I joined the IMA staff in 2000 when the museum was already well along with its project to renovate and reinterpret Oldfields, the former home of J. K. Lilly Jr. The house was a construction site from top to bottom, and indeed beyond its walls, with many of its interior features and surfaces hidden behind protective coverings to prevent the damage that comes so easily when tools, ladders, materials, and equipment are constantly on the move. While things were thus covered, we planned for the appearance of the house when it would reflect the early 1930s, the time the Lilly family first lived there. An image of the house slowly came into focus as we made final selections of paint colors, furnishing choices, and textile selections. It was an exciting process, one rare enough in one’s career to be especially savored.
The Miller House and Garden crept into my awareness at some time while Oldfields had my full attention. I don’t remember when I first learned of it, but I remember distinctly two things about the impression I had. It was an extraordinarily beautiful and important property, and it was difficult to gain access to it. Visiting lecturers or groups might sometimes make requests to see the property, but it was rare that we could accommodate them. The Miller House and Garden seemed remote and mysterious. In the meantime, I still had plenty to occupy me with Oldfields. I rarely thought about the home in Columbus.
When I first saw the Miller House and Garden in April of 2007, the situation was entirely different from seeing Oldfields in 2000. The Lilly family had been gone from Oldfields for over 30 years, during which the IMA changed and adapted its use of the house, the interiors drifting away from their domestic appearance all the while. By 2000, it conveyed little impression of being a home. By contrast, Mrs. Miller was still living in her home when I visited for the first time. Having been the Millers’ home for almost exactly 50 years at that time, it possessed all the communicative power that came from being the undisturbed repository of family possessions. A sizeable group made the visit that day, so the conditions for viewing were less than ideal. Even with the distractions of people milling about and chattering, the house’s impact was striking. Striking for the qualities of light and space, for the luxurious materials modestly used, for the kinds of objects in the house, but perhaps most of all for the owners’ personalities that the objects hinted at.
The landscape, designed by Dan Kiley, was another revelation. Nothing I had seen prepared me for it, for its beautifully direct use of formal design elements – line, mass, and color – and for its elegant contrasts between the most basic of landscape elements: light and shade, stone and turf, enclosure and openness, higher and lower elevation, close and distant perspectives.
Two years later, I am still processing my response the property. I’m not sure how much the property is continuing to reveal itself to me and how much may be due to a growing ability to apprehend and appreciate. Now we are planning for the approach we will take to interpret the Miller House and Garden. Once again, an experience to savor.