Just in time for blissed-out springtime saunters (don’t forgot the Claritin), one of the most-visited architectural tourism sites in a Midwestern city famously brimming with architectural tourism sites has emerged from an extensive landscape revamp.
The site in question is the former Columbus, Indiana, home of J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller, designed in 1957 by Eero Saarinen with Alexander Girard and visionary modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley, who also collaborated with Saarinen on the St. Louis Gateway Arch. A young Kevin Roche, then with Saarinen and Associates, served as senior design associate on the project.
The recently completed landscape refresh entailed three key restoration projects carried out on the grounds of the iconic Miller House and Garden: the landscape surrounding the property’s swimming pool, the north apple orchard, and the south apple orchard.
As noted in a press release from the Landmark Columbus Foundation, the trio of projects together bring the landscape of the Miller House and Garden “back to its full glory” with the blooms from the newly planted north and south orchards complementing the 5,000-plus vibrant tulip blooms that draw visitors to the central part of the grounds during the spring months. (And, yes, an entirely different kind of tulip courtesy Saarinen can be found inside the home.)
“Naturally, the house gets a lot of attention for its amazing design features, but the landscape is also spectacular,” said Ben Wever, site administrator of the Miller House and Garden, in a statement. “I hope these restorations give new visitors an extra reason to see the property, while also inspiring those that have seen it before to do it all over again.”
Notably, the restored pool landscape was restored with 126 arborvitae trees (a group of hardy evergreens particularly popular for making hedges) that played a starring role in SO—IL’s aptly titled J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize installation for the 2019 Exhibition of Exhibit Columbus. That installation, Into the Hedge, was on view at the Bartholomew County Courthouse during the run of the 2019 exhibition, and its namesake flora was specifically meant to be reused on the grounds of the Miller House and Garden. The Landmark Columbus Foundation served as partner in this element of the landscape restoration.
Beyond the pool landscape, 42 trees in the north apple orchard, originally planted in the late 1950s, have been replanted in the original quincunx pattern as part of a project carried out in the summer of 2021. Following that, in fall 2021, 34 trees in the south apple orchard were replanted in a similar fashion. The north and south orchard replanting efforts were supported by the Chris and Dominee Burton Family Fund and the Johnson, Miller, and Schumaker families, respectively. The grandest feature of the Kiley-designed landscape, an allée of honey locust trees flanking the west side of the home, was not restored as part of this round of work (although the trees have been replanted in the past.)
Paid 90-minute guided tours of the Miller House and Garden are offered by Newfields, the Indianapolis-based arts and culture nonprofit that acts as owner and steward of the property, in partnership with the Columbus Area Visitors Center; they’re held on Thursdays through Saturdays throughout the spring season. (Ticketing information can be found here.)
Later this year, Newfields, which also oversees a namesake 152-acre cultural campus that includes the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), Fairbanks Park, the historic Lilly House, and several other major on-campus components, will release an inaugural Conservation Management Plan for the Miller House and Garden developed by PennPraxis and funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation’s Keeping it Modern Program.
Following the death of matriarch Xenia Simons Miller, members of the Miller family donated the 13.5-acre property (including a bulk of its original furnishings) to the IMA in 2009; two years later in May 2011, the mid-century modern landmark opened for public tours. Other Eero Saarinen–designed buildings in Columbus include the Cummins Inc. Irwin Conference Center (1954) and the North Christian Church (1964). Columbus-born industrialist and patron of modern architecture J. Irwin Miller is credited for attracting (and paying for) a generous handful of titans of 20th- and 21st-century architecture—Eero and Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, and César Pelli, to name just a few—to design public buildings for the city through the namesake foundation of Cummins, Inc. His wife Xenia, a fellow philanthropist and patron of the arts, was also instrumental in helping to transform Columbus into the Midwestern mecca of modern design that it is today.
The Miller House and Garden, which was Eero Saarinen’s second private commission for the Miller family following a vacation home in rural Ontario, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2000.
For those whose spring travel plans don’t include southern Indiana and environs, do take the time for a virtual stroll through the Miller House and Garden’s revitalized landscape, featured in all of its spring splendor in the gallery at the top of this page.