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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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

New Archival Collection: the Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers

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.

2017-10 23-9 FLW

Frank Lloyd Wright’s entry in the Smiths’ guest book, 1951. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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 .

2017-10 2-8

Letter from Sara to Melvyn Smith, July 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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.

2017-10 6-1

Melvyn, Sara and Robert Schefman in front of Schefman’s sculpture, In Lieu, at Wayne State University, 1977. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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.

2017-10 26-13.jpg

Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House, August 1960. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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.

2017-10 8-6

Letter to Melvyn and Sara Smith from Wayne State University Theatre, 1973. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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

 

To Protect and (Pre)serve

Our guest blogger this week is Kate Nummer, a Graduate Student in Eastern Michigan University’s Historic Preservation Program. She will receive her Master of Science in Historic Preservation in December 2019.

s200_kate.nummer

 

Late in the spring, I was a part of the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Field School hosted at Cranbrook (read about the amazing week here). That week I discovered what a magical place Cranbrook is, and was inspired to ask Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Associate Registrar, Leslie Mio, about doing my graduate final project here. The Center agreed to have me, so after three years of working hard on my Masters, I’m finishing up here at Cranbrook. I have worked closely with Leslie two days a week since August, mainly focusing on the Smith House and “other duties as assigned.”

 

The Smith House is a beautiful Usonian Frank Lloyd Wright house (1950) that was owned by Melvyn Smith and his wife Sara. Cranbrook acquired the house by donation in 2017. The main project I have been working on is numbering objects and updating The Museum System (TMS, Cranbrook’s digital database of objects) as we go along. This has been a monumental job: not only did Cranbrook acquire the house in 2017, but also everything that was in it – over 1,800 objects!

 

Numbering a jar in Smith House. Photo by author.

Numbering a jar in Smith House. Photo by author.

Numbering objects isn’t for everyone, it is a slow and repetitive task. But, it gives me a chance to look over the object, confirm that the location is recorded correctly in TMS, make any additional notes about its appearance, and even appreciate the object itself.

Here I am working in the kitchen of Smith House. Photo by author.

My final report for my degree won’t just be about numbering, but about collection management. This is considered the development, storage, preservation, and organization of collections and cultural heritage. I am consulting resources like MRM5: Museum Registration Methods by Rebecca Buck, and Things Great and Small by John E. Simmons, and applying information gleaned to what Leslie and I are doing in Smith House.

 

Other duties I have had since August: helping prepare a disaster kit for Smith House, so objects and people remain safe in the event of a disaster (especially since it’s off the main campus); meeting with conservators who are helping to restore furniture in the house;  helping prepare for the Center’s fundraiser “A House Party at Cranbrook”; rolling textiles for better storage; and helping move and process new donations.

 

I say, “other duties as assigned” because one thing I’ve learned in my semester at Cranbrook: the work of a registrar is never boring. We may have our main plan mapped out, but sometimes you must go with the flow.

 

Kate Nummer, Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Program 2019

The A-maize-ing Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright, architect of the Smith House, called it his “little gem.” Many of his apprentices considered it one of the best examples of Wright’s Usonian style. So it should come as no surprise that he liked to stop by and see the Smiths when he was in Detroit.

On a visit in 1953, a luncheon was organized by Mary Palmer, Elizabeth Affleck, and Sara Smith. The Smith House was to be the site of the event. Sara Smith recalled the event in her biography, Building a Dream: The Sara Smith Story by Kathryn Watterson.

“‘Mary called me and Elizabeth Affleck and we decided to have a luncheon at my house,’ Sara says. ‘I had just been to the store and I had bought a whole lot of corn on the cob and much more fish than I could possibly use in a week.'”

The luncheon also consisted of lamb and some salads, but it was Sara’s corn that was a hit. “‘[Wright] said that one of his favorite foods was corn on the cob, and he helped himself and came over here to the built-in lounge.'”

Frank Lloyd Wright lunches on corn-on-the-cob at Smith House.

Frank Lloyd Wright lunches on corn on the cob at Smith House in 1953. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Smith Family Papers.

The funny thing was, of all the people at the house for the luncheon, no one was sitting with Wright. “‘Frank Lloyd Wright was sitting toward the end of the lounge alone and no one came near him. No one was talking to him. Then he said, ‘Isn’t anyone going to sit with me?””

“‘So some people moved in. But they didn’t stay. They would go over and say a word or two and walk away. People just don’t seem to want to go up to a genius or a great person. I don’t know whether it’s fear of something else.'”

Sara Smith in her kitchen, August 19, 1976. Photo by Joyce Seid.

Sara Smith in her kitchen, August 19, 1976. Photo by Joyce Seid. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Smith Family Papers.

“‘At the time, I was in the kitchen taking care of the dishes and the thought came to me, ‘Sara, you’re doing a Mary-Martha.’ In the bible story, Martha was the one who was always staying in the kitchen mumbling and grumbling because Mary didn’t help her. Well, there I was in the kitchen pulling a Mary-Martha, and the thought came, ‘What are you doing in the kitchen? Get in there and talk to that man.’ So I did.””

Sara and Wright discussed a number of things, including shadows and how Wright used them to best position a house to take advantage of the sun’s energy. “‘It was very interesting,’ she says, ‘and I was so grateful that I had gone over to sit with him. While we were talking, I asked him, ‘Mr. Wright, what do you consider to be your greatest design you ever made?’ His replay was ‘Why, the next one.'”

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Note: Public tours of Smith House are offered from May through November. For information about private and group tours, please contact the Center at 248.645.3307 or visit us online.

Musical Hassocks, Anyone?

While we celebrate Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith for their tenacity in getting their Frank Lloyd Wright house built and maintained, there are other aspects to their home ownership to entertain us.

Visitors enjoy coming into a home which is unlike most other FLW houses they have ever seen. This house is full of objects the Smiths collected, loved and placed pretty much where they remain now.  Instantly visitors feel this is a home, not just a house museum and that the personalities of the owners come across loud and clear.

Smith House Library. Photo Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research | Brett Mountain for SEEN Magazine.

Smith House Library. Photo Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research | Brett Mountain for SEEN Magazine.

The Smiths had a zest for life which filters through to this day.

The Smiths in March 1968.

The Smiths in March 1968. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

They were readers; they loved art, particularly ceramics and smaller sculptures they could place on the built-in cypress shelves.  At the far end of the living room where Smithy had his built-in desk you might spot a GE Stereophonic High-Fidelity Turntable and speakers. You might also see on the shelves beneath stacks of record albums.

The "entertainment center" of the Smith House, with its GE Stereophonic High-Fidelity Turntable and records stacked three deep on shelves added below the desk in the late 1960s. Hassocks in the foreground. Photo Cranbrook Center for the Collections and Research | Brett Mountain for SEEN Magazine.

The “entertainment center” of the Smith House, with its GE Stereophonic High-Fidelity Turntable and records stacked three deep on shelves added below the desk in the late 1960s. Hassocks in the foreground. Photo Cranbrook Center for the Collections and Research | Brett Mountain for SEEN Magazine.

The Smiths owned at least 400 albums and boxed sets ranging from spoken voice through the great musicals to opera and classical music, but the vast majority of their collection was dance music: The Smiths were dancers. Smith himself taught ballroom dance as a means to supplement his meager teaching salary as a younger man. In 1934 he served as president of Detroit’s Northern High School Alumni Association and chaired a semi-annual ball in the General Motors Building ballroom.

In those days, dance halls were everywhere, dancing was the great social activity of the 40s and 50s and easily accessible even to the penurious. Kathryn Watterson in her book Building a Dream quotes Sara Smith as mentioning at least one evening of dance in their young days at the Northwood Inn, a roadhouse in Berkley, Michigan famed for its dance floor and frog legs.

Writing down the names of the albums for cataloging purposes brought me right up against the music the Smiths enjoyed listening to. I can just see them dancing the Lindy Hop to Big Band leader Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing. Or maybe more adventurously the quickstep which is a lively, fast-moving dance for the fleet of foot. Something about the Smiths in photos tells me they could handle these dances. Here’s a clip of some So You Think You Can Dance competitors starting with a little Lindy Hop then Charleston then quickstep. All these dances are 4/4 time and fast: Sing, Sing, Sing (Quick step)

Your Guy Lombardo Melody album cover.

Your Guy Lombardo Melody album cover, one of many in the Smith’s record collection.

Guy Lombardo is another favorite. To these smooth, slightly jazzy tunes you would dance the foxtrot which by the 30s had slowed down from its fast pace. This was a dance invented in the Smiths’ lifetime by one Harry Fox.

If the Smiths got tired of 4/4 time they could find themselves a waltz, maybe to one of their Sing Along with Mitch Miller albums.

Sara and Melvyn Smith dance together in Smith House.

The Smiths dancing in their house on that glossy dance floor they were so proud of. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

They had a number of records called Dance Party.  I wonder…

Melvyn and Sara Smith on the dance floor

Melvyn and Sara Smith on the dance floor. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The Smiths left their house and their possessions intact, and through the great beneficence of their extended Smith and Towbes families, the Smith joie de vivre persists in a light-filled gem of a house. In their honor, let’s set up a dance floor outside, put on some big band music and dance by the golden glow of a Frank Lloyd Wright jewel box.

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: