Preserving historic family homes: The Miller House and more

It’s strange to imagine your home, especially the home you grew up in, becoming a museum that draws thousands of visitors each year. This is what happened to the famous Miller house in Columbus, IN. The house was commissioned by J. Irwin Miller, who is responsible for bringing lots of famed mid-century architecture to Columbus. The Miller House was designed by Eero Saarinen, with interior design by Alexander Girard and landscape design by Daniel Urban Kiley. It is one of the most regarded examples of mid century modernist houses in the country– but it was also the Miller’s family home. For a long time people, and children, lived and played in it. Today it’s a museum.

When I attended the Exhibit Columbus symposium in Columbus, Indiana last month, I sat in on a panel about historic homes like the Miller house. Exhibit Columbus, an annual exploration of art and design with both a national symposium and exhibit, brought architecture scholars from around the country to discuss a variety of topics pertaining to design. The “Interpreting Residential Modern” panel was interesting to me because it opened my eyes to the thought and care that goes into preserving and promoting historical residences.

The panel included Ben Weaver of the Miller House, Jorge Otero-Pailos, a Columbia University professor who has done extensive work regarding Philip Johnson’s famous Glass House, and Kevin Adkisson of the historic Cranbrook campus homes in Michigan. They shared their expertise regarding their respective homes of focus, but also engaged in a larger conversation about the balance between preservation and adaptation when it comes to historic homes.

“Once you made it historic, what’s the next step?” was a question Adkisson posed during his lecture about Cranbrook’s homes. For him, finding a way to make historical homes relevant and interactive for visitors was important. He set up exhibits within the home that were staged to resemble a time when the homes were lived in: papers and tools were strewn across a table, vintage books were piled on a chair. He didn’t want the homes to be so pristine that they seemed untouchable. He wanted them to seem lived in, and for guests to be able to imagine living in them. Though the original families moved out of these houses long ago, he wanted to find a way for “a new community to sustain it and be sustained by it.”

Pailos also delved into the discussion about perfect preservation versus adaptation with his interest in the science of scent. He’s spent hours concocting and perfecting specific smells that would be reminiscent of the time period of famous architectural locations, to make their visiting experience even more accurate. While architects often put a lot of emphasis on preserving materials and qualities of a home, they forget about the air, Pallois said. And the quality of the air can play a big role in the atmosphere of the domestic experience.

But how far does one go to preserve accuracy? Pailois gave an example of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. When the Glass House was made in the 1950s, smoking indoors was commonplace. And since the house had no windows that could be opened, the smell of cigarettes hung in the air and sank into the walls.

Today, if guests walked into the house and smelled cigarettes, they would probably find it unappealing.

Time changes context, which changes the views of the public. In this case, do preservationists relinquish accuracy for adaptation? Do we cater to the perceptions of the public, or do we try to make the houses as untouched and authentic as possible?

The Miller House is able to embrace both of these ideas, due to the continued involvement of the Miller family. As Ben Weaver described in his lecture, the Miller house is now a museum, “but the Miller family is able to display the space as they loved it, and as they lived in that house.” They can display particular nativity art on particular shelves for the holidays, for example. Perhaps there aren’t toys around the house like there may have been when the Miller children were young, but the atmosphere of their family home is still there.

So now that they’ve preserved it, what’s the next step? For the Miller House and other famous Columbus landmarks, Exhibit Columbus is the next big opportunity. By drawing visitors from around the world for their annual events, inspiring scholarly conversations within the walls of historic buildings, and supporting the creation of new public installations as a part of their exhibition, new things are being created. Although preservation is essential in honoring history, history can also inspire progress and creation. Exhibit Columbus is an example of preservation and adaptation working hand in hand.

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