Built For More
Greenwood Business Owner Is Transforming Historic Mills House Into An Event Center
On Fry Road, on the way to the Greenwood Park Mall, sits a home so magnificent in its design and the way it blends so beautifully with nature’s splendor, yet most of us barely notice it as we breeze along on the way to work. Those who do notice the unique home fondly recall an era defined as much for its post-war prosperity as its unique architecture and statement about idyllic social values. That home is the historic Mills House.
Built in 1955, by late architect Harry Cooler, the mid-century modern marvel was built for Ernie Mills, who owned a cabinet and Formica shop. Mills built the home to showcase his company’s cabinetry and Formica products. After several decades and several owners, the Mills house became vacant and fell into disrepair and finally wound up on the Indiana Landmark’s list of most imperiled buildings.
Mills was a fan and admirer of the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, and he was looking for the ideal architect and builder who would carry out his vision flawlessly. As fate would have it, local Architect Harry Cooler was not only a fan of Wright’s work, but he was mentored by him during his college years at the University of Illinois. Cooler’s larger projects like the Burger Chef design and the original Weir Cook airport administration building would come much later as would numerous accolades like the Sagamore on the Wabash Award. But, in 1955, Cooler was just starting to make a name for himself in the industry, and this home was just Cooler’s second home to build. Still, Mills was convinced of Cooler’s affinity for Wright’s signature Usonian style and convinced that Cooler would execute his vision for the house.
Cooler indeed designed the Mills house in classic Frank Lloyd Wright style. The home has just two bedrooms and two bathrooms and is essentially a ranch home with additional living space and storage on a lower level Wright never believed in having a “basement” per se. Cooler incorporated many elements typical of the Usonian style including a flat roof, cantilevered overhangs and clerestory (floor to ceiling) windows and natural stone trim on the house. Four-and-one half acres of lush landscaping surrounds the property, and the stone paver deck creates an inviting, peaceful outdoor experience. At the time, the cost of the home was probably five times the cost of an average home — a courageous move for anyone to make.
Through the years, the charming home with breathtaking views caught the eye of one special Greenwood resident. Entrepreneur and founder of DiscountFilters.com, Todd Anthony, noticed the home often when he drove past. Unfortunately, as the home began to deteriorate, he noticed it more and more.
Then one day, this past December, when Anthony drove by he got a pleasant surprise.
“I saw a for sale sign up and it piqued my interest,” he says. He made some inquiries checking in to making the purchase and made the deal in a matter of days. “It happened fast,” he says. “I wasn’t looking for a project, but the more information I found about the house, the more intrigued I became. I really wanted to know the home’s backstory.”
As the owner of a thriving business, Anthony doesn’t have the luxury of taking on home renovations as a full-time job, but he admits it’s his hobby. It’s a hobby that keeps his hands full, since he’s also completing renovations on his own home.
“But this is different,” he says. “It’s a labor of love, and this house needs some tender loving care.”
The tender loving care Anthony is putting into the restoration of the home is obvious. His passion for the architecture and the era sparkle in his eyes as he relates what he’s already uncovered in the short weeks since taking ownership.
“During Christmas break, my brother and I started going through the house to clear debris and other items left by Mills and previous owner, Charles Gantz,” he says. “They left a lot of things behind, and not all of it usable. But we also found some treasures like the original radiant heat tubing, original rods to open the windows and original screens.”
There at lots more original features and gems still left in the house. Immediately greeting you as you park at the house are the clerestory windows, at all four corners, firmly anchored without a structural column. The mahogany wood doors, though weathered in appearance, are in excellent shape for their age. The original cabinets and countertops, all manufactured by Mills’s company, still hang in the kitchen and they show no signs of deterioration. The most shocking discovery was about the terrazzo flooring.
“The original terrazzo throughout the home still looks phenomenal,” Anthony says. “Only one spot on one of the stairways is chipped off. But I got in touch with a manufacturer who found an exact match for the original pattern and make, so we’re going to replace that area and just clean and buff out the rest. It’s going to be gorgeous.”
Unlike most rehab projects, Anthony plans to keep as much of the original features of the home as possible. Instead of discarding and renovating old fixtures, he wants to restore as much as he can and make it true to the décor of the time period.
“We’re going to keep the original green toilets,” he says. “My brother helped me scrub them up over the holidays, and we cranked up Sinatra while we worked.”
Amongst all that’s salvageable, there are still plenty of areas that have sustained significant structural damage and they will be Anthony’s primary focus of attention in this first phase.
“The roof is probably in the worst shape of all and it needs immediate attention,” he says. “Since it’s flat and can’t drain water, it’s sustained a lot of damage.”
To address the issue, he got in touch with Harry Cooler’s son, Bill, to get his recommendations on how to proceed.
“Bill was incredibly helpful,” Anthony says. “We’re so excited to have the Cooler family involved. It means a lot to us.”
Bill Cooler was equally delighted to become involved. He owns his own architecture and design firm, Cooler Design, following in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one. Like his father, Bill also attended the University of Illinois, and he shares his father’s affinity for the signature style of Frank Lloyd Wright, though a majority of Bill’s projects are commercial buildings like schools and hospitals.
“My father did dozens of homes around Indy, and the Mills house was probably the most special because of its prairie style, its cantilevers and the way the home is at one with nature,” Cooler says. “It’s the closest to Frank Lloyd Wright’s style. I admired the way my dad had such attention to detail and the care he took to get things just the way he wanted it.”
“We found the original blueprints for the home in the crawl space,” Anthony says. “The structural engineer looked at them and gave us lots of suggestions to help make the house structurally sound. Now we’ve got a temporary roof on the house and it’s protected.”
Cooler says he will continue to be involved during the process.
“It makes me proud to help Todd and to be involved in this project,” he says. “I’m excited to do this project for dad, and I know he would be proud of Todd too.”
Bill took his mom, Dee, to visit the property, and she too says she’s proud of Todd.
Beyond being proud of the work, Anthony wants the project to come full circle and that means having a plan for the house when it’s complete. He decided to turn it into an event venue for small business meetings and parties. The idea came to him while attending a cocktail party at Frank Sinatra’s former home in Palm Springs, California.
“We were all in this relaxed setting which reminded me of the Sinatra era, when people held cocktail parties and served martinis and music was swinging,” Anthony says. “I realized how this style with its openness can bring us all back to a time that was simpler and idyllic.”
When the home is complete, Anthony plans to name the property the Harry Cooler Conference and Event Center. He also plans to turn the former master bedroom into the Frank Lloyd Wright Conference Room while another room will be named the Ernie Mills Training Room.
Anthony isn’t certain of the completion date for the project, but he tentatively hopes to have it finished by late summer or early fall. In the meantime, he’s grateful for all the people in the community who’ve driven by and honked to show their support or stopped by to ask about it. Stay tuned for more updates on the home’s progress. You can also follow the progress by visiting the Historic Mills House Facebook page. Anthony welcomes everyone to share memories they might have of the house.