Among the many holdings of the IMA’s Archives is the Miller House and Garden Collection, the records documenting the design, construction, and maintenance of the Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Indiana. We’re happy to announce that you can have a peek at some of these materials online as we digitize the collection, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
The importance of the Miller House and Garden to Modern design in the United States is clear: the house, named a National Historic Landmark in 2000, has been described as a paragon of mid-century modern residential design and its garden is considered to be among the most important Modern designs in American residential landscape architecture. And just as the Miller House and Garden is not your average residence, the Miller House and Garden Collection (MHGC) is not your average architectural archive.
What distinguishes the MHGC from other architectural collections? That’s easy. Size, multiple perspectives, time span, and types of materials.
How Big is Big?
For a collection about one house, the Miller House and Garden Collection is big. Very big.
Archival collections are often described in linear feet, but describing this collection as 333.5 linear feet means little to most people. Nor is it easy to picture 23,000 records. To break it down by other numbers – 51 boxes of files, photographs, samples, and drawings; 2 card file boxes; 12 oversize flat boxes of photographs and material samples; and 40 flat files of architectural plans – may provide a slightly better picture. As may analogies like this: if the records were laid out end to end they could lap the Indianapolis Motor Speedway twice or stretch the length a football field 88 times!
But what makes it so big is less about its physical size and more about its content – 50+ years of documentation representing hundreds of voices.
The Clients, the Architects, the Landscape Architect, the Contractor
A remarkable feature of the MHGC is the number of voices you hear: the clients, the architects, the landscape architect, contractor, suppliers, and engineers. Generally architectural collections present just the perspective of the architect. Sometimes papers from the client survive. Yet not in a single collection.
Over 50 Years of Documentation
While architectural collections typically document just the design and construction phases of a building (from the architect’s perspective), the MHGC contains correspondence from 1953 through 2008, documenting not only the design and construction of the House and Garden but also their maintenance.
Among the earliest correspondence are the letters J. Irwin Miller wrote on May 25, 1953 to Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard, informing them that he and Xenia purchased land and wanted to begin preliminary planning for their house. Among the last correspondence is a letter from December 14, 2007 to Wes Kavanagh of Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates seeking input about fabric to recover chairs.
The architectural firm of Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates was the successor to Eero Saarinen and Associates after Saarinen’s death in 1961. Kevin Roche, who had been involved in the house’s design and had overseen its construction, was consulted regularly over the fifty years the Millers lived in the house. The projects he and his firm worked on at the Miller House ranged from large projects such as redesigning the Guest Wing to small tasks such as selecting fabric to recover chairs.
Drawings, Photographs, Textiles, and Chair Glides
Architectural archives are generally rich with original drawings and photographs, but seldom contain material samples, such as textiles, marble, glass tile, wood, carpet pads, and chair glides.
The MHGC contains more than 1,500 architectural drawings (originals and reprographic copies), including a complete set of 1955 blueprints from Eero Saarinen’s office and 1950s blueline prints of Dan Kiley’s plans for the landscape.
Also in the collection are drawings by Alexander Girard for items designed for the Millers including the den rug and brass candleholders.
Among the 900+ photographs in the collection are some by prominent architectural photographers including Balthazar Korab who worked in Saarinen’s office while the house was being designed and built. Many of those photographs are now iconic. But there are some photographs not seen before like those of the house under construction and of magnolia trees selected by Dan Kiley.
The MHGC also has an array of material samples from when the house was designed to the final years the Millers occupied it. For the house’s original design, Alexander Girard selected fabrics for covering the pillows in the conversation pit, for upholstering chairs and sofas, and for making curtains throughout the house. The Millers continued to consult Girard for more than two decades after they moved into the house, and Girard continued to forward samples to them.
From the material samples, it’s possible to see what Girard selected for the house’s original design and what was introduced later. The written documentation that accompanies the material samples sometimes includes Mrs. Miller’s comments about texture or color, giving insight into her own design choices.
It is difficult to convey the richness of the Miller House and Garden Collection in a blog post. That’s one reason for making selected materials available on the project’s Tumblr page until the project is completed in spring of 2014 when the entire Collection will be available online.