Cranbrook Archives is delighted to announce that the Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers are now open for research. This archival collection was acquired as part of the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House, which was donated to Cranbrook in 2017 by the Towbes Foundation with assistance from Anne Smith Towbes. Melvyn and Sara were schoolteachers who dreamed of building a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home – a dream that was realized in 1950. They cherished their dream home and adorned it with art objects which they bought from local artists, including Cranbrook Art Academy students and artists-in-residence. Over the years they welcomed many visitors, students, and guests into their home, including Frank Lloyd Wright himself and the landscape architect, Thomas Church.
The collection documents the personal and professional life of the Smiths, as well as their many contributions to the community through patronage of the arts, including theater and performing arts. It documents the construction and adornment of the house, as well as its preservation as a historic home and renovation under the Towbes Foundation. It also contains a rare and unique collection of news clippings and periodicals, spanning from 1937 to 2016, about Frank Lloyd Wright and his work .
Melvyn Maxwell Smith aspired to be an architect. After graduating Northern High School in Detroit, Michigan, he was accepted into the School of Architecture at the University of Michigan. However, due to the economic depression, his parents suggested he attend Wayne University College of Education until his brother had completed his degree in dentistry. Much inspired by an English teacher, Miss Boyer, in his first semester, Melvyn decided to pursue a career in teaching, and remained at the university to pursue a doctorate. Melvyn’s architectural aspirations were instead to manifest in his life in quite a different way than he had first anticipated. In an art history class taught by Jane Betsey Welling, Melvyn learned of Frank Lloyd Wright. This was the beginning of a lifelong love of Wright’s work and the pursuit of Melvyn’s dream home. After graduating, Melvyn became a teacher at Cody High School in Detroit, where he remained for his entire career of 38 years. He later became a board member of the Wayne State University Alumni Association and created the Betsey Welling Memorial Court for which he donated the sculpture, In Lieu, by Robert Schefman.
Sara Evelyn Stein was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Detroit during her childhood. She met Melvyn at the B’nai Moshe Sunday School in 1937 and they were married in 1940. Sara had dreamed of being an actress, but she too joined the teaching profession and trained to be a kindergarten teacher. As it had been for Melvyn, Sara’s theatrical aspirations were fulfilled in a different way than her young mind had envisioned, namely an enthusiasm for teaching the performing arts to others. She was deeply involved in community theaters, including the Popcorn Players at Birmingham Community House and the Cranbrook Theatre School. Both Melvyn and Sara were passionate supporters of all the arts and actively worked to cultivate and sustain the arts in Detroit, Bloomfield Hills, and the surrounding communities.
Sara shared Melvyn’s dream of a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home. In 1941, they traveled to Lake Louise and Banff National Park in Alberta. Their journey took them through Wisconsin, where they were able to visit Taliesin, the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, and meet with the architect himself. Melvyn later recalled that during the visit, Wright had advised him to find land that no one else wants because it will likely have an interesting natural feature. In 1942, Melvyn joined the US Army and it would be 1946 before he returned to Detroit. Sara was able to join him for much of the time and their son, Robert “Bobby” Nathaniel Smith, was born in 1944. Having located a property upon which to build their home on Ponvalley Road in Bloomfield Township, they began work in 1949. The house was completed in 1950, and Wright visited the house for the first time in 1951, calling it “My Little Gem.” He visited several more times – among the highlights of this collection are his entries in the guest books. Also included in the collection are two books signed by Wright (there are more than 900 books in the Center’s cultural properties collection at Smith House, which may be made available for research in the Archives reading room by request).
The Smiths welcomed countless guests and visitors to their home, providing house tours for local community groups as well as architectural schools. The collection also contains an abundance of thank you letters in gratitude for the hospitality of the Smiths. Many visitors thank Sara for her gift of sharing joy.
The Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers tell the story of the Smiths’ home and of the lives of the couple who dreamed the home. The Smiths were not only teachers in the classroom: through their tenacity, generosity, and sheer joy of living, they inspired countless people who visited their home or met them through their artistic and philanthropic endeavors. As the Smiths’ home is preserved just as it was when they lived in it, their zeal to share and teach is perpetuated. This collection is a fine example of how the team at the Center for Collections and Research works together to tell the story of Cranbrook through historic houses, cultural properties, and archival materials.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House is a must-see. Find out more about house tours here. If you’ve already been, consider going again in a different season to see the changing blend of architecture and nature that is pure Frank Lloyd Wright.
–Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist