Edison House: A Modern Icon

Approaching the Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS), one easily overlooks the low-set modern structure built into the eastern hillside. Shaded by trees and obscured by a brick courtyard wall, Edison House assumes a low profile much like its Modernist predecessors.

The 1960’s was a decade where modern conveniences flourished. Electric appliances began appearing in households across the country which made the lives of working families easier and more efficient. Backed by CIS’s Chairman of the Board of Directors, James Beresford, Director Robert T. Hatt and Detroit Edison’s Edwin O. George began plans for an innovative, all-electric residence that would suit their needs equally. Cranbrook would house scientists as part of the Distinguished Scholar Program, while Detroit Edison would have a showcase for their newest and greatest electrical equipment. The architect, William P. Smith Jr., was commissioned by Detroit Edison, and construction began in 1965. National and local firms contributed products, services, time, and funding to complete the house. Once construction was completed Detroit Edison turned Edison House over to CIS in a dedication ceremony held on June 1, 1966.

Thomas Edison's son, Charles Edison, visits Edison House Courtesy Detroit News, June 1966

Thomas Edison’s son, Charles Edison, visits Edison House
Courtesy Detroit News, June 1966

The finished product was a functionally efficient piece of art and an “outstanding demonstration of the application of science to everyday living.” Not only did it have the best and most innovative appliances, it was aesthetically advanced as well. The architectural style melds aspects of late Modernism and Art & Crafts. The broad eaves and natural material selection are reminiscent of the American Craftsman style home, while the clean-lines and mechanical innovations evolved from the Modernist International Style.

Also referred to as “Cranbrook’s New Idea Home,” a 1965 Detroit Free Press article described it as “organic contemporary in design.” Expansive windows run floor to ceiling which opened up the back face of the house to the surrounding natural landscape. Constructed of laminated redwood, extruded brick, and masonry, the home blends with its neighbors – the trees, grass and rocks. Broad overhanging eaves provide a feeling of shelter and enclosure. The natural backdrop contrasted with the interior’s modernist chrome and leather furnishings, and in true modernist style, linen drapes graced the windows in order to soften the hard surfaces. In addition to traditional living space, the open floor plan also accommodated conference rooms for faculty needs.

Dr. Robert Hatt in Edison House  living room, August 1966. Harvey Croze, photographer  Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Dr. Robert Hatt in Edison House living room, August 1966. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Every aspect of the 3,500 square foot house was intended to promote electronic living. Snow melting heating coils were laid under the pavement and built into the eaves and gutter system which trace the perimeter of the copper roof. Snow sensors were installed to automatically switch on the melting equipment. Electronically heated windows, state of the art at the time, line the lower-level family room. An invisible metallic coating spans the interior glass surface and is warmed by an electric current in order to remit just enough heat to reduce the cold.

The garage boasted automatic radio-operated door openers. In the master bedroom dressing room a sun lamp was mounted in the ceiling with a timer for automatic shut-off. A built-in toaster was installed adjacent to the breakfast table for easy access. The kitchen also held the control panel for the intercom system that reached every room in the house as well as the front door and terrace. Speakers on the terrace doubled as microphones so the residents could “pick up sounds of birds and other wildlife.”

After a summer as a demonstration house open to the public, Edison House was occupied by notable botanist and geneticist Karl Sax, the first Distinguished Scholar. Farrington Daniels, Denis L. Fox, and V. Elliott Smith followed. The last Edison House resident was mineralogist and CIS Director, Daniel E. Appleman, who was instrumental in the Earth Exhibit housed in the Institute’s 1996 addition designed by Steven Holl.

Over the past twenty years, Edison House has been used for a variety of purposes including office space for Events Planning and a staging area for IT infrastructure technicians. And although the once innovative electrical equipment is outdated and certainly not modern by contemporary standards, Edison House remains an icon of Michigan Modernist architecture. Edison House will celebrate its 60th anniversary in June 2016.

Originally authored by Stephanie White (2011); updated in July 2015

Hugh Ferriss: Visionary Illustrator

I came across Hugh Ferriss’s book The Metropolis of Tomorrow while assisting Judy Dyki, Director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art Library, in curating an exhibit of some of our rare and special collection books for the Bloomfield Township Public Library.  Ferriss (1889-1962) was a degreed architect, but he was most sought after for his architectural renderings of buildings. He developed an idiosyncratic style, often depicting buildings at night, seemingly enveloped in a kind of mist, with streetlights and the rays of the moon serving as illumination. I find Ferriss’s work intriguing because his drawings were so different from the typical architectural renderings of the 1920s to 1950s. The gothic yet futurist sensibility displayed in his work has influenced contemporary filmmakers like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. Ferriss has several connections to Cranbrook, the first being the drawing of the Detroit News Building that is in the collection of the Cranbrook Art Museum.

Hugh Ferriss in his studio, ca ? Photographer Stadler. Courtesy Creative Commons.

Hugh Ferriss in his studio, ca 1925. Photo by Stadler, New York. Courtesy Creative Commons.

The history of the Detroit News Building drawing is an interesting one. The J.L. Hudson Company, in honor of the company’s 46th anniversary and the opening of the new Detroit Institute of Arts building in 1927, commissioned Hugh Ferriss to create a series of architectural renderings of Detroit buildings, both extant and proposed, that contributed to Detroit’s rapidly changing skyline.  Twenty-two of these drawings where exhibited in the windows of Hudson’s downtown store in August 1927. Among these were two renderings of Eliel Saarinen’s proposed plan for a new Detroit Civic Center complex.  Also included was this drawing of the Detroit News Building. The Detroit News building, which opened in 1917, was commissioned by George Gough Booth, and designed by architect Albert Kahn.

Drawing of the Detroit News Building. Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM1955.400)

Drawing of the Detroit News Building. Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum. (CAM1955.400)

Booth, president of the Detroit News (and Cranbrook’s founder) purchased the drawing of the Detroit News Building directly from J.L. Hudson’s in October 1927 for the Academy of Art collections. (Accessions Book No. 1, Cranbrook Academy of Art).  To coinicide with the exhibition, J.L. Hudson Co. published a commemorative booklet entitled For a Greater Detroit, which contained Ferriss’s drawings and included editorials by various community leaders that discussed Detroit’s future. A copy of this booklet can be found in the Edsel Ford Office Papers at the Benson Ford Research Center. Ferriss’s drawing was transferred from the Academy of Art to the Art Museum in 1955, and is considered one of the museum’s “One Hundred Treasures”.

Stay tuned for a forthcoming blog post about Hugh Ferriss’s further connections to Cranbrook

Mary Beth Kreiner, Librarian, Cranbrook Academy of Art Library

Editor’s note: For additional information about the work of Hugh Ferriss, check out the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University.

Corajoyce Rauss (1925-2015): A Cranbrook Legend

The Archives was saddened to learn this week of the passing of Corajoyce Nancy Lane, of Bloomfield Hills, who worked at Cranbrook for over five decades. Raised by parents who taught her that women didn’t, and shouldn’t, work, Corajoyce (who was headstrong even at a young age!) tried to convince her parents to let her get a job. Her first thought was airplane pilot, followed by truck driver so that she could drive across the country! Instead, at the age of 20, without her parents’ permission, she responded to an ad in the Birmingham Eccentric for a photographer’s assistant at the Cranbrook Foundation. Corajoyce was offered the job by staff photographer Harvey Croze, and finally received consent from her parents. The job only lasted two months, which she followed with a job working for Margaret Auger, then headmistress of Kingswood School. In 1948, Corajoyce married Robert Rauss (they honeymooned at a dude ranch in Colorado) and two years later, left Cranbrook to become a stay-at-home mom to her daughter.

Corajoyce Rauss, Nov 1947.

Corajoyce Rauss, Nov 1947. Harvey Croze, photographer.

In 1961, Corajoyce returned to Cranbrook, this time securing a job as Henry Scripps Booth’s personal secretary. As she and Henry became lifelong friends, she was given more responsibility and became the manager of Henry’s personal estate. During her tenure at Cranbrook, Corajoyce met Carl Milles, Zoltan Sepeshy and Eliel Saarinen among others. George and Ellen Booth used to drop by Kingswood School, often unannounced, and Corajoyce also met visitors including Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, and Princess Christina of Sweden.

Arthur Witleff and Corajoyce Rauss, Jan 1962.

Arthur Wittliff and Corajoyce Rauss, Jan 1962. Harvey Croze, photographer.

Soon after Henry’s death in 1988, Corajoyce began work at the Cranbrook Archives as the part-time bookkeeper. She volunteered additional time and took on the task of organizing, with the help of a core of volunteers, the Booth family photographs, creating photo albums that are housed in the Archives today. She worked tirelessly on compiling The Cranbrook Booth Family of America genealogy which required copious amounts of correspondence with various Booth family members. Her hard work and dedication earned her Cranbrook’s President’s Award for Excellence in 1990. Corajoyce remained a fixture at Cranbrook Archives until her retirement in 2007. She was once quoted as saying that she “lived a Cinderella life.” While Cranbrook has lost a dedicated employee, her love of Cranbrook and the work she accomplished here lives on in the Archives.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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