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Indianapolis Museum of Art strikes deal to acquire house by Eero Saarinen; a model for LACMA?

November 18, 2008 |  9:08 pm

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The Indianapolis Museum of Art has finalized a deal to acquire Eero Saarinen's Miller House in Columbus, Ind., which was commissioned by J. Irwin Miller and his wife, Xenia, in 1952. Surviving members of the Miller family, along with the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation, have agreed not only to donate the property to the museum but also to fund $5 million of a planned $8-million endowment to operate and maintain it. The museum, in turn, will raise the remaining $3 million in endowment funds as well as $2 million to restore the house, which has a garden by noted modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley and interiors -- including authentic conversation pit! -- by the great Alexander Girard.

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LACMA Director Michael Govan has talked about acquiring great pieces of residential architecture in and around Los Angeles to add, in situ, to the museum's collection. But the plan has so far barely advanced past the concept stage.

The Columbus deal suggests one possible model for how such agreements might operate here, with the owner of a significant house donating the property -- and perhaps seeding an endowment -- while the museum pledges to raise additional funds on its own.

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Though many outside the Midwest aren't aware of its high-design credentials, Columbus, Ind., was an architectural hotbed for a good chunk of the 20th century -- thanks largely to J. Irwin Miller himself. As head of Cummins Engine, Miller pledged that his company would pay the architectural fees for nearly any new public building in town -- but only if the client chose from a list of architects Miller had prepared. The result was a group of schools, fire stations and libraries by Harry Weese, Kevin Roche, I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi and many others. The Millers met Saarinen during construction of the First Christian Church in Columbus, which was designed by Eero's father, Eliel Saarinen.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Images: Indianapolis Museum of Art

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