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Counting Our (Preservation) Blessings

Every so often, it’s a good idea to count your blessings. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, and others have given me this advice over the years – sometimes at moments when it’s the last thing I’ve wanted to do. That’s the point, after all – to slow down just enough to clear your head and get a different and – if the exercise is successful – more positive perspective.

Miller House & Garden.

The Miller House and Garden is a preservation project that has many blessings to count. I was reminded of this not long ago when I received a call from a gentleman in North Carolina who had become involved in efforts to preserve Richard Neutra’s Kronish House in Beverly Hills, California. Richard Neutra’s work is a defining element of California modernism – think of Julius Schulman’s photos of his Kauffman house in Palm Springs.  Unfortunately, the Kronish house is considered extremely vulnerable in Beverly Hills’ high-value real estate market and preservation-averse regulatory environment.

For the moment, it seems that the house has been granted a brief reprieve from demolition, which will allow Dion Neutra, Richard’s son, and others interested in the property to pursue a means to acquire the property and put it to a sympathetic use.  It will be a tremendous challenge, no doubt, but preservation is always a challenge, and each project presents its challenges in a unique fashion.

Richard Neutra's Kronish House (photo courtesy of Marc Angeles / Unlimited Style / August 1, 2011).

The Miller House and Garden project, in comparison with many others, almost seems to have had a charmed existence from the start.  While talking about the Kronish house with Dion Neutra, I became even more aware of the extraordinary alignment of stars that helped us along.

Early Planning

While imminent threat can galvanize efforts to save a property, hearing the bulldozers in the distance can be discouraging indeed.  Members of the Miller family were well aware of the significance of their home and had begun to think about providing for its preservation before its builders, J. Irwin Miller and Xenia S. Miller, had passed away. In 2007, a large group gathered in Columbus to discuss the futures of the Irwin Home (now a bed and breakfast)  and the Miller House and Garden. Among those present were representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Indiana Landmarks, Yale University, Harvard University, Ball State University, IMA, and Columbus area civic organizations. Discussions quickly reached a consensus that the two properties would likely have to develop independently of one another. Possible uses, maintenance needs, and potential preservation partnerships were among the topics of the day. The IMA’s strong interest in the Miller House and Garden led to the museum taking ownership of the property as a gift from members of the Miller family in 2009.

Funding

Funding preservation costs money. Sometimes it costs tremendous amounts of money. Old buildings can be notorious money pits, and the care of historic landscapes is a lot more complicated than keeping the grass mowed. Almost no organization can afford to take responsibility for a preservation project without significant ongoing financial support. In cases in which preservation requires the purchase of the property as well as funds for its upkeep, the scale of the challenge is greatly magnified. The fact that members of the Miller family were willing to give their home to the IMA, and that they and the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller foundation gave $5 million to establish an endowment, made it possible for the IMA to accept stewardship of the property.

Strong Partnerships 

Changing financial environments have affected historic properties in numerous ways, but one positive result is the bringing together of partners to meet preservation challenges that individual organizations or persons could not address. For the IMA, the perfect partner has been the Columbus Area Visitors Center. Functioning in some ways like a garden-variety CVB – promoting tourism and interest in its community – it is almost unique among its peers in operating tours of the extraordinary modern architecture in Columbus, Indiana.  The Visitors Center already had and was willing to share (and expand where necessary) the infrastructure that existed for its architecture tours to make it possible to provide tours of the Miller House and Garden.  These included: a building in which to receive and orient visitors; gift and ticket sales; restrooms; recruitment, training, and scheduling of tour guides; recruitment and scheduling of shuttle vehicle drivers; administration of tour ticketing and scheduling…the list goes on. Partnership with the Columbus Area Visitors Center increased the value of the IMA’s financial resources tremendously. Had it been necessary for the museum to create what the Visitors Center was willing to share, the IMA’s resources would have stretched beyond breaking.

With the Visitor Center’s assistance in supporting tour operations, the IMA’s involvement could play more to its strengths. A 55-minute drive from Columbus on Interstate 65 and Indiana State Road 31, the IMA has on its staff deep resources of expertise in buildings and mechanical maintenance, horticulture and grounds maintenance, museum registration, curatorial areas related to the Miller collections, financial management, and historical interpretation.  The museum can deploy these as needed to support a small core staff to work on site.

Location 

The real estate mantra. It’s equally true for preservation projects. Columbus has attracted students, enthusiasts, and casual visitors for years, coming in to the city in the thousands annually to view its uniquely concentrated distillation of modern American architecture.  As a possible steward for the Miller House and Garden, the IMA knew that there would be a strong, established audience base for tours. Had the Millers for some reason built their home 50 miles from Columbus as a lone architectural outpost it would have been no less compelling as a work of architecture and design, but it would have been tremendously more difficult to get a viable audience for tours or other programs. Opening the Miller House and Garden to the public has strengthened Columbus’s range of offerings, which has benefitted the city’s architectural tourism generally.

North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen. Columbus, Indiana. (Photo by Greg Hume).

Quality

The birth rate for historic house museums in America has been on the decline, and not without reason. Visitation levels have been declining at many sites, and many more struggle to find ways to survive and stay relevant for audiences in the twenty-first century.  Some have shifted interpretive emphasis, while others have ceased to operate as museums. Cities and towns across the country display the houses that tell the stories of their communities, usually through the histories of prominent families that built the houses that later (mostly twentieth-century) generations felt deserved preservation. While each is unique, when viewed in the aggregate there are areas of significant similarity that diminish many properties’ potential to stand out beyond local or regional interest, which makes the historic house museum option much less viable as a preservation mechanism today.

The Miller House and Garden is a property with exceptionally good aesthetic and historical genes, making it strong enough to stand on a national stage, and a good fit for an art museum as an adoptive parent.  Its architects and designers were outstanding talents who left little comparable work elsewhere:  Eero Saarinen, Dan Kiley, and Alexander Girard. The property was well maintained and retains a significant proportion of its original furnishings. The story of its builders, J. Irwin Miller and Xenia Simons Miller, touches on many interesting and inspiring subjects, especially those concerned with the Millers’ interest in civil rights and social justice.  Taken together with its location, it’s a property that has the right stuff to make it a successful historic house museum.

Timing

Who wouldn’t agree that the time to hit a trend is when it’s on the upswing? Interest in modernism is increasing, with mid-century expressions garnering significant attention.  Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House are recent additions to the list of attractions, both feeding the interest in modernist masterworks.  The Miller House debuted in the midst of this rising attention, just as the work of Saarinen and Kiley is receiving renewed interest, and as significant attention focuses on Girard for the first time.

Looking at the Neutra office website and seeing the ticking countdown clock for the demolition of the Kronish house is sobering indeed.  It’s an inspiration for preservationists to count their blessings where they can, plan their strategies, and support each other’s efforts.

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