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House by Eero Saarinen Donated to Art Museum

December 2, 2008

By Blair Kamin

Among the cache of architectural treasures in the small-town design mecca of Columbus, Indiana, one has been accessible only to a privileged few: The Miller House, an elegantly understated one-story pavilion by Eero Saarinen with a powerfully geometric landscape by Dan Kiley. But this exemplar of mid-century Modernism is likely to open for public tours now that the Indianapolis Museum of Art has announced it will acquire the 6,838-square-foot house, a National Historic Landmark.

Miller House, a National Historic Landmark.
Miller House, a National Historic Landmark.
Miller House, a National Historic Landmark.
Photos courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art
The Indianapolis Museum of Art has announced it will acquire the Miller House, a National Historic Landmark.
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Completed in 1957 and situated along a busy street, the Miller House was built for industrialist J. Irwin Miller, the head of Cummins Engine Co. and his wife Xenia. Miller was the visionary patron who brought designers such as Harry Weese and The Architects Collaborative to Columbus, 40 miles south of Indianapolis, to shape schools, banks, and other buildings that would improve the town’s quality of life and help attract talented employees.

The house, whose senior designer was Kevin Roche (Alexander Girard was responsible for the interiors), is a domestic outgrowth of that civic program. Supported by 16 cruciform steel columns and sheathed in glass and panels of blue-gray slate and white-marble, the flat-roofed structure clearly bears the influence of Mies van der Rohe, yet it is far more conducive to everyday family living than Mies’ much-smaller Farnsworth House. Four zones—for parents, children, guests, and service—pinwheel around a 10-foot-high, skylit living space that features a suspended circular fireplace, a 50-foot-long storage wall, and a 50-square-foot conversation pit. Kiley’s geometric gardens extend the house’s rectilinear geometry into the landscape, most memorably in an allee of trees that runs parallel to house’s rear garden façade.

“The Miller House showcases the work of leading 20th-century architects and designers and we believe that it’s important to preserve this internationally known jewel,” Maxwell Anderson, the museum’s director said in a prepared statement. Members of the Miller family and the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation have agreed to donate the house, gardens, and many original furnishings to the museum, along with $5 million toward an $8 million endowment. For its part, the museum will raise the remaining $3 million for the endowment and $2 million more for an 18-month renovation. Once that project is complete—a date has not been set—the museum plans to work with the local visitors center to offer public access to the house and its gardens.

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