Natural State of Architecture
July 22-28, 2019
By Mason Toms
Major Charles H. Miller House
It is no secret that the Governor’s Mansion area of Little Rock is full of stately and elegant homes from a time long since passed. However, just to the south of Roosevelt Road, in an area locally known as SoRo, are numerous homes of similar, if not superior, architectural charm and significance. One such house is located on Broadway, less than a block from Roosevelt. It is the Major Charles H. Miller House, and it was once home to a man of remarkable honor and distinction.
Charles H. Miller was born near Strasburg, Pennsylvania, in 1866. He studied civil engineering at Lehigh University, where he graduated in 1888. Afterwards, he spent thirteen years with the Corps of Engineers working on Mississippi River improvements. Following this, he worked for the McClintic-Marshall Construction Company of Pittsburgh and then for the Missouri-Pacific and Iron Mountain Railway. It was this later employment that brought Miller to Arkansas. He eventually partnered with A.C. Butterworth, in 1911, to create the Miller-Butterworth Company, a private engineering and contracting firm. Eventually, Miller would also own the Southern Sand Company, the Southern Granite Company, and Allen Gravel Company. During the First World War, Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he was given the rank of Major of Engineers and stationed at Camp Cody in Deming, New Mexico. After the war, he remained in the military for a year, where he was stationed in France to assist with the reconstruction efforts.
Shortly before the outbreak of WWI, in 1914, Miller constructed the house at 2516 S. Broadway. It is thought that the house was designed by notable architect, Charles Thompson, due to the similarities in the plan of the Miller House and the plan of the Retan House by Thompson in 1915, located next door. Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1893 Winslow House in River Forest, Illinois, was the inspiration for the exterior design of the house. Wright would later remark that the Winslow House was the first Prairie Style home he designed. It featured many elements found in the Prairie Style, such as horizontal banding, deep eaves, and a low-pitched roof. The Miller House shares these architectural details, as well as other more obvious similarities. These include a brick-clad first floor, dark colored second floor, symmetrical façade arrangement, and even Wrightian inspired urns atop the front porch pylons. The Miller House, along with the Retan House, are two of the best examples of the Prairie Style in central Arkansas, making their location next to one another a unique architectural occurrence in the city.
Unfortunately, Miller was not able to enjoy the house for very long. Aside from his time away in the war, Miller’s life was also cut short in a seafaring disaster. In May 1925, Miller was traveling up the Mississippi River on the steamboat M.E. Norman, when the boiler of the ship exploded just south of Memphis, Tennessee. Though Miller escaped safely from the sinking vessel, he could not stand idly on the shore while he watched others drown. Miller swam back out to the ship several times, rescuing numerous people before he succumbed to exhaustion. Though Miller drowned that day, many others were able to live out their lives thanks to his sacrifice. A year later, Justin Matthews created his Pope Place Addition in Sherwood. There he named the main street and park in honor of Miller’s memory. Over the following years, several other additions would bear Miller’s name, thus continuing the memory of a brave man and distinguished engineer.
The Major Charles H. Miller House stands not only as a remarkable example of early Prairie Style architecture in Arkansas but also as a solemn memorial to a man who lost his life so that others might have theirs. At times, this is the natural state of architecture, where a stately and distinguished house commemorates the memory of a person of equal character and honor.
The Miller House is one of the premier examples of the architectural Prairie Style in central Arkansas. Today, the Major Charles H. Miller House can be viewed on 2516 South Broadway. (Photo by Mason Toms)