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J. Irwin Miller, 95; Patron of City's Architecture

August 22, 2004|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

J. Irwin Miller, a business leader in Columbus, Ind., whose dedication to fine architecture led to his small city being ranked alongside such architectural giants as Chicago and New York for its innovation and design, has died. He was 95.

Miller died Monday at his home in Columbus. No cause of death was given.

The scion of a family that had founded a diesel engine company in the early 1900s, Miller had an early interest in architecture.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to his hometown of Columbus and watched as several schoolhouses were built to accommodate the growing population in the city about 40 miles south of Indianapolis. Unhappy with the buildings and believing that "mediocrity is expensive," he offered to pay the fees if the school system would engage notable architects to design the buildings.

The program grew from there, and Miller established a foundation to finance other architectural fees. The idea of fostering good architecture also became a matter of civic pride, with others following in Miller's footsteps.

"Mr. Miller made Columbus -- remote little Columbus -- into a mecca of modern architecture, on a par with Chicago, Brasilia or any other metropolis," the New York Times' R.W. Apple wrote in 2003.

Thirteen years ago, a survey by the American Institute of Architects of more than 800 of its members ranked Columbus sixth behind Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C., for its architectural quality and innovation.

Among the architects who have designed buildings in Columbus are:

* Eero Saarinen (who designed St. Louis' Gateway Arch), who designed the North Christian Church in the city, with its low roof and spire rising nearly 200 feet. Earlier, in the 1940s, Saarinen's father, Eliel, had worked with Miller's uncle to build the geometric First Christian Church in Columbus.

* Robert Venturi, known for the Seattle Art Museum and other projects, who designed a fire station.

* Kevin Roche, designer of the expansion of the new Central Park Zoo in New York, who designed a post office.

* Cesar Pelli, known for designing the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, who designed the "Commons" shopping center in Columbus.

* Richard Meier, now famous for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, who designed an elementary school.

* I.M. Pei, best known today for his designs of the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery of Art's East Building in Washington, who designed the city's Cleo Rogers Memorial Library.

Pei said Miller understood urban design and the importance of civic art. The architect told The Times on Friday that when he was designing the library, he suggested that three buildings -- the library, Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church and a house nearby of some note -- might form a public square of sorts in Columbus if a major work of art were put in place to give the area cohesion. Miller immediately put up $75,000 and sent Pei to London to negotiate with Henry Moore to do the commanding arch that now stands in front of the library.

Pei said Miller's commitment to this kind of excellence "made a small town very special."

Robert A. Brown, president of the Boston Society of Architects, in nominating Miller for a 2003 American Institute of Architects honor award for collaborative achievement, said Columbus "is a testament -- and perhaps the only necessary testament -- to the nonpareil contributions Mr. Miller has made over five decades to the elevation of public awareness of the impact of design on our lives."

Six buildings in the city have been designated national landmarks by the National Park Service.

Miller was inducted into the National Building Museum's Building Hall of Fame in 1986 -- the first living American to be so honored.

Born May 26, 1909, Miller grew up in Columbus, was educated at Yale and Oxford, and returned home to work at Cummins Engine Co. He became its manager in 1937 and retired as chief executive in 1977, by which time Cummins Engine Co. (now Cummins Inc.) was a major manufacturer of diesel engines.

Besides his role in making Columbus an architectural showplace, Miller was active in political, religious and civil rights issues.

He was active in the failed effort to get New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, which went to Richard Nixon. And, in the early 1960s, as president of the National Council of Churches, Miller was instrumental in moving the religious agenda toward the support of civil rights.

The council subsequently was a sponsor of the historic March on Washington in 1963. That same year, Miller and other religious leaders met with President Kennedy and, after Kennedy's assassination, with President Johnson to press for civil rights legislation.

According to the Indianapolis News/Indianapolis Star, which editorialized on Miller's death last week, Miller also "poured his own money into black voter-registration drives and shut down the Cummins factory in South Africa to protest apartheid."

In the 1980s, Miller helped shape legislation that led to economic sanctions against South Africa.

"His support for civil rights in cities like Columbus, where Cummins was the major employer, sometimes seemed like a pragmatic move; he needed bright, young talent to move his company forward," said David Nemer, president of J-NEX Media in Burbank, which produced a video profile of Miller for the Business Enterprise Trust lifetime achievement award in 1992.

"But the truth is that his motivation went beyond that. He had an unwavering belief in the rights and dignity of all human beings."

In the video profile, Miller plays down his accomplishments.

"I'm not really awfully interested in my own past," he says. "There are enough things out there still to be done that life is more exciting if you continue to tackle whatever problems come to your hand."

Survivors include his wife, Xenia; five children; and 10 grandchildren.

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