special compartment in the guest-room area; setting up for bridge club became one of his childhood chores.)

Among the many files in the archive that reveal Mr. Miller’s eye for detail and desire to make this house precisely right is a letter he typed himself on a Saturday morning at his summer home in Ontario. The letter concerned the walk-in refrigerator planned just off of the kitchen. He noted that the plans called for the door to pull closed, but he believed it would have to push closed. “The force required to crush the gasket and expel the air is considerable, and most persons, in closing such doors, have to put their weight against it and slam it,” Miller wrote.

The letter contained a few notes in Miller’s handwriting, and his secretary retyped the letter onto letterhead the following Monday and sent it to Saarinen’s office.

In the years following construction of the Miller house, Saarinen was at the height of his career. He designed the TWA Flight Center at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport; Washington Dulles International Airport; the John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Illinois; and several IBM facilities.

By April 1961, nearly four years after the Miller family had moved into their house, Saarinen was back at work in Columbus, this time designing a new North Christian Church, the fourth job he had undertaken for Irwin Miller. At one point in the process, when Saarinen was still tweaking the design and the congregation was growing impatient, Miller was dispatched to hurry the architect along. Saarinen sent him this note: “It would be so easy to say—as you would like me to—‘Let’s go ahead with it as it is.’ But against that I have perhaps a greater conscience, because I would know in my heart that it would not really be the best I can do … I want to solve it so that as an architect when I face St. Peter I am able to say that out of the buildings I did in my lifetime, one of the best was this little church, because it has in it a real spirit that speaks forth to all Christians as a witness to their faith.”

Five months later, Miller shared those words at a memorial service for Saarinen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a circular chapel Saarinen had designed. The architect had died following brain surgery to remove a tumor. He was 51 years old. He lived to complete the plans for the church, although—like many other notable projects designed in his final years—not long enough to see it built. “A man is proved not so much by the words that come from his pen, or even the noble works that come from his hand,” Miller said in Saarinen’s eulogy. “His worth is most carefully weighed when he is called to choose between his own high standards and easy accommodation to the press of the world upon him.”

The Miller family had intended to call on Saarinen from time to time as they lived in their home and needed to make occasional modifications. (In fact, the idea of consulting with an architect’s original vision was so important to Miller that it is a requirement of all buildings constructed with funding from the Cummins Foundation.) And, indeed, the house began to change almost as soon as Ezra Stoller packed up his cameras. For instance, the Millers decided they preferred some Saarinen-designed tulip chairs to the Charles Eames–designed molded chairs with Eiffel Tower legs. The Eames chairs, they felt, looked like a jungle of supports.

And the pristine vision of the home established by the magazine articles falls well short of representing the family life lived in it. The children hosted slumber parties in the conversation pit and roller-skated on the travertine patio outside, whipping around the columns that supported the weight of the house at each corner. And, like any family, they made memories. “We were all, as children, somewhere between encouraged and required to take piano lessons,” Will Miller says. “Every morning, the routine was that at some ungodly hour the alarm would go off, and you’d get up, shower, brush your teeth, practice piano for half an hour, and then get dressed and go to school. One night my alarm went off at 3 a.m. I got up, showered, brushed my teeth, and went out and starting playing the piano at 3 in the morning. My father, of course, came out and said, ‘What are you doing?’”

The children themselves might have uncovered the house’s greatest design flaw: There was no way to move from one private area of the house to another without crossing the central living area. In other words, a child who had gone to bed while his parents were entertaining couldn’t get to the kitchen for a glass of milk without cutting through the party. And another disappointment was the fortitude of the plants Kiley had selected: Though his design is heralded as the quintessential modern residential garden, many of his picks were not fit for the climate and had to be replaced in just a few years.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the marble walls became the repository for pieces of fine art selected by Mrs. Miller. The pedigreed works—by such artists as Monet, Matisse, and Bonnard—became part of the backdrop of life in the house. Three years ago, when they were to be auctioned off at Christie’s auction house following Mrs. Miller’s death, Margaret Miller, the oldest of the five children, told The Republic in Columbus that she recalled just one painting getting damaged at the house, despite the comings and goings of so many children and their friends. “It wasn’t by a child,” she says in the article. “It actually took place during a party my parents were hosting, and one of the adults wanted to get a close look at the Bonnard in the living room. Unfortunately he got so close that he fell forward into the painting and damaged it.” After that, the Millers used strategic placement of potted plants to keep guests at a safe distance from the artwork.

Following Saarinen’s unexpected death, the family turned to his associate, Kevin Roche—who had also worked intimately on the house’s design—for consultation when the home needed to be altered. Once the children had grown and moved on, he helped them convert the former nanny’s quarters into a larger guest bedroom. As Mrs. Miller became more involved in civic affairs, he helped her remake the playroom as a home office where she could work alongside her personal assistant, Barbara Voelz. In those days, Voelz says, Irwin Miller would stop by the playroom when he returned home from work. “He was so sweet to her,” Voelz says. “He would say, ‘I have to come in and say hello and see Mommy.’ He was such a devoted husband.”

Many years later, as Mr. Miller’s, and then Mrs. Miller’s, health began to fail, Roche helped to remodel the girls’ bathroom so it could include a walk-in shower. Even the safety bars installed there were thoughtfully placed and designed, affixed to metal squares that are precisely the same size and shape as the white tiles that surround them, making them as unobtrusive as possible. “Anything that was done, they wanted to do it right,” Voelz says. “They didn’t want to do anything that would take away from the original architecture.”

J. Irwin Miller, known for building Cummins into a global powerhouse during his years as president and board chairman, died in 2004, at the age of 95. Xenia Miller died four years later, at the age of 90.

They both died at home.

For the most part, the Indianapolis Museum of Art will show the house as it existed when the Millers lived there. Nearly all of the artwork on the walls was sold at auction. But most Saarinen experts agree that the house is best viewed with its pristine marble walls.

“I talk about historic houses holding cards, and I ask: How many trump cards do you hold?” says Bradley Brooks, director of historic resources at the IMA, who oversees operation of the Miller house. “Do you have an outstanding personality behind the house? A great location? Is there a fabulous story? There are only a few key houses that can say, ‘Yep, yep, yep.’ We have an excellent location, in a city that is already renowned for its architecture. It’s a property of outstanding design. And we have an outstanding story about the Millers—a very moving story about 20th-century industrialism and the Millers’ internal moral compass. So, this house has a lot of those trump cards. It’s a thrill to be able to share it.”

The museum did make one adjustment. Eventually, Irwin Miller agreed with his wife: The conversation pit was dangerous. They added a handrail to assist party guests on the stairs. An aluminum model was constructed, and then the final brass version was installed. Both railings are now stored as pieces of the Miller archive, and the conversation pit once again looks as it did in Stoller’s 1957 photos.

The railings join the rest of the archive—boxes and boxes that, as it turns out, also help settle one of the great debates of the mid-century design world: whether a modernist home can, with its clean lines and spartan trappings, truly be a family home. Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful, championed one side of the argument in 1953: “The much-touted all-glass cube of International Style architecture is perhaps the most unlivable type of home for man since he descended from the tree and entered a cave,” she wrote. “The bare minimum of gadgets and possessions so as not to spoil the ‘clean’ look; three or four pieces of furniture placed along arbitrary pre-ordained lines; room for only a few books and one painting at precise and permanent points; no children, no dogs, extremely meager kitchen facilities—nothing human that might disturb the architect’s composition.”

The Miller home and archive reveal the story of not only an iconic house, but a family home—one where lives were lived, parties were enjoyed, and, yes, children were raised and even a family pet was entertained. A place where one of Indiana’s most notable couples grew old, together.

See more photos of the Miller Home.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.