Caring for a Modernist Masterpiece (2010)

J. Irwin Miller House

J. Irwin Miller House. Photographs courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The Irwin Miller Garden, Columbus, Indiana 

“Dan Kiley told Mrs. Miller that he considered it his best design,” says Mark Zelonis, Ruth Lilly Deputy Director of Environmental & Historic Preservation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Admirers of Kiley (1912–2004), one of the most significant landscape architects of the twentieth century, will know immediately that Zelonis is referring to the Miller House and Garden (1955) in Columbus, Indiana—a collaboration among Kiley, architect Eero Saarinen (1910–1961), and Alexander Girard (1907–1993), who created the interiors. Their client, industrialist J. Irwin Miller (1909–2004), was famous in his own right as one of the century’s foremost patrons of modern architecture and a model of corporate citizenship. “Columbus and J. Irwin Miller are almost holy words in architectural circles,” wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in 1976. “There is no other place in which a single philanthropist has placed so much faith in architecture as a means to civic improvement.” I. M. Pei, César Pelli, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Richard Meier, and Kevin Roche are among the world-class architects whose buildings, commissioned by a corporate foundation Miller established, grace the streets of Columbus.

In an answered prayer to fans of this icon of midcentury modern design, the IMA, with financial assistance from the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation and members of the Miller family, acquired the property in 2009 to preserve it and open it to the public. “This was a private home from 1955 until 2008,” Zelonis says, explaining that to convert even this National Historic Landmark into an indoor–outdoor museum requires some initial heavy lifting, physically and intellectually. “At fifty years old, things start to bulge and crack and fall off, just like with people,” he quips.

J. Irwin Miller House

Miller House.

To start with, a curatorial team of four IMA experts, including Zelonis, have been documenting everything from furniture fabrics to crabapple species, while marveling at the site’s harmonious confluence of design. Saarinen’s flat-roofed, one-story house of glass, concrete, and steel sits like a temple to modernism on a plain above the White River. An homage to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (1929), the house emulates the pavilion’s open floor plan and luxurious materials—in this case, white marble walls and travertine floors. Girard’s fabrics add warmth and color. Kiley’s contribution, however, is widely hailed as the design’s linchpin, integrating the building and landscape by extending the geometry of the house. He and Saarinen had collaborated before, most recently with Miller as the client, on the Irwin Union Bank building in Columbus (1954). “At the Miller house Kiley used a typically limited palette of plants to define rectilinear spaces with hedges, bosques, and allées,” Zelonis observes. “This was not a garden of show-stopping color and diversity, but we’ve found some sketches that confirm that a finer horticultural layer existed here than does today.”

Some of the garden’s “rooms” served as sculpture galleries—most famously, an allée of honey locust trees channeled a leafy view to a Henry Moore sculpture, Draped Reclining Woman, set against a dark hedge. Zelonis points out that this illustrates how Kiley purposely contained the views within the boundaries of the property to avoid sightlines into neighboring yards. “This is an inward-looking site. Instead of capturing a panorama of distant mountains or water, the views here follow a lower plane, usually beneath the limbs of trees, skimming the tops of low hedges, or along an allée.” The Miller family sold most of the art collection in 2008, including the Moore focal point, leaving a stunning vacancy. But Zelonis has since found photographs revealing that a simple travertine bench originally stood on this spot. The bench, he says, will return.

Miller Garden

Miller garden, designed by Dan Kiley.

More typical challenges appear in the form of aging plantings, including a blight-afflicted row of Miller’s favorite horse chestnuts, overgrown trees and hedges that obstruct sight lines, and spaces in which plants were replaced for reasons unknown. Zelonis and the other IMA curators are still in the research phase, which they will finish before proposing a preservation strategy. Simultaneously, Zelonis and others are seeking to match the initial $5 million endowment from the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation, for planning and restoration. For guidance, the IMA is forming a national advisory committee.

When the property opens, the IMA will manage access through guided tours, using shuttle buses from downtown Columbus. “A variance from the City of Columbus made this possible, and we want to keep the impact on the neighbors minimal,” Zelonis says. Where the design is concerned, minimal is the watchword for the reigning modernist aesthetic. Kiley’s New York Times obituary quoted Peter E. Walker, a nationally prominent landscape architect of the succeeding generation, who said of the Miller garden: “For many of us, that was where modernism began.”

—Jane Roy Brown


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