When I was asked to gather archival materials related to Cranbrook in Kent, England, a short series of correspondence in the Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers particularly caught my notice. Written to Henry Scripps Booth, the letters discuss a stone from St. Dunstan’s Church in Cranbrook, Kent, and its overseas delivery to Christ Church Cranbrook. I became quite curious about it.
One handwritten letter in the correspondence was rather difficult to decipher, but once I got the pattern of it, it helped me begin to comprehend the story.
In July 1930, St. Dunstan’s Vicar, Rev. Swingler, acknowledged a request from Booth for a fragment of the church which could be placed in the chapel of the same name at Christ Church Cranbrook.
It was July 1931 before Rev. Swingler wrote again to inform Booth that the stone was ready for dispatch. He explained that the Church Council had welcomed the idea and directed the Fabric Committee to select a stone, which they had, but that the Secretary had forgotten to inform Booth until then, a year later, and it was already on its way!
The forgetfulness of the Secretary and finding appropriate shipping arrangements for such an unusual commodity had caused quite a delay, to which Rev. Swingler writes,
“I am sorry that the matter has not been dealt with more speedily but old Cranbrook has hardly yet learned modern methods of business, as perhaps you know.”
He goes on to describe the provenance of the stone, at least as far as he could tell. A fifteenth century carved coign (an architectural term for a “projected corner”), it once formed part of the string course (a projected band of stone) which runs at the base of the battlements of the church nave. The course includes a series of grotesque heads, some of which were pierced for waterspouts. A grotesque, common in medieval church architecture, is a decoratively carved stone used to ward off evil spirits and to signify the sanctuary and safety of the church. On inspecting an historic photograph of the church, I could identify similar stones at the top of the drainpipes and around the tower battlements.
Rev. Swingler had first seen it laying in the churchyard and surmised that it had not been replaced during past repairs. He doesn’t mention why they selected that particular stone, but one could conjecture that it was because it was no longer part of the fabric of the church building and hence was available to be gifted to Christ Church. He notes that it is probably of Hartley stone, which was quarried in the Parish.
Henry Scripps Booth contributed great efforts to building relationships between the old and new Cranbrooks by establishing and maintaining connections between the two churches. The grotesque that arrived at Christ Church more than 90 years ago is an artifact that tells just one story of his efforts. From St. Dunstan’s of old Cranbrook, known as the “Cathedral of the Weald,” to St. Dunstan’s of Christ Church Cranbrook, the carved coign continues to herald sanctuary and give confidence to those who enter.
–Laura MacNewman Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
The clerestory windows designed by G. Owen Bonawit in the nave of Christ Church seem to be one of the least described elements of the church’s artwork. The work was negotiated and subcontracted through architect Oscar H. Murray at Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Associates rather than commissioned directly through George G. Booth. Consequently, there are few documentary vestiges of the artist’s process in our records.
The windows can be studied through other materials held by the Archives, including architectural drawings, photographs, and the records of a window restoration project which commenced in 1993. In 1995, the Thompson Art Glass company made rubbings of the window for the purposes of identifying their care and preservation needs.
There are seventeen grisaille clerestory windows in the nave and chancel at Christ Church, which were analyzed as part of this stained-glass restoration project. They are made of clear antique glass upon which minute floral detail is painted and accentuated by the addition of small amounts of colored glass. In the chancel, there are two lancets and tracery of nine panels supported by T-bars including one ventilator panel. In the nave, they are comprised of three lancets and tracery with eight panels, with ventilator panels making up the bottom row.
Grisaille, literally meaning ‘to grey,’ is a type of stained glass that is mostly monochromatic, with a silver or grey tone being painted onto the finished glass. The purpose of the plainness of grisaille is twofold: they let more light into the space both literally and metaphorically in that they were intended to limit distraction from meditation.
The grisaille stained glass style is thought to have originated in French Cistercian abbeys after a prohibition on colored glass issued by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134 in accordance with their charism of simplicity. St. Bernard, the master of paradox, also banned the use of figurative decoration according to the First Commandment of no graven images. Under his guidance, the Cistercians seek the face of God, a theological anomaly that produces an exquisite spiritual discipline and religious practice through which the monk contemplates holiness by virtue of continually recognizing the poverty of their thoughts and feelings when weighed down by seeking to satisfy worldly desire. The style often employs natural or geometric patterns, much like a labyrinth.
The windows can best be observed by sitting in the aisle stalls of the nave, which are in themselves an unusual feature otherwise only found in Oxford college chapels. The walls of the nave were originally intended to display memorials and artwork, but the latter idea was revised due to the objection that it would bring a museum feel to a house of worship.
Added in 1930, the aisle stalls offer a fine perspective from which to observe the grisaille, and Bonawit’s elegant craftmanship brings with it a history of monastic inspired light. Since a life without beauty is only half lived, the artistic eclecticism of Christ Church offers all those who enter the opportunity to embrace the other half both in its resplendency and in its simplicity.
– Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
With Laura MacNewman’s Kitchen Sink blog entry of May 2019 serving as an excellent guide to the Women’s Window of Christ Church, Cranbrook, it seems worthwhile to take a more detailed look at the individual panels.
Though the window was the gift of Florence Booth Beresford and her husband James, the choice of women to be included was made by the Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, the first rector of the church. What is intriguing is how or why the Rev. Marquis chose the women who appear. Since no documentation has yet come to light, we can only look at who the women are as well as how they are depicted. Marquis aimed to cover mostly western culture through the ages up to his present day, the 1920s, and clearly was choosing exemplary members of the categories. Thus, we find that the actresses under study here, except for one, are well-known to this day in the French and English-speaking world.
The profession of actress almost until the present has had a bad reputation. A woman was not supposed to put herself on display or seek approval. Odd then that the quotation from Proverbs 31:28, 31 enters the window as the dedication to women: Her children rise up and call her blessed … and her works praise her in the gates. These works would not include appearing on stage or screen.
Shakespeare’s women were played by young men who aged out of the roles into male leads if they were lucky. The comedic role where the young female lead must disguise herself as a man then becomes an interesting part to watch, especially if the young actor, appearing as a young woman, must pretend to be man playing a woman as in As You Like It.
The first woman to appear on the English stage in her own right was reputedly Margaret Hughes in the role of Desdemona in 1660 after the restoration of Charles II. Our window’s first actress (from the left) is the Welsh actress Sarah Siddons, born 1755, older sister of the great John Kemble and aunt of also great Fanny Kemble. Siddons was a tragic actress, scorning comedy as buffoonery beneath her talents. Her great roles were Lady Macbeth and Volumnia from Coriolanus. These are two of Shakespeare’s nastiest ladies, beloved of actresses everywhere. As critic William Hazlitt said of Siddons, “Passion emanated from her breast.”
She was possibly the first actress superstar of the modern world, so famous she was painted by all the great portraitists including Gainsborough and our own Gilbert Stuart. All the paintings, even the stained-glass version, show off her famous Kemble nose.
The next actress is Sarah Bernhardt born in 1844 in Paris to the Dutch mistress of an aristocratic lover who sent young Sarah off to the Paris Conservatoire, then a partly government-sponsored school of acting. Bernhardt graduated into becoming a member of the Comédie-Française, where she found the techniques old-fashioned. Always a tearaway, she was dismissed for slapping a senior actress.
Bernhardt did not need the national theater to become one of the most famous actresses of all time. She was an exceptional self-promoter and entertained all the society men of her age, numbering the future Edward VII of England and Victor Hugo amongst her lovers. She had a mass of wild hair, big blue eyes, perfect teeth, and with her good looks and purity of diction and a voice variously described as silvery or golden she attracted enormous crowds to any theater. She made Victor Hugo cry in a performance of one of his own plays.
Her roles were again mostly tragic playing Cordelia in Le Roi Lear, Hamlet, Desdemona, Joan of Arc, Racine’s Phèdre. Her offstage behavior was just as spirited; she slept in a coffin to prepare for roles and abandoned the corset.
She founded her own theaters, toured the United States nine times, toured the world, built and worked in a hospital in World War I, played a young man of twenty when she was fifty-five, took on all the great tragic roles, faced, fought and surmounted anti-Semitic slurs all her life, appeared in silent films and melodramas. She lost a lung, a kidney, a leg but still trod the boards.
Bernhardt incarnated the French wife of an English artist in Detroit in the play The False Model on November 25, 1916, but there is no record of any Booths attending.
Next is English actress Ellen Terry, born in 1847, contemporaneous with Sarah Bernhardt, but not the quite the world player. Beautiful Terry, teenage actress and the artist’s model, married pre-Raphaelite painter G.F. Watts but went off to live with architect-designer Edward William Godwin where she caught the eye of renowned actor Henry Irving. Irving sought luxurious stage settings and a beautiful actress to complement his own great talent. In addition to appearing in all the great female roles of Shakespeare and more humble parts, Terry entered into a lively correspondence with George Bernard Shaw who cast her in roles he had written for her.
The unrivaled team of Irving and Terry lasted 24 years. Even today, to be able to say that your great-great grand relatives had seen them onstage together is still impressive. Terry and Irving appeared in Detroit 25 through 27 January 1900. We find in Ellen Scripps Booth’s diary for Friday, January 26: “I went to see Irving and Terry tonight in Robespierre.” Mrs. Booth makes no comment on Terry’s performance of loving wife Clarisse, but the Detroit Free Press of the next day praised Terry for her “characteristic grace” and “personal charm” in a not very demanding role. There were many curtain calls.
The “half” actress who owns the little face inserted between Bernhardt and Terry is Mary Anderson, born 1859, the American tragedian here, who also took on comedic roles. Her claim to fame was playing two parts (Perdita and Hermione) in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale which bought her great acclaim. Audiences raved over her, while critics appreciated her beauty but found her lacking in feeling. By contrast with the others her star burned for a much shorter time. She toured extensively but withdrew from the public eye in 1889 due to exhaustion and the offer of marriage and a home in England.
Stained-glass artist James Hogan’s pre-Raphaelite influence can be seen in the depictions in the window, but he is not copying from any standard image. Siddons appears in one of her classical roles, Bernhardt as Phèdre, and Terry in her signature red lawyer’s robes as Portia from the Merchant of Venice playing a man.
What unites these women is their ability to stand up and be counted as women of talent at a time when they were more regarded as curiosities. Of the three greats, not one of them had a happy love life. Two of them famously had children out of wedlock and all three were regarded as unworthy by the men who should have revered them. All three nineteenth-century actresses played the roles of men. Considering their unconventional lives, it is surprising perhaps that Rector Marquis chose them, but then all the women in the window were unusual because they stood out as pioneers in some way. Who was the most famous? From the 1870s on there were two well-known women: Queen Victoria and Sarah Bernhardt, in no particular order.
– Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
Melvyn and Sara Smith filled their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home with a fascinating mixture of objects. Over three decades in the house, they collected everything from finely crafted ceramics, handwoven textiles, and original sculpture to the kinds of reproductions one might find in a museum gift shop. This eclectic blend of mass-produced décor and unique art objects can be seen on the hallway shelves, where two sets of plates demonstrate two very different engagements with the artistic legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The center shelf displays a reproduction of the dinnerware used in the cabaret of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. The Imperial Hotel was a monumental project, commissioned in 1916 and completed in 1923. Frank Lloyd Wright conceived the hotel as a total aesthetic environment, a space in which all decoration was unified: from the carved Oya stone of the exterior structure all the way down to the coffee pots and sugar bowls on breakfast tables. Famously, the structure survived the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, although it was not completely undamaged as Wright proclaimed.
The porcelain cabaret service was designed by Wright and manufactured by Noritake Porcelain Company. Its pattern served both an aesthetic and practical purpose. The floating bubbles not only reinforced the festive atmosphere of informal cabaret dining (Wright had designed more conservative gilt porcelain for the banquet hall), the red circle at the lip of the teacup would also conveniently disguise any inelegant lipstick marks. Noritake produced replacement pieces for the hotel while the service was in use and continued to reissue the original designs for sale to consumers.
By 1968, the original design for the hotel had been significantly compromised and the building was demolished to make space for an expansion. Cary James captured the hotel in its final years in his book The Imperial Hotel: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Architecture of Unity. The Smith House library includes this volume and, slipped inside the front cover, a clipping from Ada Louise Huxtable’s New York Times article “Anatomy of a Failure,” a lament of the hotel’s destruction.
In the late 1970s, architect and Frank Lloyd Wright scholar Thomas Heinz began selling Wright furniture designs and reproductions of the Imperial Hotel porcelain. Although produced by Noritake, the original manufacturer, the legitimacy of the reissued dinnerware was contentious, and the service was the subject of lengthy legal disputes between Heinz and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The Smith Noritake is from “The Oak Park Collection,” dated to 1979. As a mass-produced reproduction issued a decade after the Hotel’s demolition, the acquisition of the service gives a small glimpse into the Smiths’ devotion to everything Frank Lloyd Wright. Along with copies of work by Marc Chagall and Auguste Rodin in the Smith House collection, the Imperial Hotel dinnerware speaks to a mode of collecting that was perhaps less concerned with authenticity than with aesthetic appeal and personal taste.
On the shelf above the Imperial Hotel dinnerware, a painted teak plate tells a very different story. This plate is one of a set of twelve that were designed and hand-painted for the Smiths by artist Val M. Cox. Each plate features a unique design of rhythmic arcs, segments, and overlapping circles in gold leaf, red and green enamel, and dark stain.
The geometric forms belong to a tradition of abstraction developed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the community of architects and artists that gathered around him at his homes in Wisconsin and Arizona. This community was formalized as the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932, an educational program for those interested in furthering Wright’s theories of organic architecture and “learning by doing.”
The Smiths maintained a lifelong connection with the Fellowship. It was a Taliesin apprentice who invited Melvyn and Sara Smith to first meet Frank Lloyd Wright. Members of the Fellowship aided in the 1950 construction of the house, designed the 1968 Garden Room addition, and continued to correspond with the Smiths about future projects (including an unbuilt teahouse and jacuzzi). The Smiths brought the set of undecorated plates with them on a visit to Taliesin in 1982 and asked Cox, then a fellow, to develop an original design for their table.
Although the geometric patterns of the teak and the porcelain plates harmonize, the circumstances of their production are quite different. One, a personal commission from an artist with an intimate connection to Taliesin, represents the meaningful artistic relationships that the Smiths cultivated throughout their lives. The other, a mass-produced reproduction from one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most well-known designs demonstrates the breadth of their lifelong interest in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. These two sets of plates symbolize the varied ways that the Smiths acquired art and filled their home with beauty.
—Nina Blomfield, The Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fellow for Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, 2021-2023
Eliel Saarinen wasn’t much for philosophizing about his work. Cranbrook’s principal architect demonstrated his beliefs about architecture through the bricks and stones of his buildings, rather than through academic lectures or theoretical treatise.
When I give tours of campus, I often highlight the fact that in Saarinen’s buildings, a brick wall is a structural brick wall, and a stone column is a structural stone column. If that sounds obvious, well, it’s because architects are excellent at deception.
In the 1920s and 1930s (and straight through to today), it was much cheaper to build a wall of concrete block or wood and then cover it in a façade of brick, or to design a reinforced concrete column and then wrap it in thin stone veneer. Solid brick walls and true stone columns are more expensive and more limiting to the designer (you can build taller, wider, and cheaper in steel and concrete). Regardless of a building’s style, by the early 20th century most of our country’s institutional buildings were constructed of modern materials and wrapped in traditional ones.
This habit of facadism (a focus on the material appearance without regard to the structural reality) was abhorrent to devotees of modernism. In International Style modern architecture, then, architects simply did away with brick walls and stone columns—materials used in construction for millennia—in favor of concrete, glass, and steel. The structure and the appearance of the architecture were one in the same.
But at Cranbrook, with its deep roots in the Arts and Crafts Movement, Saarinen went the other direction. True stone and brick construction was integral to our founding ethos, and to Saarinen’s designs.
While many of Saarinen’s contemporaries were dealing with so-called ‘dishonest’ forms of architecture (steel and concrete frames clad in traditional styles rooted in masonry construction), Saarinen avoided the problem of ‘dishonesty’ by building modern buildings traditionally. Saarinen did use concrete vaults and floor slabs, as well as steel trusses, but he connected these to brick load bearing walls and stone columns.
Adding to the unusual fact that Cranbrook’s brick walls and brick vaults are structural, the beauty of Saarinen’s brickwork stands out. He achieved a special blend of true engineering and true artistry. This combination of beauty and utility was key to the Arts and Crafts Movement, and to the form-following-function ethos of Saarinen’s modernism.
More simply, the brickwork of Cranbrook is a visual delight.
In Edward Ford’s The Details of Modern Architecture (1996), the architecture historian and professor writes that:
“Few Modernists were less interested in industrialization and standardization than Eliel Saarinen, and it is more than ironic that fate was eventually to place him at its heart, Detroit, and that he was to spend the second half of his career…at Cranbrook, fifteen miles from Highland Park and twenty miles from River Rouge, designing schools for the children of auto executives.”
There is much more to say about Saarinen’s brickwork, and bricks at Cranbrook more broadly. On October 25, 2021, I invite you to join me for the Center’s next Uncovering Cranbrook virtual lecture: The Bricks of Cranbrook: Humble Material, Monumental Design. I’ll discuss the history of bricks, where our bricks came from and what makes them unique, and, most importantly, revel in the beauty of the billions of bricks on this campus. And, after the lecture, join me on campus for a special behind-the-scenes brick themed tour!
—Kevin Adkisson, Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
Cranbrook Archives is pleased to announce a new collection available for research. An intriguing collection, it comprises the personal and professional papers, photographs, realia, and architectural drawings of Walter Preston Hickey, a student of Eliel Saarinen. Yet, while traces of key life events and relationships—birth, parentage, education, marriage, friends, and employers—can be found in the collection, Hickey’s life after Cranbrook remains largely a mystery.
A native of Detroit, Hickey attended the University of Michigan School of Architecture (1926-1930), during which time he worked with architects Albert Kahn (1928) and Thomas Tanner, as well as being one of the first staff members of the Cranbrook Architectural Office.
He applied to study architectural design with instruction in city planning at Cranbrook Academy of Art, starting in September of 1932. He became especially interested in highway traffic control, which formed the topic of his 1935 thesis on theWaterfront Development for the City of Detroit. Hickey submitted designs to various Academy competitions and won a $10 prize from Loja Saarinen for design No. 13 in the Cranbrook Academy of Art Rug Competition in 1934.
After leaving Cranbrook, Hickey worked for various architecture firms, including Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, and Clair W. Ditchy. After a short time with the Federal Housing Administration, he returned to work with Eliel and Eero Saarinen on the Kleinhans Music Hall project. He also completed private architectural designs for residences, including work on Ralph Rapson’s Hoey vacation home, Longshadows, in Metamora, MI. Around this time, he went to work at the General Motors Technical Center and continued to live in Birmingham, Michigan. And here is where his story ends in the collection.
Although this is a very small collection, the diversity of content is rewarding for its ability to convey snapshots of his life in individual and unique items. It includes Christmas cards, such as one from “the Lorches” (Emil Lorch was the President of the University of Michigan Architecture School), a few letters from friends, and something of a typed love letter (on Cranbrook Academy of Art letterhead!) from Zoltan Sepeshy’s Secretary Jane Viola Shepherd to whom he was married on April 22, 1937.
A small series of photographs hold moments of his life and some of the people with whom he shared it, including his father, eminent roentgenologist (radiography) Dr. Preston Hickey; his wife, Jane; his teacher, Eliel; and his fellow Academy students. A series of snowy scenes of Cranbrook campus beautifully capture the quietness of falling snow with hints of sunlight upon the architecture and sculptures that were then in their infancy and are now historic.
The Walter Hickey Papers give insight into a short period in Hickey’s life and the Cranbrook of his time. It also gives us a lovely look into a life that was surely shaped by his experience at Cranbrook, but one that remains yet to be fully discovered.
–Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
Throughout this past spring and summer, I’ve been arranging and describing the recently donated papers of designer and architectural educator Ken Isaacs. Isaacs was an Academy of Art design student and faculty alumnus–his Superchair and a film by Barbara Isaacs are currently featured in the With Eyes Opened exhibit at the Art Museum and in the beautiful new book of the same title. Organizing his papers to ready them for researchers has led my learning about the environments Isaacs designed as well as the larger environments he navigated. These include Cranbrook, Manhattan, Chicago, and the rural acres of Groveland, Illinois where he designed and built a village of stylish, portable Microhouses, predating the current Tiny House movement by decades.
For example, while completing his MFA at Cranbrook from 1952-1954, Isaacs redesigned the interior of The Little Gallery, founded by Peggy DeSalle in neighboring Birmingham in 1949. DeSalle was a great supporter and benefactor of the Cranbrook community and the lead donor and namesake of Cranbrook Art Museum’s DeSalle Auditorium, so how wonderful to get a peek at The Little Gallery’s early years through Isaacs’ papers. I learned DeSalle was once married to Cranbrook President Zoltan Sepeshy, though long before Isaacs came to study here. I also learned, thanks to one of Isaacs’ presentation boards, that Peggy’s second husband and lifelong partner, Albert DeSalle, bought a 1955 couch Isaacs designed of steel and canvas.
During those same years, Ken Isaacs built the 18-foot-long, seven-foot-tall Matrix Drum environment. This large structure with its curving wall of graphic, black and white collage was stored here on campus until Zoltan Sepeshy persuaded Isaacs to return as faculty. (No wonder Isaacs was still on Sepeshy’s mind, having left a work larger than a Buick Roadmaster on the president’s turf).
I’ve recently foldered letters back and forth from Isaacs and Sepeshy. Their correspondence is a study in contrasts: Isaacs’ design stationery is mid-century modern with simple shapes in bold primary colors; one of Sepeshy’s handwritten notes has elegant, looping script that stands out against typed missives. They negotiated that Isaacs would retain and commute to his New York City design offices from Bloomfield Hills. The arrangement worked, for a while. The contract for the 1956-1957 school year included a residence for Ken and Barbara Isaacs in the “apartment in Guest House” on Academy Way and Isaacs headed the Design department from 1956 to 1958.
Back at Cranbrook, photographs show Isaacs’ reuse of his Matrix Drum structure as a collaborative art project with Academy students who helped to collage its black and white pholage exterior. His notes detail how he redesigned the first Academy year to include field trips and visiting experts. They also explain how students designed a multimedia, immersive Matrix Drum lesson about the American Civil War using multiple slide projectors and moving pallets for participants to sit upon.
These are a few curiosity-rousing items in the Ken Isaacs Papers, from just his time at Cranbrook, with plenty more boxes of his writings and images left to go through. I’ll confess, his papers make it a real challenge for me to stay on task with processing duties, when there are so many things I want to know more about. Stay tuned for further finds!
– Meredith Counts, Archives Assistant, Center for Collections and Research
Inspired by a previous Cranbrook Kitchen Sink blog on the embroidery in St. Dunstan’s Chapel, Curator Kevin Adkisson gave a virtual tour of Christ Church Cranbrook, part of the Center’s award-winning “Live at Five” series, on Wednesday, September 1, 2021. It was too great not to share with our Cranbrook Kitchen Sink followers as well.
Check out these other blogs about Christ Church Cranbrook:
In August 1989, Cranbrook became a National Historic Landmark. America’s highest designation for a place of outstanding historical significance, it was no small feat for Cranbrook to become Michigan’s twenty-second National Historic Landmark (there are only forty-two today). So, what exactly is a National Historic Landmark, and how did we become one?
Statutory provision for historic preservation began in America in 1906 with the Antiquities Act, which was further developed by the Historic Sites Act of 1935. Administered by the Department of the Interior, this Act was enacted to document and protect sites of national significance. In 1960, the National Park Service began administering the survey data from the Historic Sites Act, and the National Historic Landmark designation was introduced.
The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 expanded the 1935 Act to local and state sites. This created the National Register of Historic Places, which began to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic resources. Many thousands of buildings have since been added to the National Register. In June of 1972, Cranbrook’s application was prepared by an Assistant Historian at the Michigan Department of State in Lansing, and the nomination was based on Cranbrook’s significance as a complete district of educational and architectural structures.
To be eligible for designation on the National Register (a step below the National Historic Landmark status), the nominated site must have in its architecture, archeology, engineering, or culture integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.
In addition, sites on the National Register must meet one of four criteria: be associated with events in the lives of significant persons; embody distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction; represent work of a master and high artistic values; or have or be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history. Once these criteria are evaluated and met, the site may be listed.
Cranbrook was added to the National Register in March 1973, and it was at this point seven National Historic Landmark signs were ordered to be placed at each of the original Cranbrook Institutions and on Cranbrook House. (Christ Church Cranbrook was included in the designation, even though it would formally split off as a separate entity later in 1973 with the formation of Cranbrook Educational Community.) In writing to inform us of the designation, Samuel Milstein at the Department of Natural Resources eloquently wrote that:
“The State of Michigan is very proud of the fact that the property is qualified for this designation. The National Register records the story of the Nation, and is a list of distinction identifying those properties by which present and future generations can sense the heartbeat of the United States.”
Letter from Samuel A. Milstein to Cranbrook Institutions, March 30, 1973. National Register for Historic Places Records.
This language echoes that of George Booth in speaking to Cranbrook School in 1928, in which he emphasizes the importance of finding the treasure at your feet, the building up of an ethos of service from the local to the national to the global:
“If we feel our first loyalty to our State and are determined in every way we can to enrich it; if we never fail to see that we must give; if we are resolved to strive only for that which is worth while, then will our State have a place in the Nation, of which we will all be proud. The stronger and more glorious each of the States may be, the stronger and more glorious the Nation; and hence, the better and finer our opportunity for service to the world.”
Address by George Booth given on “Founders’ Day” at Cranbrook School for Boys, October 26, 1928. Cranbrook Archives.
But of course, our story doesn’t end with the National Register. In June 1987, the Chief Historian of the National Park Service (NPS) wrote to Cranbrook’s president, Dr. Lillian Bauder, to inform her that they were studying the property to determine its potential as a National Historic Landmark. Only 3% of sites on the National Register of Historic Places receive the higher honor of becoming National Historic Landmarks.
The designation process follows three steps: study, including a visit to the property; review by the NPS Advisory Board; and a decision of designation by the Secretary of the Interior. The study was completed in February 1989 and the Advisory Board made its recommendation to Secretary Manuel Lujan in May. Cranbrook was designated a National Historic Landmark in August 1989.
The Cranbrook House sign was swapped from a National Register of Historic Places sign to a National Historic Landmark sign, encompassing all of the Cranbrook district.
The work of the Center for Collections and Research is embedded in the obligations of historic preservation in caring for and maintaining the community’s history, but also in articulating its meaning and value. Our mission nicely parallels the goals of the National Historic Landmark program. Even without such recognition, all who visit Cranbrook know it is a special place—but sometimes it is nice to have a plaque say so, too.
—Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
One of the most stunning examples of art-in-architecture at Cranbrook is the Pewabic Pottery fireplace in Saarinen House. This massive, shimmering display of handmade ceramic tiles is the focal point of the living room and perfectly completes Saarinen’s vision of the home as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.
Yet the fireplace did not start at Cranbrook at all. It has a prestigious provenance one might not expect: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Met’s 1929 exhibition was a direct response to an earlier show: the 1925 Paris World’s fair, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. This fair launched several international design trends that would later be known as the Art Deco style (an abbreviation of the exposition’s name). The United States, however, was not represented in Paris—U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover declined to participate because, as he (incorrectly) explained, there was no modern art this side of the Atlantic.
But American visitors to the 1925 fair, including Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth and the Saarinen family, were transfixed by the new style on display in Paris. The show pushed American designers, museums, department stores, and manufacturers toward a modern aesthetic.
The Architect and the Industrial Arts at the Met was conceived four years later, in part as an American response to the Paris show. It was also intended to further advance an appreciation for modern taste in this country.
For the Met’s exhibition, architects created a series of modern rooms. In addition to Saarinen, leading architects like Raymond Hood, Ely Jacques Kahn, Ralph T. Walker, and Joseph Urban participated. While quite elaborate and sumptuous compared to later iterations of modernism, the 1929 vignettes at the Met helped to educate the public about modern taste and décor. Although one of the goals of the show was to have the objects on display mass produced, the rooms remained luxurious, singular constructions.
Saarinen’s dining room was considered by critics to be one of the most successful. Executed in shades of brown and tan, he created a dignified, formal dining room with furniture and objects of his own design produced by leading American manufacturers. In addition to furniture, silverware, glassware, rug, and lighting by Eliel, a hanging designed by Loja Saarinen (executed at Cranbrook by Studio Loja Saarinen) and wallpaper designed by their daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson helped finish the room.
The entire display was anchored by a massive fireplace, consisting of some 500 tiles stretching more than ten feet across the rear wall of the room. Designed by Eliel, this fireplace—which would eventually be installed at Cranbrook—was executed by the Pewabic Pottery in Detroit under the direction of Mary Chase Perry Stratton. Stratton co-founded the pottery in 1903, and by the time Saarinen’s fireplace was produced, she had already completed commissions at Cranbrook including the Rainbow Fountain (1916-1917) and Christ Church Cranbrook Baptistryand floor tiles (1926-1927). The Saarinen commission was unusual for Pewabic in that it was designed by an outside architect and not by Stratton herself.
The pottery described the color of the tiles as “deep raisin” and “silver,” a moderne colorway quite different from the mottled and iridescent glazes Pewabic was known for. Eight different tile molds (or shapes) were used to create the fireplace.
The main surface of the fireplace is created from three tile shapes. The dominant tile is a six-sided polygon in the form of a 7” wide by 2¾” high equilateral triangle with each point cut off. The second shape is one-half of the polygon, used to create the straight vertical edges of the fireplace. Between each polygon is a small rectangle, just ½” by ¾” high, finished in a darker and more iridescent glaze. By laying the tiles in alternating directions, Saarinen created a series of zig-zag grout lines moving rhythmically across the fireplace. This zig-zag was picked up in Pipsan’s wallpaper at the Met, and later, in the Saarinen House furniture.
Two more tile types form a silvery border around the fireplace. Circling the perimeter of the fireplace are darker, almost bronze, iridescent tiles 8½” long by 1¾” high and 1¾” deep. Along the front surface of each tile are eight repeating rectangular depressions.
At each corner of the border sit 3½” L-shaped tiles with three square depressions. These geometric motifs recall the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow or the Jugendstil designs popularized by designers like Josef Hoffmann. Similar square motifs are seen in the earlier 20th-century work of Saarinen in Finland. This L-shaped tile, with seven finished sides, is used for both the four outermost corners of the fireplace and the four inner corners around the firebox opening.
The plinth of the fireplace is formed from six much larger Pewabic tiles, each 9¾” wide by 7¾” high and 2¾” deep. These tiles display the subtle color range, metallic iridescence, and richness of Stratton’s glaze recipe.
The last tile shapes are the most pragmatic: 7¾” by 3” tiles leading into to the roman brick firebox opening, and 7½” by 2¾” tiles that create a return running perpendicular to the fireplace face. These tiles allows the fireplace to project 5″ from the wall and negate the need of an overhanging mantlepiece.
If The Metropolitan Museum hoped its show would highlight the best of American production, Stratton succeeded in showcasing the power of handmade American ceramics. The entire exhibition turned out to be a blockbuster. Scheduled to be open for just six-weeks, from February 11 to March 24, 1929, its run was extended to September 2, 1929 due to popular demand. In the end some 186,000 visitors saw Saarinen’s dining room and Stratton’s fireplace as part of The Architect and the Industrial Arts, and the show became a defining moment in American Art Deco design.
At the same time as the show was on display in New York, Saarinen was busy back in Michigan developing designs for Kingswood School for Girls and continuing work on the nascent Cranbrook Academy of Art. This included designing his own residence, where Eliel planned to incorporate items from the Met exhibition into the interior.
Sometime between September 1929 and September 1930, the fireplace was dismantled in New York and shipped to Michigan. Like much of the work in the show, the tiles were paid for by the manufacturer, in this case, Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Pewabic Pottery. Instead of keeping or reselling the fireplace, Stratton donated the work to Cranbrook. As Florence Davies reported in The Detroit News at the time of the house’s completion, Stratton gave the tiles to Cranbrook out of an interest in furthering “the modern movement toward the creative design in the field of decorative art in America.”
As installed at Saarinen House, the fireplace is 8” narrower than it was at the Met, or one polygonal tile narrower. Perhaps some of the tiles broke in transit, or Saarinen thought the original size was too large for the wall at Cranbrook? In addition to the fireplace and its bronze peacock andirons, Saarinen repurposed the rug from the Met exhibition in the Saarinen House dining room, and Loja Saarinen’s wall hanging was purchased by Booth for the Kingswood Headmistress’s office.
From New York to Bloomfield Hills, and from museum to private residence and back to a museum, guests continue to admire and appreciate the beauty of this fireplace and the unique collaboration between Saarinen and Stratton.
—Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
Eds. Note: This Sunday, we’ll be offering a tour of Mary Chase Perry Stratton’s own house! Located in Grosse Pointe Park, this is the first of our new Virtual Day Away experiences. Join me to explore this incredible house and learn more about Stratton and her Pewabic Pottery. Tickets are on sale now until 1:00pm EST on November 15th. And if you want to see the Saarinen House fireplace in person, you still can: tours of Saarinen House run Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3:30pm EST through November 29!