“Man, this is like going to church!” were the first words uttered by friend and colleague, Ed Blake, as he entered the Miller House and Garden property a few weeks ago. Ed is a landscape architect from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and now working to develop the IMA’s Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park. He was part of a small group joining Bradley Brooks and me for a special Saturday morning tour of this remarkable site.
Ed first witnessed the site decades ago while on a work assignment in Columbus. He was then only able to peek through the already tall arborvitae hedges guarding the property’s east side, but knew the place was indeed very special. After all, one of the 20th century’s masters of landscape design, Dan Kiley, had worked his magic here. For all of us in the field, this is a place for reverence.
My own first encounter with Miller House and Garden was very similar, taking place on May 1st of 2007 as part of a charrette involving Miller family members and architects, landscape architects, and preservationists from around the country. We all assembled to discuss the many attributes of the property and who might be the best stewards of the site in the future. Part of the weekend’s program was a visit to Miller House with an insider’s tour of both home and landscape with the Miller children.
The weather on that mid-spring day couldn’t have been nicer. A clear blue sky was the perfect complement to the lush pink blooms of the large saucer magnolias framing each side of the house. Though some in the group had visited before, many of us knew the site only from photographs, articles, and monographs on the designers involved. This truly was a special treat – to witness this mid-century marvel and examine it in such detail, with members of the Miller family sharing their own experiences of growing up here. Quite a privilege, I think, for them to call this home, and for us as well to hear about that experience directly.
Over the ensuing months, the IMA continued to conduct further research on the property and its three principal designers – Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard, and Dan Kiley – to help us better understand how this place came to be and how much influence Mr. & Mrs. Miller had on its outcome. We were, of course, elated to be the recipient of the Miller family’s generous bequest of the property and funds for an endowment. And by pure coincidence, the transfer of the property came on May 1st of 2009, exactly two years to the day since we first laid eyes upon it. Those same magnolias were blooming brightly once again in honor of the event.
But this just begins our serious work on the property, bringing the home, its interiors and furnishings, and its landscape into a form approximating their earlier condition. We have a goal of opening the estate to the public two years from now. Research in Columbus and at repositories of archived material at sites around the country will occupy the time of Bradley, Craig Miller, and me, as well as many others as we further the process of understanding this important treasure. We’re so grateful to be able to add Miller House and Garden as another National Historic Landmark (Oldfields being the other) to the IMA’s array of historic offerings. I invite you to stay tuned for more details on our progress.