House with Frank Lloyd Wright-approved design finds new life

The restored Mills House in Greenwood, Indiana, was built by a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright with his approval. Image courtesy of the Harry Cooler Conference Center

GREENWOOD, Ind. (AP) – The treasures are in the small details.

Glass aquarium corners in the Harry Cooler Conference Center give the sense of stepping into the outdoors and looking out over the wooded land around it, even while staying indoors. Ingeniously designed window placements and skylights allow for ample natural light but never overwhelming direct sunlight.

Closets and doors are hidden in plain sight, without handles or hinges. Well-placed skylights allow for indoor gardens filled with live plants.

“Every time you’re in here, you notice something different. You turn a certain way or push something and discover something new,” said Todd Anthony, owner of the building.

It is a masterpiece of mid-20th century modern architecture. And it was almost lost forever. But the architectural treasure has been reborn in Greenwood. The building locally known as the Mills House, boasting a Frank Lloyd Wright-approved design that is one-of-a-kind in the region, had as recently as two years ago been in disrepair and on the verge of total loss.

The dedication of Anthony, a Greenwood businessman, as well as an army of contractors and designers, have worked together to rescue it. Every square inch of the home has been refinished or replaced, to serve as a unique meeting facility for local businesses and organizations.

Anthony hopes it will also continue to stand as a source of civic pride for the Greenwood area.

“I would have hated to see it go. Living and working Greenwood has been very rewarding, and this was a way to give back. Hopefully, this is something that will be here for generations,” Anthony said. “It’s been fun to save, and drawn so much attention.”

Stepping through the heavy white mahogany door of the Cooler Center is like traveling back in time to the mid-1950s.

Midcentury contemporary lounge furniture is set up in the spacious living room, with a wrap-around pea-green sofa and shades of coral, turquoise and other bright colors. Statement lighting, reproduced by a company in California, hangs from the ceiling.

A funky rounded television is set up in the corner. Curvy abstract sculptures and other accents add a homey touch.

“We tried to keep original furnishings that are still usable for a business meeting, Christmas party or cocktail party,” Anthony said. “We wanted it to be as flexible as possible, while still looking like it would have in the 1950s.”

The story of the Cooler Center stretches back to 1955. Ernie Mills, who owned Monarch Cabinet Co., bought a plot of wooden land along Fry Road in Greenwood.

Mills was an avid fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and design, particularly his Usonian style. The term was coined by Wright to describe architecture unique to the U.S., characterized by the use of native materials such as local wood and stone, flat roofs and large cantilevered overhangs and natural lighting featuring clerestory windows.

Wright didn’t design the Mills house, but he did approve of its look. Mills made a balsa-wood model, which he took to Illinois to show the famed architect. It passed his muster.

The house itself had been drawn up and designed by local architect Harry Cooler, who had studied under Wright.

Construction was completed in 1956. The house featured all of the trademark aspects of Usonian style, including Brown County stone that had been hauled to Greenwood by Mills and his family, wife Edith and daughter Susan.

With its stone wrap and wooden accents, the home appears to have been carved out of the land.

Mills used the home to showcase his cabinets and kitchen designs, which featured pullouts for extra countertops and hidden panels to add more cabinet space. Terrazzo tile flooring filled the entire home. The floors were heated by copper tubing, and the home had air conditioning, a rarity in those days.

Over the years, the home was a central location for parties and gatherings for the Mills family and their friends. Edith Mills hosted a party for the mother of Fred and Augie Duesenberg, founders of the famed Duesenberg Motor Co. Susan Mills’ wedding reception was held at the house.

But the family eventually moved out and sold the home. Multiple owners put their touches on it over the years, and it was finally converted into a law office. After the law office closed, the house fell into disrepair, to the dismay of historic architecture aficionados in the area.

The roof had collapsed, and mold had ruined wood paneling and walls. Animals and insects had made their homes in the structure. Water damage had taken a toll on the terrazzo floor and most other surfaces.

In 2014, the house made Indiana Landmarks list of top-10 endangered buildings in the state. But still, it continued to rot away, as efforts to buy it failed.

Anthony had known the house for his entire life. The Greenwood native and current homeowner is the owner of DiscountFilters.com, and had driven by the fading masterpiece countless times.

When he saw a “For Sale” sign in the yard in late 2018, a plan formed.

“Greenwood is so architecturally bland. There are a few Victorians here and there, but nothing like this,” Anthony said. “It’s an important part of Greenwood, and I wanted to save it.”

Anthony found contractors and designers who could help bring the damaged parts of the structure back. He reached out to Harry Cooler’s son, Bill, who helped connect him to an engineer to fix the roof. Bill Cooler also designed a railing for the deck to match the stair handrails his father originally put in.

All the white mahogany wood paneling had to be taken off and refurbished. Window hardware, down to the screw heads, was taken off to be restored.

Modern mechanical and electrical systems had to be installed, as the existing machinery had been ruined by the elements.

But everything was chosen to at least pay homage to the time period and the mid-century modern look.

“We tried to get it back to as close as we could, with the blueprints and photos we had,” Anthony said.

As the project gained momentum, more and more people were drawn into its orbit.

Susan Mills England, who spent her childhood in the home, came down from her home in Michigan to see the restoration. She brought a book of photos that chronicled the construction of the home. Bill Cooler provided invaluable insight into aspects of his father’s design.

They and others who were connected with the structure brought a wealth of information that provided context to the project.

“That’s been the best part, just hearing the stories and everything. A lot of these people are still around, the generation afterwards at least,”Anthony said.

Original blueprints of the house are framed and now hang in the large meeting room downstairs.

By the end of 2019, the structure was complete.

“It’s been far more rewarding than I ever thought. Hearing the stories, seeing the excitement of everybody who’s been involved in the project, getting feedback from people just stopping in to thank me. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to see it saved,” Anthony said.

Named after the man who designed it, the Harry Cooler Conference Center will be a place where businesses can gather for off-site retreats and meetings, as well as parties and special events.

Different options in terms of seating and rooms to rent are available, from a nine-person table in the master bedroom to a 45-seat auditorium in the lower level. Modern audio-visual setups, including flat screens, have been installed throughout the house.

“Our primary goal is a business center, retreats. But we want to open it up to the public, too, so they can enjoy it. It’s a neat part of Greenwood history,” Anthony said.

“I think people are really going to get into it,” Anthony said. “People are dying to see it, and we’re excited to get it out there for people.”

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By RYAN TRARES, Daily Journal

At a glance:

Harry Cooler Conference Center

What: A business meeting and retreat facility, housed in the historic mid-century modern Mills House

Address: 944 Fry Road, Greenwood

Information: coolercenter.org or 317-775-0297

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AP-WF-03-21-20 0401GMT