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Endangered gem: Classic Greenwood home at risk of vanishing

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On a wooded hillside in Greenwood, the Mills House appears to be an extension of the landscape.

Walls of floor-to-ceiling glass allow people to see through one side of the structure to the other. Fieldstone and other natural materials appear to have been naturally laid down over the centuries.

Reminiscent of the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright, it’s a hidden architectural marvel in the county.

But it’s in serious danger of fading away. The home is one of the 10 most endangered structures in the state, according to the preservation group Indiana Landmarks.

Without a campaign to save the house, Greenwood will lose one of its most unique structures.

“It’s a wonderful example of midcentury design, a style that is increasingly seeing a revival,” said Mark Dollase, vice president for preservation services for Indiana Landmarks.

The Mills House was built on Fry Road in 1955 by noted Indianapolis architect Harry Cooler.

Cooler took his inspiration from the Usonian style popularized by Wright. The style encouraged using stone and wood native to the area, flat roofs and natural lighting with large windows.

Cooler constructed the house for Ernie Mills, who owned a company that sold countertops and cabinetry. He wanted to use his home as a showcase for his products, Dollase said.

These features attracted the attention of Indiana Landmarks. The organization posts its 10 most endangered structures every year as a way to call attention to important but struggling buildings, bridges and other architectural features.

“We think that historic buildings are the most visible way of giving a community an identity. They are the connections to our collective heritage,” said Tina Connor, executive director of Indiana Landmarks.

Since starting the list in 1991, the organization has featured 99 historic structures. The listings in the worst condition are sometimes repeated year to year.

Over that time, 48 of the structures have been completely refurbished, Connor said. All but 14 have been maintained in some way.

“We do this because it works,” Connor said. “Considering the kinds of jeopardy these places face and the conditions they’re in, we think it’s something that shows results.”

The Mills House is owned by longtime Greenwood lawyer and former Johnson County Prosecutor Charles Gantz. He has moved to Florida; and though he tries to care for the building, it has been difficult to keep up with the maintenance, Dollase said.

Indiana Landmarks has been working with him to restore it and keep it structurally sound.

“We do believe strongly that the current owner cares for the property and does understand its importance; but the fact that he lives out of state, he has been unable to keep up with all of the upkeep,” Dollase said. “We want to work on his behalf and with him to save it.”

Currently, the biggest problem is inadequate roofing. Water has leaked into the structure as the roof had deteriorated, damaging much of the construction, Dollase said.

The structure isn’t damaged enough to require major reconstruction, but if left unrepaired, that is a danger, he said.

With its inclusion on Indiana Landmarks 10 most endangered list, the Mills House is eligible for grants and funding that other buildings are not, Dollase said.

The hope is that by profiling it, the Mills House will attract the attention necessary to save this architectural gem.

“Sometimes, people think it’s too close to us in our time, as far as embracing it as historic. But this property was built in the 1950s, and that’s an era that we’re starting to see a lot more interest in,” Dollase said.

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