Cranbrook’s Great Books (Part II)

In Part I of this post, we explored Cranbrook’s love of the book, from its origins with founders George and Ellen Booth, to the existing special collections at the Archives and Academy of Art. I invite you now to learn of the many rare, valuable, and historical tomes whose existence may be unknown to most or simply overlooked in collections at the Schools, Institute of Science, and two historic homes cared for by the Center for Collections and Research: Saarinen House and Smith House.

Hoey Patch Collection at the Cranbrook School Library. Courtesy of Kate Covintree, Cranbrook Kingswood Upper Schools.

Like the Academy of Art, although not at all on the same scale, books from George and Ellen’s Cranbrook House Library were dispersed to the Cranbrook Schools Libraries, now comprised of five separate spaces. Following the Booth’s example, Cranbrook School Headmaster Harry D. Hoey (1950-1964) and Latin teacher George Patch (1928-1944, Emeritus 1944-1950) donated 120 books from their personal libraries to the School’s library in the 1950s, forming one of several special collections. Known as the Hoey Patch Collection, all of the volumes focus on an aspect of Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War.

He Knew Lincoln, a fictionalized account written by Ida Tarbell, a progressive journalist, and published in 1907. The book’s custodial history is documented with correspondence from the author, written directly on the inside of the book. Courtesy of Kate Covintree, Cranbrook Kingswood Upper Schools.

Highlights include a First edition of The Life of Abraham Lincoln, the first full-scale biography of the President. Written by newspaper editor J.G. Holland, it was published shortly after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Also included is a first edition, two-volume set of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Ulysses S. Grant penned his autobiography shortly before his death in 1885 as a means of financial support for his family. It was published with the support of his friend Mark Twain by the Charles L. Webster Company (owned by Twain’s nephew).

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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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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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Dining with the Smiths: Dinnerware from Tokyo and Taliesin

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.

Gallery shelves in the Smith House hallway, November 2021. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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.

Frank Lloyd Wright, manufactured by Noritake Porcelain Company, Place Setting for the Imperial Hotel, 1979 (designed c.1922). Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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.

Books from the Smith Collection, from left: Frank Lloyd Wright, The Japanese Print: An Interpretation. New York: Horizon Press, 1967; Cary James, The Imperial Hotel: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Architecture of Unity. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1968; Newspaper clipping of Ada Louise Huxtable, “Anatomy of a Failure,” The New York Times, March 17, 1968, p.35. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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.

Imperial Hotel teacup showing “The Oak Park Collection 1979” mark. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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.

Val M. Cox, hand-painted teak plate, 1982. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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.”

Books on the Taliesin Fellowship from the Smith House Library. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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.

Val M. Cox, hand-painted teak plates, 1982. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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

Spring is Here, and so are our Tours!

Here at Cranbrook, the flowers are blooming, the pollen is swirling, and the fountains are flowing. That can only mean one thing: Tour Season is here!

With our reimagined, in-person 2021 Tour Season, we invite you to book your tour of Saarinen House or the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House today. Tours through these two distinguished landmarks will resume tomorrow, May 1, 2021, and continue through Thanksgiving.

Sara Smith and friends enjoy a dance in the Smith House dining room, circa 1970. Courtesy Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Tours are now being offered of Smith House every weekend, taking place each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 1:00 pm and Saturday at 11:00 am. Saarinen House tours take place each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3:00pm.

Of course, we’re taking lots of steps to ensure guest and staff safety, including shrinking tours to just six guests, requiring masks, and redesigning the route to ensure physical distancing between households. (You can read more about our safety policies on the tour website.)

Flying Teacups, 2021, Neva Gruver, CAA Metalsmithing 2021. Photography by Eric Perry, courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

In addition to more tours and smaller group sizes, there’s also new art to see on your visit! As you may recall, in the spring, seventy-five Cranbrook Academy of Art students and artists-in-residence participated in the Center’s fourth intervention of new, site-specific work in our historic houses. The theme, Speculative Histories, encouraged the artists to produce objects and interventions that embrace, enlighten, uncover, or imagine histories for the Cranbrook, Saarinen, and Smith houses.

Atelier Primavera (Stressed), 2021, Cooper Siegel, CAA Ceramics 2022. Photography by Eric Perry, courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

We are excited to continue to feature artwork from ten Cranbrook Academy of Art students and one artist-in-residence during the 2021 Tour Season. (To see all the art displayed during Speculative Histories, you can always visit the virtual exhibition on the Center’s website)

Peony Bush, Claire Thibodeau, Ceramics 2022. Photography by Eric Perry, courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

Kevin and I have been busy cleaning the houses and getting everything set for a new tour season. We can’t wait for you to join the Center in experiencing these magical homes!

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Sketching to Jazz and Judo: the Young People’s Art Center

Did you know that Cranbrook Art Museum’s educational partnerships with surrounding communities date back over sixty years? Long before the current museum trend of interactive educational programs for youth audiences, the Academy of Art and the Junior League of Birmingham had an idea:  the Young People’s Art Center (YPAC).

Young People’s Art Center logo, from the 1962 enrollment form. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The year was 1958, and the Museum had recently changed names to the Academy of Art Galleries, shifting focus to feature more contemporary art practices. With that, came the desire to encourage young visitors to express their own artistic voices—participatory education, rather than simply art appreciation. Documenting the program’s first year, a June 1959 Detroit News Pictorial Magazine feature noted that YPAC “is fast gaining a national reputation for its lively approach to art education.”

In particular, it was Henry Booth (Academy Board of Trustees Chairman), Wallace Mitchell (Head of Galleries), and Zoltan Sepeshy (Academy Director) that approached the Junior League with a plan. In a 1957 report by Mitchell during the Center’s development phase, he states, “ The personnel of the Cranbrook Academy of Art has become increasingly aware of the growing country-wide interest in the visual arts and has long wished to more directly participate in the fostering and guiding of this interest as expressed in our community.” Seeking support from the Junior League, this “unique opportunity to bring to the children of Oakland County an integrated program in art education which concerns itself with the totality of the art experience” was green-lighted for the following year.

Children watch a judo demonstrator as part of a class exercise. Erik Strylander, photographer. From the article “Sketching to Jazz and Judo,” Detroit News Pictorial Magazine, June 28, 1959.

A perfect partnership was formed. The Academy would provide leadership, through the support of its trustees, director, and faculty; the Junior League would provide the necessary finances. Naturally, with so many talented artists on campus, there was no lack of creativity or helping hands! Junior League members were also heavily involved, providing volunteer docents to conduct gallery tours and assist with classes, both of which were located on the ground level of the Museum below the Academy Library.

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Playing our Part

As performance venues prepare to reopen in Michigan today, I thought it timely to take a look at the storied history of a group that’s nearly as old as Cranbrook itself: St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild of Cranbrook. With ties to Cranbrook’s founding family, staff, and the physical Cranbrook campus, combined with its enduring cultural role in the surrounding community, this nearly ninety-year-old institution has a rich history. Allow me to share with you a few fascinating details from its early years.

View of St. Dunstan’s Playhouse from Lone Pine Road looking east. Balthazar Korab, photographer. Copyright Korab and Cranbrook Archives.

“The worst thing about it, it’s named for a saint. But don’t think it’s holy, ‘cause it certainly ain’t.”

Sheldon Noble, an early and active Guild member

The Theatre Guild was indeed named after St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in the ninth century and patron saint of the arts. As St. Dunstan lived in Kent, England, from where Cranbrook founder George Booth’s family hailed, the Guild’s name was fittingly suggested by his son and founding member, Henry Scripps Booth. Shortly after the Guild began in 1932, members were writing and producing their own one-act plays. In an April 1933 letter announcing an informal evening  of a “Home Talent programme,” for the 100 Guild members and their guests, Jessie Winter, Guild Secretary and Brookside School Headmistress, implores them to “Be kind, be understanding, be generous . . . give the actors and authors the warm reception which such offerings warrant.” One such author was Henry Scripps Booth. Billed as Thistle, his play, Sedative Bed, was one of four being performed that April 28th evening at Brookside School for just $1. It was the tail end of the Great Depression, after all!

The first public performance of St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild took place at the Greek Theatre with The King and the Commoner. Taking supporting roles were the likes of Annetta Wonnberger (Cranbrook Summer Theater School), Pipsan Saarinen Swanson (daughter of Cranbrook architect Eliel Saarinen), and Henry Scripps Booth, among others.

A scene from The King and the Commoner. Henry Booth on right. Detroit newspaper rotogravure clipping. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The cast and crew of the 1940 production of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney again reads like a who’s who of Cranbrook, including Harry Hoey (Cranbrook School Headmaster), Templin Licklider (Cranbrook School Faculty), Dorothy Sepeshy (wife of Cranbrook Academy of Art President, Zoltan Sepeshy), Rachel Raseman (wife of Richard Raseman, Cranbrook Academy of Art Executive Secretary and Vice President), the aforementioned Annetta Wonnberger, and various members of the Booth Family. Henry Scripps Booth, part of the Guild’s Scenic Design Committee, and his wife Carolyn, the production’s stage manager, created the sets.

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Tool of the Trade

Light, temperature, and humidity can all harm a museum’s objects and artifacts. In a previous blog, I talked about what damage light can do and how we are combating that at the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House. The battle for consistent temperature and humidity in the house is another issue.

Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House, 2012. Photo by James Haefner.

In October 2018, we had a Conservation Assessment done at Smith House by ICA – Art Conservation. According to ICA,

Temperature can affect a collection in . . . significant ways. Elevated temperatures have the capacity to increase the rate of deterioration . . . [and] temperature affects relative humidity.

Relative humidity is the ratio of the amount of water vapor in a particular volume of air relative to the maximum amount of water vapor this same volume of air can hold at the same temperature.

As relative humidity fluctuates, the environment and the materials within it will seek equilibrium with one another . . . Within a museum or historic structure, the collection objects and building materials will act like a sponge to these fluctuations, which can cause irreversible mechanical damage.

In the museum community, it is recommended that the relative humidity be kept as stable as possible and the temperature as low as practicable. A relative humidity (RH) range between 55% to 35% is thought to be best for general conditions. However, it is the stability of the relative humidity that is more significant than the actual value. Temperatures below 72˚F and above 32˚F are considered acceptable when the relative humidity is controlled.

So, what was the Center to do? Equipment for monitoring (data loggers) was purchased. We started regular environmental monitoring throughout Smith House. Logs were created to record the environment ranges for temperature and relative humidity for the spaces.

Data loggers are devices equipped with sensors and a microprocessor to monitor and record data such as temperature and relative humidity. We chose Lascar’s EL-USB-2. This standalone data logger measures more than 16,000 readings and features a USB drive so data can be downloaded directly to a computer.

Data logger used to monitor temperature and humidity in Smith House.

However, it is not always practical to carry a laptop around Smith House to download the data or remove the data loggers to download on my office PC. Instead, I use the EL-DataPad. It allows the configuration and download of temperature and humidity data loggers on the spot.

Data pad with attached data logger.

In the Smith House, the temperature and humidity is recorded every 30 minutes. I log this data and graph it, to see trends or issues in the house.

Graph of Smith House Living Room temperature and humidity readings from March to September 2020.

How will this documentation help conservation of objects in Smith House? The data will be useful for establishing achievable set points and ranges for the house environment. It will also be helpful for writing grants to help fund equipment or materials for further environmental management.

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

The Smiths and World War II

World War II caused global upheaval and change. Closer to home, two schoolteachers from Detroit—Melvyn and Sara Smith—and their dream of building a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright would have to wait for war.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Sara Smith recalled her husband’s concern: “One day he confessed to [me] that in addition to his worries about the catastrophe the country was facing, he felt if there was a war, that also would be the end of his Frank Lloyd Wright house.”

Melvyn Maxwell Smith’s draft card, 1942. Source: Ancestry.com. U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

In February 1942, Melvyn Maxwell Smith was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. “Smithy thought about being a conscientious objector because he didn’t believe in wars,” recalled Sara, “but the more he thought about it, the more he decided he would have to go. ‘We want peace and I’m going to do what I can to help,’ he told me.” The thought of Smithy going off to war weighed heavily on Sara. They had only been married a short time, and now they were being separated.

Smithy was sent off to training, first at Fort Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan, then Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, and finally Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Smiths could only see each other during school vacations (Sara was still teaching) or holidays, provided Smithy was not shipped off to the front.

Melvyn (circled in back row) and other officers, circa 1943. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

In Atlantic City, Smithy was offered the opportunity to train as a Warrant Officer in the Army Air Corps. He would be sticking around Atlantic City for a while and, with an officer’s salary, Sara could finally join him. At Christmas 1942, “[Sara] boarded the night train to Atlantic City and her new life.”

Sara and Melvyn Smith in Atlantic City, 1942. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

After Atlantic City, the Smiths were relocated to Goldsborough, North Carolina. Sara and Smithy lived in a studio apartment in an Army project. Sara enjoyed living there, commiserating with all the other Army wives. Since they were all typically newly married and removed from their families, the wives helped each other. “The women, on their own during the days, supported each other by sharing supplies and tips and small and large acts of kindness.”

Warrant Officer Melvyn Maxwell Smith. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

It was in Goldsborough that Sara became pregnant with her son Bobby. When she was seven months pregnant, Smithy was transferred to Gulfport, Mississippi. Sara was sure this would mean Smithy would be shipped to the front. Smithy worried too, so he asked Sara to return to Detroit and her family for the birth of their baby, instead of following him to Mississippi. While Sara was in Detroit awaiting the birth of Bobby, Smithy was again transferred, this time to Biloxi, Mississippi, for which the Smiths were happy. It meant not being overseas.

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Carter for President

Recently, I discovered a few objects that had belonged to Melvyn or Sara Smith, the builders of our Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House. They were from 1976 — the year of the United States Bicentennial and a presidential election.

I discovered that the Smiths were supporters of soon-to-be President Jimmy Carter. Since we just had our presidential primary here in Michigan, I thought they were appropriate to share. 

So, why were the Smiths such big supporters of Carter? They were supporters of the Democratic Party in general.

Their son Robert Smith was the National Director of Youth Affairs for the Democratic Party in the 1970s. Melvyn and Sara held fundraisers at their home for Democratic candidates. Melvyn was a member of The President’s Club of the Democratic Party. And the Smiths attended the Inauguration of Jimmy Carter in 1977.

Melvyn and Sara Smith's invitation to the Inauguration of President Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, January 20, 1977. Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Melvyn and Sara Smith’s invitation to the Inauguration of President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale, January 20, 1977. Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

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