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A reminder of classical Rome in Indiana

Early January in Indiana is a time that limits activities in the garden. At the Miller House, there has been flood clean up from the rains that came just before Christmas, and tree pruning is an annual winter task. Otherwise, there is planning for the coming year and reflection on the year that’s passed.

Thinking back on 2013, one item that we’ve checked off the to-do list is repairs to the fountain in the north garden. The main element of the fountain is an alabaster bowl, purchased by the Millers while on a trip to Rome in 1957. In a letter to Alexander Girard, Mr. Miller referred to it as a “Second Century Roman alabaster bowl” that he and Mrs. Miller purchased to “add to our house some reminders of classical Rome.” As a classics scholar himself, Mr. Miller would have found such mementoes particularly meaningful.

By the time the museum acquired the property in 2009, the fountain was in need of attention. The bowl itself was badly cracked, its metal lining was failing, its exterior was thickly encrusted with mineral deposits, and its spray jet had been replaced with a short length of white PVC pipe – the stuff plumbers call “schedule 40.” Not attractive.


Laura Kubick of the museum’s conservation department worked with Kemna Restoration and Construction, Inc., of Indianapolis to undertake the needed repairs. Of all aspects of the project, the most challenging was the removal of the mineral deposits on the bowl. Ranging in color from brown to white, these deposits obscured both the color of the material and the details of its carving. The completed bowl emerged as lustrous black with faint white veining, beautifully echoing the color scheme of the house itself. Its exterior was handsomely carved with strigillations, the curving flutes most often associated with Roman sarcophagi. Miller House site administrator Ben Wever found the spray jet among irrigation parts in storage and took it to a local metal fabricator for repairs. When reinstalled, the fountain again brought the sound and movement of water to the Miller garden, but now in a way that represents the Millers’ aesthetic intention.

Presently, the fountain is snugly covered with a Tyvek shroud to protect it from freeze-thaw damage as we look forward to the fine spring days when it will again sparkle with water droplets and add its soothing note to the garden.


Remaking a rug at Miller House

Today's blogger is Bradley C. Brooks, Director of Historic Resources and Assistant Curator, American Decorative Arts at the IMA.

It seems that an important reason why the Miller House and Garden has retained so much of the integrity of its original design is that the Millers greatly cherished and valued the work that Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, Dan Kiley, and Alexander Girard produced for them. They were patient partners in the design process and tended to seek refinements, rather than wholesale changes, as the house evolved through later years.


Top: The den rug before replacement. Bottom: The new den rug.

The rugs in the house are a case in point. The rug presently under the dining table, for example, is the fourth generation of the original Girard design. The first was one of a group of flat-woven rugs produced in France, all of which were later replaced with looped-pile versions of the same designs. With wear and food spills, the dining room rug was the most often replaced.

At the time the museum took ownership of the property, the Miller family had begun a project to remake a number of rugs in the house. Most in need of replacement was Girard’s den rug, which had been worn quite through in a few spots. We fudged it for a while with the placement of furniture to hide the worst of the damage, but this was only at temporary fix.

As with any such project, there were concerns about achieving the appropriate weave structure,  pattern, and color accuracy. We had received some of the original design drawings as part of the Miller House Archives, and IMA conservators had painstakingly removed unfaded fibers from deep in the rug’s pile in order to make accurate color comparisons. After several rounds of adjustments and approvals, we gave a go-ahead to Edward Fields to put the rug into production.

The new den rug!

The new den rug!

In mid-April of this year, the new rug was ready to install, and it more than lived up to all our expectations. The vibrant colors were back, and the many emblems of family history and association were renewed, all rendered in a highly disciplined, multiple colorway grid of lozenges – a glimpse into the mind and design process of Alexander Girard.


The Venini Chandelier sparkles again

Since the IMA took ownership of the Miller House and Garden in 2009, we have come to know more intimately the gift of a 20th-century architectural masterpiece. The Miller House is worthy of many superlatives, but as an older house requiring care and maintenance it presents challenges and surprises just as would any other. The questions may be framed slightly differently, but the joys and frustrations are much the same.

Bonnie Cate and Jeanine Franke (Miller House housekeeper) cleaning individual glass pieces while Ben Wever, site Administrator, and Bradley Brooks gently remove each strand of glass from the chandelier.

Bonnie Cate and Jeanine Franke (Miller House housekeeper) cleaning individual glass pieces while Ben Wever, site Administrator, and Bradley Brooks gently remove each strand of glass from the chandelier.

A task that we knew we would face one day was bulb replacement and cleaning of the Venini chandelier above the Millers’ dining table. This fixture was not part of the original furnishing scheme for the house, but came as a later addition after the Millers purchased it in Italy in about 1960. We had heard stories of the care and effort required of Miller employees to dismantle the chandelier for cleaning, but being reluctant to tackle such a daunting project, I had pushed it to the back burner where it stayed until nearly every bulb was out. Now we had no choice. Dismantle or go dark!

Chandelier with all metal and glass components removed. Tags indicate pattern of glass colors to help with reassembly.

Chandelier with all metal and glass components removed. Tags indicate pattern of glass colors to help with reassembly.

To prepare for the task, we padded and covered the dining table and placed a series of folding tables nearby on which we could wash and dry each of the 200 individual polyhedral glass “prisms.” A crew of four went to work; two to stand on the table to dismantle the chandelier, and two to do the washing and drying. In this design, the glass elements are suspended from a steel frame on linked wires, each pendant group fastened to the frame with a tiny nut and bolt. Tedious work, but we soon found the system and a rhythm. It took until early evening to reassemble everything, but with the glass cleaned, the sparkle of the chandelier was restored, more charming than ever.

The newly cleaned Venini chandelier lit up.

The newly cleaned Venini chandelier lit up.

With the glass off the frame, it was evident that the chandelier still had its original European wiring and fittings, which had been adapted to accept standard U.S. chandelier-base bulbs. Yellowed with age, they are past due for a rewiring. That will be a task for the winter. Just like every old house project, one thing only leads to another.


A Historical Home for the Holidays

Oldfields in the early light of a winter morning.

Oldfields in the early light of a winter morning.

For many people, Christmas is a favorite time of year.  And for many good reasons – sparkling trees, shimmering lights in the winter darkness, hearing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” sung by a single chorister, favorite foods, and the excitement of Christmas morning.  No matter what it is that one most enjoys, the full effect is possible only with much preparation.  As the saying goes, there’s the rub.  Who hasn’t endured the annoyance of bumps on the head while hauling decorations from the attic, of the tree that keeps falling over, or the dish that just won’t come out right for the important dinner?  The point is that it’s easy to have something of a love-hate relationship with certain aspects of the season, if not an outright fear-and-loathing response to the impending holidays.  But who remembers the knuckles bruised while assembling toys and bicycles at 3:00 a.m. while surrounded by shrieks of joy just hours later?

That’s just Christmas on the domestic front.  For those with responsibilities to an institutional Christmas, there are added dimensions – of preparation, of annoyance, and of joy.

Having worked in historic house museums ever since leaving graduate school, I have faced my share of rooms, halls, and staircases that need a little Christmas.  Different houses, different time periods, various degrees of historic documentation and accuracy.  When the Indianapolis Museum of Art decided to cease using the former Lilly residence as its decorative arts galleries and interpret Oldfields as a residence of the American country place era, there were implications for what would happen at Christmas.  For years, museum volunteers, many associated with local garden clubs, collaborated in an extensive effort to decorate the house using many different kinds of materials – live, dried, and artificial.  These were beautiful decorations, created with much talent and effort.  With the house’s rooms serving as a group of galleries with different contents and interpretive themes, their overall concept did not have to be integrated.  When interpreted as a residence, it made sense to make Christmas decorations at Oldfields relate in some way to the presentation of the property as a country place-era residence.

Oldfields’ architectural rhythms guide the placement of decorations.

Oldfields’ architectural rhythms guide the placement of decorations.

But how to do that?  The Lillys, prominent as they were in the community, had left almost nothing in the way of personal documentation or ephemera to describe day-to-day life at Oldfields – no letters, bills, inventories, or snapshot albums.   The scant anecdotal evidence suggests that the Lillys’ Oldfields was never lavishly decorated for the holidays, nor was it the center of a whirl of entertainments.  At this point enters the tension between historical accuracy and emotional impact.  Personal experience demonstrated that perfect historical accuracy in Christmas decoration, if visually sparse, leaves many people unsatisfied.  Unsatisfied visitors are unlikely to return.  We settled on using the popular periodicals of our interpretive time period – focusing on the 1930s and ‘40s – to provide inspiration for the decorations.  In this way, the decorations retain a relationship to our interpretive period but are not limited to inferences about what the Lilly family may have done.  Specific historical documentation could have been a severely limiting factor, but a change in focus offered latitude to explore many possibilities – and to provide a more satisfying experience.

An early 20th-century Texas Christmas tree – proof that historical accuracy won’t always yield satisfying results.

An early 20th-century Texas Christmas tree – proof that historical accuracy won’t always yield satisfying results.

The magazines from which we draw ideas – House Beautiful, Arts and Decoration, and House and Garden, for example – suggest that Christmas decorations in the first half of the twentieth century were sometimes self-consciously traditional in character, and sometimes deliberately modern or unusual.  Having some of both helps enliven a visit to Oldfields.  Trees, wreaths, garlands, and bows were never out of fashion; the architectural rhythms of historically styled interiors like Oldfields’ provide the perfect setting for them.  Curiosities like upside-down trees or suspended transparent bowls overflowing with ornaments can be just unusual enough to signal that one is looking at another era’s notion of holiday décor.

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An upside-down Christmas tree was a big visitor favorite.

Tulle garlands stuffed with ornaments added a sculptural quality to decorations in the library.

Tulle garlands stuffed with ornaments added a sculptural quality to decorations in the library.

We offer Christmas at Oldfields as a way to imagine the holidays in the decades just prior to the middle of the last century.  We hope that if offers delight, inspiration, respite, or, for anyone who finds more enjoyment in looking at decorations than in hanging them, an opportunity to see a decorated  house without having to go into the attic.


Pillow Talk

Bradley Brooks, Director of Historic Resources, and Amanda Holden, Assistant Conservator of Textiles, write about textile rotation at Miller House.

Sounds comforting, doesn’t it?  Pleasant, soft, warm, intimate, relaxing, playful…   We’d like to use the blog for a bit of pillow talk.  Care to join us?  Come on, we’ll keep your secrets!

Doris Day and Rock Hudson – perhaps the most glamorous of mid-century pillow talkers.

Well not exactly pillow talk, you know, that is, not talk over a pillow or in the midst of pillows or under the pillows.  Rather, let’s talk about pillows, which pillows, how many pillows, what color of pillows…  It’s about pillows in the Miller House conversation pit, and what to do about changing them for the season as winter relents.

The interiors of the Miller House have a lot of eye-catching elements, to be sure, but the biggest crowd pleaser has got to be the conversation pit, a 15-foot-square, 2 ½ -foot-deep exercise in below-floor-level decorative decadence.  It’s been touted as the very first conversation pit, but that’s a pretty difficult statement to verify.  There are certainly plenty of antecedents, as well as related interior features in houses of the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Houses of the Victorian and Arts and Crafts eras had inglenooks and similar areas of built-in seating.  And it’s not hard to find mid-century houses that featured floor level changes that also incorporated seating.  Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames created such designs for the Case Study Houses in California in the 1940s.  Whether the Miller House conversation pit is indeed the first is something of an exercise in architectural hair-splitting, but if anyone knows of an earlier pit of the same completely enclosed configuration, we’d love to hear about it.

Interior, Case Study House #9.

The “pit” in the Case Study House above shapes the spatial flow of the interior – down to the embrace of the fireplace and outward at the same level to the landscape beyond.   With interior designer Alexander Girard in the mix at the Miller House, the pit concept does something different.  Functionally, it achieves the goal of providing significant seating without the clusters of furniture that Saarinen so detested.  Being below the floor level, it provided nothing to impede the view to the west through the allée of honey locust trees.  By enclosing the pit on all four sides, with entry by means of a short flight of seemingly-floating padouk wood steps, Girard made the pit into a huge, discrete decorative object that balances the 50-foot storage wall and the marble-topped dining table.  It shouts for the viewer’s attention, rewards it with a lush display of textiles, and offers the novelty of looking down to something other than the floor.

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About Bradley Brooks

Job Title: Director of Historic Resources; Assistant Curator, American Decorative Arts

Bradley has written 10 articles for us.