History, Memories & Progress
Writer / Suzanne Huntzinger
Photographer / JWcreative.indy
This second article in the series about the iconic property at 944 Fry Road in Greenwood, affectionately known as the Mills House, promises to deliver the much-anticipated updates on the project and more. Several months have passed since Todd Anthony and his crew began work on renovating the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired home and the inquiries keep pouring in on the Mills House Facebook page. Thanks to the power of digital technology and social media, more stories about the home have come to light.
It didn’t take long to realize this series was evolving into so much more than a story about a house renovation.
Immediately after the Mills House Facebook page went live, people began connecting and sharing their stories. Dozens commented about how delighted they are to see the majestic home being restored to its former glory. Some commented about how they admired the classic contemporary style house with its cantilevered overhangs and clerestory windows. Many shared memories of passing the home through the years and admiring it. Within days, hundreds of people were connected through the Facebook page. But most unexpected were messages from the home’s former residents, including Ernie and Edith Mills’ only child, Susan, the original owners.
Meanwhile, work continued on the house. The initial phase involved stabilizing the property to prevent further damage.
“We removed dead trees that were threatening the home, abated the wildlife living inside and removed dangerous electrical,” Anthony says. “We have successfully replaced the joists that hold up the cantilevered roof and removed the temporary jacks returning the home to its original style. Next up, we will be sending all the interior woodwork offsite to be refinished and replacing the HVAC and plumbing.”
The electrical updates proved to be a challenge. Much of the electrical work had to be replaced including the pole in the street.
All the attention to detail and care to preserve this house was befitting of a structure bursting with memories. None were more powerful than those from the home’s original owner, the Mills family. Susan Mills England reached out via the Facebook page. Now living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she heard about the renovation and related article and was eager to share her story.
Mills tells me when they broke ground on the house in 1954, its original address was RR2 Box 18A, until the post office gave the property its official address as 944 Fry Road. The home soon earned two nicknames — the Glass House on Fry Road and Southwind.
“The property had dense, thick woods,” Mills England says. “When we came on the weekends to clear the property, we noticed the winds came up from the south, so we named it Southwind.”
No matter its official address or nickname, the family had difficulty explaining to people how to get to the house.
“We used to tell people to turn at the two big trees,” she says.
There were also sheep on the property which presented some challenges, but it proved helpful as there was less area to mow.
It’s no surprise that Mills decided to build a home featuring the cabinet and countertop products from his business. He was a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and even traveled to Wisconsin to meet with him to share design philosophies. With a design already in mind, Mills fashioned a model of his dream home out of balsa wood. He took his original model with an L-shaped design to an up and coming local architect, Harry Cooler. Cooler just happened to share the same affinity for Frank Lloyd Wright’s style, and even better, he studied under the famous architect at the University at Illinois.
“Dad had lots of connections with builders, and he’d heard a lot about Cooler,” Mills England says. “So they met, discussed it, Harry made some modifications to it, but he stuck with Dad’s vision.”
The house was completed in 1956, and the memories were just beginning. Of course, there were fond memories of parties and events held at the house, like bridal showers, parties for classmates, sorority sisters and even Susan’s wedding reception.
More than the memories of happy times, what remained after the Mills family left was the legacy the house left behind. A classic way ahead of its time, the home had features which most homes of that era did not.
“Our house was heated with copper tubing. We also had air conditioning,” Mills England says. “Dad had a unique vision to bring the outside in, so he installed terrazzo floors. He also wanted lots of natural stone, so we hauled stone all the way from Brown County in his Chrysler New Yorker. He wanted to create a peaceful setting among nature.”
The Smith family was the second family to live in the home. Ron Smith, a local attorney, loved the classic architectural design, its unique, unusual layout with a fireplace on the main floor.
“Ernie was a unique craftsman. The radiant heat was very modern, especially by 1950s standards,” Smith says.
Smith’s daughter Jennifer spotted the February 2019 Mills House article and told her dad right away. The home was the first place she lived after she was born. With plenty of their own fond memories of living there, she asked her dad to reach out and share the family’s thoughts. Smith shared how the family remodeled the kitchen, converted part of the garage into an office (reserving two bays for Ernie’s vehicles), and kept the sheep for weed control.
“We also tried goats for a while,” he says.
Smith eventually completely converted the entire home into a law office, and clients began to appreciate the home’s splendor.
As the journey continues, more connections and memories may be revealed. Although they have a monumental task, Todd Anthony and his crew will continue working hard to preserve all those special touchstones the home evokes.
The renovations are still on track to be completed by the end of September. Anthony plans to open the home for meetings and conferences at that time. Stay tuned for more updates on the Mills House Facebook page.