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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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Filed under: Design, Miller House


Spring Comes Early at Miller House

Typically at this time of year, I am planning April and May photography dates for our historic grounds and gardens, 100 Acres Art and Nature Park, and the Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Indiana.

The absence of any substantial winter weather in the state, combined with spring temperatures ten to twelve degrees higher for the month of March, has produced an accelerated blooming and photography season.

The transition to daylight savings time on the 11th, in conjunction with the vernal equinox on the 20th, and summer like heat of the past two weeks, has created a perfect storm of urgency for photographers.

The most pressing concern was the quick budding and blooming of our lovely magnolias on the east and south locations of the Miller House. A missed blooming season, albeit a short one, means waiting another year to capture these lovelies at their peak and the threat of a cold front or good spring rainstorm made my decision an easy one. April be damned, I’m all in.

Timing, patience, and good light are everything in photography, and my early morning visit to Columbus this week provided another uniquely pleasant experience to photograph a visually diverse residence, inside and out.

Each visit is more compelling and interesting than the previous and I can’t help but imagine how wonderful it must have been to live and flourish as children in these spaces.

These images of the magnolia blooms were captured on the first day of Spring. The Miller House and Garden is now open for tours, so get down there and experience this all-too-fleeting moment for yourself.


Filed under: Art and Nature Park, Miller House, Photography


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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Filed under: Conservation, Miller House


Holidays at Miller House

The holiday season is now upon us, and festive décor is almost everywhere. The IMA’s Miller House is no exception. This will be the first holiday season that the Miller House and Garden has been open to the public, and while the home is not decorated to the extent of Oldfields, the IMA’s other historic property, visitors can still expect to see a few special holiday touches throughout the interior.

Holiday ornamentation at the Miller House will be minimal this year, partly due to the greatly reduced winter tour schedule, but also because the Miller House team is still inventorying the objects in the house and developing the program for collections rotation.

Nevertheless, visitors who have an affinity for Italian glass or crèche scenes will be pleased. Some of the pieces that were chosen to be on display at the Miller House this holiday season include two nativity scenes from Mrs. Miller’s extensive collection from around the world, and several small Murano glass Christmas trees.

An early 19th-century Ecuadorian crèche scene, displayed on the storage wall in a lighted enclosure designed by Alexander Girard, the talent behind the interior design of the home.

A Greek pottery crèche scene on the baker’s table in the main living area.

Several Murano glass Christmas trees in the living room and conversation pit.

A small enameled copper dish was discovered when conducting an inventory of the Miller House barn this past fall.

With the change of the seasons, we also decided to change some other elements of the interior that will remain on display well after the holidays are over.

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Filed under: Miller House


Finding Girard in Columbus

Today's guest blogger is Cindy Frey, Associate Director at the Columbus Visitors Center.

Alexander Girard, Interior plan (detail), Miller House and Garden papers, IMA Archives.

The opening of Miller House and Garden has been wildly successful, with sold out tours for five solid months.  The home where Cummins CEO J. Irwin and Xenia Miller raised their children illustrates the masterful skills of the renowned mid-century architect Eero Saarinen.  The garden, designed by Dan Kiley, offers a lush contrast to the stark structure.  But, the explosive colors, textures and folk art inspired by interior designer Alexander Girard give this house its soul.

Girard is perhaps best known as the textile designer for Herman Miller Furniture Company from 1952 to 1973. One of the pre-eminent designers of his generation, Girard’s work has experienced a surge in popularity in the last decade.  His spirited designs now can be found on Kate Spade bags, Electra bicycles and Urban Outfitters pillows.

In Columbus, Indiana, Girard-inspired designs have never fallen out of fashion.  His influence is a testament to the friendship he shared with the Millers, especially Xenia.

If you know where to look, you’ll see his handiwork throughout the city.  Start with North Christian Church, which is full of tell tale signs of Girard’s handiwork.  The church was yet another example of a collaboration between Saarinen, Kiley and Girard (Saarinen died three years before the church was completed in 1964).

North Christian Church.

Sitting at the center of the hexagonal sanctuary is a substantial communion table, ringed by 12 seats for the church elders. Throughout the year, the cushions on these seats will transition from green to red to purple to white, in step with the liturgical calendar. This mirrors an idea Girard incorporated successfully in the Miller’s home. Cushion covers and pillows in the conversation pit were changed with the seasons, featuring pale neutrals in warm months and deep reds in winter.  The interiors of both the Miller House and North Christian Church are clean, stark and neutral.  Girard switched out the textiles to transform the interiors with the changing seasons.

Girard added additional ornamentation inside the church, with elaborate rod-iron flower stands in the main sanctuary and candelabras of similar design in the baptistery.  Also in the sanctuary, one can sometimes see a brightly-colored “Tree of Life” appliqué, designed by Girard, although the piece is showing signs of wear and is rarely on display.

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Filed under: Miller House


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