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Peeking into the Miller House and Garden Collection

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.

View of Miller House and Garden Collection boxes.

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.

Correspondence in the Miller House and Garden Collection.

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Girard and the Miller House Archives

Alexander Girard was involved in nearly every aspect of the design of the Miller House — a fact made obvious in the surviving documents that make up the Miller House and Garden archives at the IMA. Among the files is the correspondence between the Millers and Alexander Girard, and for a researcher of mid-20th century design these materials are a dream.

One of the treasures in the Miller House and Garden archives is a collection of over 1,000 3 x 5 inch index cards stored in a small file box. In the upper right hand corner of each card is a handwritten number, and on the front is typed information about items the Millers purchased with Girard’s assistance for the house.

Last spring Bradley Brooks, the Director of Historic Resources, and Annette Schlagenhauff, Associate Curator of Research, asked if I might be interested in helping them and IMA Archivist Jennifer Whitlock to make sense of what the archives contained. I immediately said yes. The House and Garden would be open in the spring of 2011, and the race was on to learn as much about the history of the house as possible.

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About Tricia Gilson

Job Title: Archives and Content Specialist

has written 2 articles for us.