COLUMBUS, Ind. -- When the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced a deal in 2008 to acquire the Eero Saarinen-designed Miller House and open it to the public, the move was hailed as an important step in the gradual conversion of important pieces of residential architecture into so-called house museums.
What's clear now is that the Miller House is special as much for the fact that it still feels like a home as it is for its famous Alexander Girard interiors.
The growing number of house museums is a good sign for those who care deeply about historic preservation, since single-family houses by great architects have rarely been opened to the public in the past. But while visitors to two other important house museums that opened in the last decade, the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe in Illinois and the Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut, gain an appreciation for thoughtful architecture, they can't possibly imagine living in those spaces. The Glass House in particular could only be called home by a New York intellectual without children, which Johnson was.
That's not the case here at the Miller House. Saarinen's famed conversation pit -- essentially a sunken sofa, the pillows of which were and still are rotated seasonally -- defines the living room, but it's as easy to imagine J. Irwin Miller entertaining other captains of industry as it is to imagine his children's friends bouncing around in it at 2 a.m.
What's not easy to imagine is the Miller family's decision to give up the house. When J. Irwin's wife, Xenia, died in 2008, her children were faced with enormous upkeep costs for a house with an elaborate skylight system that makes roof drainage a perennial problem. On top of that, the lawn of the 13.5 acre property has to be mowed twice a week and none of the children were dying to move their family into the house where they had grown up.
"But, still, our feelings were very mixed," said Margaret Miller, the oldest daughter. "It's sad for us that we can no longer go see our home, even as we're so pleased to have this very special property taken care of by an organization like the Indianapolis Museum of Art."
The family didn't just donate the house, they also gave an endowment of $5 million for its upkeep. Bradley Brooks, the museum's director of historic resources, said on a tour of the property that even more money had been raised from other donors, and that it was all needed to keep the Girard rugs and the entire house in good condition.
Margaret Miller added that she and her siblings didn't want the house to seem like a memorial to their parents, but rather to Saarinen and his great work. Perhaps the answer is that it can only be both -- because it was Saarinen who built the Millers a house, but they who made it a home.
Click through the slideshow below to see more images of the Miller House: