Clothed in Light: The Love Letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger

My darling, You are wonderful! I start with that because now again you have covered yourself with a light that sets you off from every other person I have ever known!” (Carl to Annetta, August 25, 1928).

The love letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger are among the most beautiful expressions of love, longing, and devotion I have ever read. With Valentine’s Day coming soon, it’s a perfect time to share with you some of their words that convey something of life’s highest mystery as it can manifest between two people.

Carl and Annetta Wonnberger. September 7, 1929. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Carl George Wonnberger (1901-1980) and Annetta Bouton Wonnberger (1909-1997) arrived at Cranbrook in 1929. Carl taught English at Cranbrook School until 1967, and they both founded the Cranbrook Theatre School in 1942. Their life is a love story of manifold paths. Their letters provide us with an intimate glimpse into the couple’s hearts in the two years preceding their marriage and the beginning of their life together at Cranbrook.

Annetta first met Carl in the Spring of 1926, when she visited the Storm King School, New York, to take the college entrance exam, which she failed. Carl, a teacher there, was the administrator. Annetta attended Drew Seminary as a post-graduate student and retook the exam in the spring of 1927, and that is when they connected. If sparks didn’t fly at their first meeting, they did at the second, as shortly after, on June 23rd, Carl asked Annetta to marry him.

Writing in July 1927, Annetta recalled that early evening in June—their walk in the woods, the perfect quiet except for the frogs and locusts around Black Rock, the ride back and the thunder shower. Annetta’s candid style of writing offers us quite a vivid sense of her character as well as a discernible process of maturation over the two years:

Carl, ever since I was a small child I have lived in a sort of fairyland of dreams and ideals. It was only natural, of course, that the people whom I met in real life differed from the creatures of star-dust and moon-mist fashioned by my fancy. And it has always been hard to realize the truth. But you, dear, there is no disillusionment about you. You are all I have ever dreamed the man I would love would be – and more. I only hope that I may be able to follow the road you’ve shown me, and reach the goal you’ve set.”

Letter from Annetta to Carl, November 30, 1927.

From 1927-1929, Annetta attended Smith College in Massachusetts, while Carl remained a teacher at Storm King in New York. They would meet up periodically, but the rest of the time was spent in yearning, which is recorded in their letters (sometimes more than one a day!).

Letter from Annetta Bouton to Carl Wonnberger, January 7, 1928. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives
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Little Gem: Sara Smith’s Enamel Butterfly 

When Frank Lloyd Wright visited Smith House in 1951, he affectionately referred to the home as “my little gem.” Over the years, Melvyn and Sara Smith filled up their “little gem” with many treasures of their own. As I continue my detailed research into the Smith House collection, I am learning that even the smallest of these objects has a rich story to tell. 

One such detail is a yellow enamel butterfly. For over 50 years, the butterfly has rested its wings on an artificial ivy vine in a small corner between the Smith House living space and dining room.  

Albert Weiss, Butterfly Brooch, 1964. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

The butterfly is in fact a brooch, manufactured by costume jeweler Albert Weiss & Co. Albert Weiss began his career as a designer for Coro Jewelry before breaking off to start his own firm in 1942. Better known for elaborate rhinestone creations, Weiss also produced jewelry featuring enameled flowers and animals. My research has revealed that the Smith House brooch was part of a 1964 collection described in the New York Times as “a flock of butterflies that are meant to settle – one at a time – on the neckline of a dress or coat.” An advertisement for the collection shows the brooches pinned, labeled, and framed as if specimens in a natural history display. 

“Albert Weiss presents the Butterfly Pin Collection,” New York Times, February 23, 1964.

It is no surprise that the Smiths were drawn to the butterfly form, as these flying jewels have captivated artists as diverse as Vincent van Gogh and Damien Hirst. The Smiths’ collection no longer includes the Knoll BKF ‘butterfly’ chairs seen in family photographs, but there are still other butterflies in the house.

Smith House interior, c.1950.
Seen in the foreground, the BKF “Butterfly” chair manufactured by Knoll.

Silas Seandel’s sculptural butterflies were formed form torch-cut metal and their craggy brutalist forms are attached to flexible wire that give them movement and life. On a windowsill in the guest room, real butterfly specimens take flight in a Perspex cube. Given the dynamism of these other butterflies, it makes sense that the Smiths used the enamel pin to adorn their home rather than allowing it to languish in a jewelry box. Instead, this ivy-clad corner created a kind of habitat for the butterflies. 

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In Prevention of Vivisepulture

Taphophobia – the fear of being buried alive – seems to have been a concern for Henry Wood Booth, father of Cranbrook’s co-founder George Gough Booth. Henry was always a tinkerer, inventing a number of things throughout his life–including things for the afterlife.

Figures 1-5, US Letters Patent No. 619,929, issued to Henry Wood Booth on February 21, 1899.

In 1897, he applied for a patent for a coffin, issued on February 21, 1899. The coffin ensured fresh airflow in case of vivisepulture, the burying of something alive.

This invention relates to coffins, and has for its object an improved coffin and device to be used therewith which is intended to cause a current of fresh air to flow over the surface of the body placed in the coffin for the double purpose of furnishing to the body, if by any chance the person should be still living, a supply of pure air, and which shall, if the body be dead, carry away the gases produced by decomposition.

US Letters Patent No. 619,929, issued February 21, 1899
La Caisse oblongue, illustration d’Harry Clarke, 1919, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial.” Harry Clarke, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so it was not ALL about being buried alive, but really, wasn’t that his main concern?

The fear of “unintentional burial” has likely existed forever, but peaked in the 19th century during the era’s many cholera epidemics. The fear was not helped by fictitious reports in the writings of Edgar Allen Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poe even penned “The Premature Burial” on the subject, published in 1844. Newspapers sensationalized storied of premature burial, including thirty-six in the Detroit Free Press between 1880 and 1886.

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Cranbrook’s Great Books (Part I)

Across Cranbrook’s campus are eleven different spaces, including the Archives, that house book collections – some 110,000 physical items. Several of these spaces are typical school or academic research libraries, where students, faculty, and staff can check out the majority of these books. As a library and information science professional, I champion the importance of these lending libraries and the egalitarian access to information they provide.

In this post, however, I’d like to focus on Cranbrook’s non-circulating book collections – those rare, historic, or valuable tomes that, in many cases, hide in plain sight in public areas. With help from colleagues at the Academy of Art, Schools, Institute of Science, and Center for Collections and Research, I’ll highlight some of these gems that promise to delight the bibliophile, art appreciator, historian, or simply the Cranbrook curious.

Cranbrook’s special book collections are carefully preserved as both informational and evidential artifacts, and many are housed within cultural heritage areas. Valued not only for research purposes, they also serve as historical objects which help individually or collectively to tell the Cranbrook story.

South end view of the newly completed Cranbrook House Library, 1920. John Wallace Gillies, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The origin of book collecting at Cranbrook actually predates any of the current collection spaces and begins with Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth. George, in particular, was an enthusiastic collector, and started acquiring volumes in 1900, commissioning purchases of William Morris works and other fine books in London. As George explained, “I am not a millionaire and cannot pay the big prices now prevailing in New York.” His strategy allowed him to accumulate 1,000 books by 1916, effectively seeding the Cranbrook House Library Collection when construction of the library wing was completed four years later.

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