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Back in the pits—renewed interest in a mid-century modern conversation piece

Miller House and Garden Museum, Columbus, Indiana

Columbus is the capital of and largest city in Ohio. It also is the name of a much smaller city in neighboring Indiana. The Ohio version home to The Ohio State University. The Indiana version is known for its wealth of mid-century modern architecture. While the former is better known to the public, the latter is the subject of a new motion picture.

The Cummins Engine Company was founded in Columbus (Indiana) in 1919 and has since become a Fortune 500 company. In 1954, J. Irwin Williams, a co-founder of the Cummins Engine Company, started a foundation and three years later he offered the resources of the foundation to the city of Columbus to initiate a civic architecture program—the foundation would pay the architect’s fees for all new public buildings in the city. Thus, the city was able to enlist the service of numerous famous mid-century modern architects, including Eero Saarinen, I.M.Pei, César Pelli, and others to design public buildings. This architectural legacy forms the centerpiece of a new motion picture (see links to reviews of the film below).

The Miller House and Garden Museum makes one of the significant Columbus residences available to the public. The house was commissioned in 1953 by local industrialist J. Irwin Miller and his wife, Xenia Simons Miller. Expanding upon design principles of Mies van der Rohe, the modernist house was designed in a collaborative effort by Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard, and Dan Kiley. The Miller family was the sole occupant of the house until the death of Mrs. Miller in 2008. The home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008 (while Mrs. Miller still resided in the house). After the death of Mrs. Miller, the last resident of the house, in 2008, Miller descendants donated the house to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. (The 2009 photo above of the Miller House is in the public domain).

The mid-century modernist ideal included features that many people found to be less than functional, such as glass walls and open floor plans with minimal interior decoration. But while mid-century modern architecture is certainly gaining in popularity once again, one of the most unique features of this design aesthetic still befuddles some. The Miller house contained one, referred to by one writer as a “brilliantly cushioned well” in a photo spread of the house in 1959. Now, another writer looks at the legacy of the “conversation pit.”


In Praise of the Conservation Pit

By Anne Quito


September 1, 2017

Also read

Columbus—a Midwestern mecca of mid-century modern architecture is the subject of a new film

By International Heritage News

August 24, 2017

Also see these film reviews

‘Columbus’ explores a city’s personal relationship with its architecture

By Michael O’Sulivan

The Washington Post

August 19, 2017

Discovering 'Columbus': New movie puts Midcentury architecture in the spotlight

By Bonnie McCarthy

Los Angeles Times

July 29, 2017

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