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June 27, 2010 Mid-Century Modern

The Miller House: Mid-Century Modernism at its Finest

The 1957 Miller House by Eero Saarinen. Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The second project J. Irwin Miller and Eero Saarinen worked on in Columbus was the Millers’ personal residence, one of the few residential homes Saarinen designed and the second home he designed for Irwin and Xenia. Saarinen’s first commission for the Millers was a 1952 cottage in Ontario. The Miller House, named a National Historic Landmark in 2000, is a stunning example of mid-century modernism that actually was used as a private residence for the past 50 years. The Millers raised their children in the home and regularly entertained there for business. Alexander Girard designed the interior while Dan Kiley landscaped the 13 acres. The 1957 house was donated by the Miller family to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It is now being renovated and the plan is to open it to the public for the first time next year. As part of the recent tour organized by the Columbus Area Visitors Center, bloggers from around the country were allowed to tour the house but not take pictures as it is being catalogued and prepared to be open to the public.

Suffice it to say, my brief description and the previously published photos you can see here, do not do the house justice. When you walk in and take in the wide open space of the living room and conversation pit, you think, “This is the way a house is supposed to be.” Located on a busy North-South street a few minutes outside of downtown, the one-level, flat-roof  rectangular home is not visible from the street thanks to huge modernist blocks of arborvitae planted by Kiley. The exterior is glass with panels of blue-gray slate and white marble. The roof, a steel-truss umbrella, is supported by 16 columns, not by any of the walls. A system of skylights helps bring light into the home, which has interior walls of light-colored marble and floors of light-colored travertine. The open living space is surrounded by four private quarters — a master suite, a children’s wing, the kitchen-laundry area and the guest wing. The central focus in the large open living area is the Girard-designed conversation pit that overlooks a small water-feature pool and Kiley’s grounds. A cylinder-like fireplace contrasts with the flat clean lines of the rest of the house.

Miller House, Columbus, Indiana, circa 1957. Photographer Ezra Stoller. © Ezra Stoller / ESTO.

While Saarinen and Girard’s design had an impact far from Columbus–it was on the cover of the February 1959 House & Garden–it also influenced a private residence just down Washington Street. David Force, an architect who grew up in Columbus, designed a modern home for his family 17 years ago that can be seen as an ode to the Miller House, including the conversation pit.

David Force created his own conversation pit just down the street from the Miller House.

The foyer leads into the open living space, which is surrounded by separate wings for the adults and children like the Miller House.