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America’s Most Significant Modernist House

The Miller House & Garden, in Columbus, Indiana, designed by Eero Saarinen in 1953.

Photo: Hadley Fruits/Courtesy of Miller House & Garden, Indianapolis Museum of Art

On a placid suburban street in Columbus, Indiana, a block-long wall of towering, neatly clipped evergreens was the only clue of the presence of an architectural wonder. I had arrived. I turned into an allée of horse chestnuts and down the driveway of the Miller House. Inside, beyond its massive steel-and-glass doors, I stood in the sprawling living-dining room, lit by slender frosted-glass skylights, and felt both the cool serenity of a museum and the warmth of a family home: well-worn furniture, books, and mementos of a lifetime of exotic travels.

Designed by legendary architect Eero Saarinen, the J. Irwin & Xenia Miller House ranks alongside Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, and Philip Johnson’s Glass House as a hallmark of Modernist design. It was completed in 1957, but unlike those residences, it is surrounded by some of the most beautiful Modernist gardens in the United States, created by landscape architect Dan Kiley. The interiors, a carnival of opulent colors and graphic patterns, are the work of Mad Men–era architect and textile designer Alexander Girard, best known for his eye-popping work for Braniff Airlines and at La Fonda del Sol, a legendary restaurant that was in Manhattan’s Time-Life building.

In 1953, the Millers hired Saarinen to design a house where they could raise their family and also entertain heads of state and titans of industry: J. Irwin Miller was chairman of Cummins Engine Company, one of the world’s largest diesel-engine manufacturers (the Millers, advocates of modern architecture, established a foundation that still supports the design of new buildings by leading architects). The Finnish-born Saarinen, best known for his dramatic curves—the St. Louis Gateway Arch; the sweeping roof of the former TWA terminal at JFK airport—shied away from curving lines for the house, one of only a handful of residences he designed.

Saarinen created a minimalist box supported by white steel columns and wrapped in black Virginia slate, with floor-to-ceiling glass. Terrazzo-paved terraces under cantilevers surround the four sides of the house, with open-air living and dining areas reached through sliding glass doors. Inside, travertine floors and white marble walls in the public areas contrast with pear- and cherrywood built-in desks and storage units in the family’s private quarters. Girard applied a vibrant color palette to the décor and furnishings, from blue glass mosaic walls to graphic patterned curtains.

Outside, the gardens are highly ordered. Kiley, a pioneer of Modernist landscape design, favored clear geometry and spare plantings. Beds of ivy and arborvitae, allées of honey locusts, and sculpted hedges complement the residence, and make it all but invisible to its neighbors.

The house is further enlivened with ethnic-eclectic folk art from Mexico, Asia, and Eastern Europe; Murano glass paperweights and other artifacts crowd bookshelves and cocktail tables just as they did when the family lived there. “The Farnsworth House and the Glass House are glorious, but they are more demonstration projects,” says Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to which Miller heirs bequeathed the house and its collections. “The seven people who lived here are as important as the designers in the making of the house. It’s a thorough combination of personal taste and architectural achievement.”

Today, Girard’s brightly colored interiors, Saarinen’s cool, rational architecture, and Kiley’s geometric gardens still feel fresh, contemporary. More than 50 years ago, they were nothing short of revolutionary. As Anderson says, “It was a fascinating adventure in design, in the middle of a small town, in the middle of the country.”

Columbus is an hour’s drive from Indianapolis and about 90 minutes from Louisville, Kentucky. Tickets for guided tours are $20, or $36 combined with an architectural tour of Columbus organized by the Columbus Area Visitors Center, and can be ordered in advance at 800/468-6564 or at imamuseum.org or columbus.in.us.

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