A Frank Lloyd Wright structure is a unique and wonderful thing. Even private residences are studied, considered, and lovingly cared for by a group of enthusiastic fans. That is the reason for this website. Although the Alvin Miller House is indeed our private residence, many people are interested in its history and current status, particularly after the massive damage following the Iowa floods of 2008. We will endeavor to provide as much information as possible without compromising privacy concerns.
At some point we hope to document a detailed report on the restoration, but for now we offer this brief history of the house and current status.
TThe Alvin Miller House is a compact and lovely Usonian home of 1250 square feet on the banks of the Cedar River in Charles City, Iowa. This Frank Lloyd Wright home was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The original design called for the residence of dentist Dr. Alvin and Inez Miller to be built, with an adjoining dental office on the south side of the home, and a second residence for the Miller’s dentist son, Dr. William Miller. Of the three FLW designed structures, only the original residence was built in the period. The original plans were not completed because the Miller’s daughter-in-law asked Wright for changes to the plans for the second home. She planned on more children and requested another bedroom. Wright refused changes, saying the plan was perfect as designed, so the younger Miller family decided not to go forward. This story has been confirmed by the daughters of Dr. William Miller, and the explanation is in keeping with Wright’s attitude that his designs did not need alteration.
Construction began on the original home 1946 and was completed in 1951. In 1996, owners Bruce and Deborah Dietrich, after hiring Taliesin Associated Architects as consultants, added the dental office as living space, keeping the outer footprint but altering some of the interior walls. The “dental clinic” addition almost tripled the overall square footage of the home.
Dr. and Mrs. Alvin C. Miller: 1952-1973 James & Petrena Olds: 1973-1974 Lloyd & Nancy Arnold: 1974-1983 Bruce & Deborah Dietrich: 1983-2011 Paul & Jeanette Griffin: 2011-
Obviously, the biggest change to the original structure was adding the “dental clinic.” Although the footprint and exterior design and dimensions were virtually retained, as were most of the interior walls, some significant alterations were made from Wright’s original plans. In the new section, the radiant floor heating was abandoned in favor of forced air heat ducting in the slab. The original plans joined the two buildings to make one back a few feet to the east providing separate entries for house and office. The entry to the original home was lost in favor of entering would have been the reception area. This waiting area was to have a limestone fireplace on the right. A utility room was to be to the south of the waiting area, then a lab. Taliesin Associates moved the fireplace from the waiting room/entry to the new master bedroom (the old lab.) Matching limestone rock was located and beautifully finished, looking just like the original stonework. New growth red tidewater cypress was used throughout the addition, while the original house utilized old growth wood. Other than the addition of the “dental clinic” in 1996, previous owners made other changes through the years. Many changes were aimed at solving concerns of heating the home in cold Iowa winters. More than one owner made alterations to the windows, such that at the present time, sadly, only one of the many opening clerestory windows remains. The mitered cornered windows in the living room and master bedroom have been lost, and all of the windows were replaced in the late 1990’s. All of the east-facing doors, the furniture, kitchen cabinets, and scroll-cut shelving were removed and stored in the early 1980’s. Fortunately, most of this original material has been located and purchased. Some of the cabinets and doors were in very poor condition and had to be re-created using the originals as patterns. Fortunately, red tidewater cypress is a hardy wood that withstands abuse from humidity and water. Most of the pieces were in decent shape and have been gently cleaned and put back where they belong.
Though Frank Lloyd Wright's book is no longer in print, copies can be found in used bookstores and Amazon.com
Also, an interesting study was done by Chery Peterson on all of the Iowa Usonians. While we are not certain that all of it is exactly correct in the case of the Miller House, it is a fine and scholarly piece. She submitted the document to the National Register of Historic Places when nominating the Iowa Usonian homes for inclusion, and the thesis - her property - is found online as a matter of public record. Click the link below.
Getting the house back into shape was a two-stage process. The first and easiest stage was restoring the newer section. That is now finished. When it was built in 1996, modern materials and methods were used and, since it is not original to Wright’s design, it did not really need “restoration” in a strict sense. It is very beautiful, very well done, and built following Wright's altered plans by his apprentices at Taliesin Associated Architects. The footprint of the addition is almost exactly as drawn by Wright, while changing the interior to living space.
Restoration of the original house was handled quite differently. The philosophy guiding the restoration of that section was and is to - whenever remotely practical or economically feasible - restore as close as possible to how it was when completed in 1951. This includes restoring the original living room-to-the-outside doors, the mitered windows, all the original cabinets, restoring walls as done in 1951, and removing alterations added by previous owners in intervening years.
Young Construction was engaged to do the building restoration. The original home was built by “Bud” Moltz, and Dick Young started in construction with Moltz and worked for Bud for years. Young Construction, with Dick and son Brian, built the newer section in 1996 and did maintenance on the home for years. Tragically, Dick Young passed away in November of 2011, but Brian Young took up where his father left off, keeping up the tradition of excellent craftsmanship. In addition, the Griffins consider themselves very fortunate to have had enormous help from Stafford Norris III of Minneapolis. Stafford has gently restored the original cabinets, doors, and furniture, and will re-create lost door jams and missing shelves. Most of all, Stafford has provided advice and expertise on proper restoration for the home and contents. Stafford has helped in countless areas concerning the original house, including supplying the period-correct linoleum for the counter tops.
There is not a strict timetable for completion, though it will be ongoing for years. As of 2021, the house is quite livable, very comfortable, and is over 90% completed. The Griffins have worked to locate historic photos of the home, particularly those that show the inside of the home, and are grateful to everyone that has shared photographs. They have been in contact with descendants of the Millers and have collected much information about the history of the home in order to restore it as closely to the original as possible.
Most of the critical work has been done to make the home livable. It appears very much like it was in 1951, right down to period correct appliances, a 1950 rotary phone, and (soon to be installed) the same model built in radio, as seen in Wright's book "The Natural House."
Most of the difficult decisions have all been made. What is left?
Sadly, in August 2019 a section of the living room ceiling collapsed, exposing a water intrusion that had been there many years. Too late in the year to repair before winter, the project was scheduled for summer of 2020. We all know that 2020 was a disaster, with businesses shut down, movement restricted, and building supplies unavailable. We are hopeful that we can complete that repair in spring/summer 2021. After the interior is done, the roof must be redone with the thick rubber membrane that replaced the original tar and gravel in the late 1990s. Beyond that, the outside wood on the house, must be refinished, the floor finish restored, and final touches on two rooms. Flood mitigation measures will be considered, also.
Below are a few photos of various sections of the Miller House in 2011 before the restoration, and again more recently. Much progress has been made.
The Iowan is a fine magazine that is still going strong today, and they were kind enough to give us permission to post their original story on the Miller House from 1953. Their story and photos are protected by their copyright, of course.
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