Joseph Irwin Miller (1909-2004) was born into a prominent Columbus, Indiana, family with business interests in banking, industry, and real estate. Irwin Miller attended Yale University, majoring in Greek and Latin and graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1931. He then received a master’s degree from Oxford University in 1933.
In 1934, Irwin Miller began working at Cummins Engine Company—founded by his great- uncle—which builds diesel engines in Columbus, Indiana. His career began when the firm was still small enough that his responsibilities included opening the daily mail though his innovations in management, marketing, and production brought the firm to profitability and he is credited as a major influence in the company’s growth. Although beset with early difficulties, under Irwin Millers leadership the company persevered to become the leading independent diesel manufacturer in the world (2006 reported sales were $11.4 billion). In addition to being a patron of modern architecture, Irwin Miller was a philanthropist and industrialist well known for his civic activism. A lay leader in the Christian ecumenical and civil rights movements, he was the first layman to be President of the National Council of Churches and was a strong advocate for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (working with Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize the March on Washington).
Xenia Simons Miller (1917-2008) was born in Morgantown, Indiana, the daughter of Nellie Hosetta Wellons and Luther A. Simons; her father was involved in the lumber industry as a young man, and by the late 1920s became involved in furniture manufacturing. He was founder of the Columbus Hickory Chair Company (later the Columbus Hickory Furniture Company), one of a number of rustic furniture manufacturers in Indiana during the first half of the twentieth century. Luther Simons is remembered for his ingenuity and willingness to innovate in an industry characterized by traditional products and materials. He developed Simonite to substitute for rattan, an Asian import in short supply during the Second World War. He often employed workers with disabilities as well as elderly individuals, paying them at the same scale as others.
Xenia Simons Miller grew up in and around Columbus, graduating from Columbus High School and Indiana Business College before taking a position at Cummins Engine Company, working in the firm’s purchasing department. This is where she met her husband, whom she married in 1943.
Xenia Miller was deeply involved in the civic and cultural life of her community, her state, and the nation, with interests as varied as horticulture, music, historic preservation, education, and religion. She worked closely with the architects of her home in Columbus as it was being designed, particularly with Alexander Girard.
While the Irwin family (and the extended clan of Sweeneys and Millers) was well established in business by the turn of the twentieth century, it was their involvement in religion that would first bring them into contact with Eliel and Eero Saarinen and that would forge a connection between Irwin Miller and modern architecture. Irwin Miller’s grandfathers were both noted preachers in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and he grew up in a multi-generational household that valued intellectual and personal engagement with religion, philosophy, and politics, and that shared a love of music. A classics scholar, Irwin Miller went on from Yale University to Balliol College, Oxford. University holidays—too brief to permit ocean crossings to America— afforded time for travel that brought him into contact with continental Europe’s architecture and gardens, as well as its interwar political tumult. When the Tabernacle Church of Christ (later named First Christian Church) embarked on a building project in the late 1930s, the committee turned to one of Finland’s leading architects, Eliel Saarinen, to be its designer. Though Saarinen at first declined, Irwin Miller persuaded him to accept the commission. Work on the church brought Eero Saarinen, also a Yale graduate, to Columbus with his father. Miller and Saarinen established a friendship that would shape the former’s interest in architecture and last until the latter’s untimely death in 1961.
Eero Saarinen’s first commission from Irwin Miller came in 1950, when Miller requested a summer house in the Muskoka region of Ontario, a popular resort area that the family had enjoyed since the late nineteenth century. In the same year, Miller commissioned a new building for the Irwin Union Bank and Trust Company, successor to the firm established in 1871 by his great-grandfather Joseph Ireland Irwin. As the church had done for Eliel, the bank would bring Eero Saarinen’s brand of modernism to downtown Columbus. Its exterior walls of glass and flat roof enlivened by a grid of nine domes shattered the image of a bank as a massive, temple-form structure, replacing it with elegant transparency. Collaborating with Saarinen on the bank project was landscape architect Dan Kiley.
While the bank was underway, another commission came to Saarinen: a new Columbus residence for the Miller family. By this time the couple had four children (a fifth would be born while the house was under construction), placing complex functional demands on the design. This house would not be a sparkling modernist glass box, a floating, ethereal presence reflecting the landscape around it. The requirements of privacy, recreation, and service needs would cause Saarinen to inflect his interpretation of modernism to accommodate them. The Millers purchased a 13-acre parcel on the outskirts of Columbus that Saarinen and his collaborators would transform into a design milestone.