Collection Highlight: Walter Hickey Papers

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.

Walter Hickey working in the Architecture Studio, 1935. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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.

A Transportation Building for a World’s Fair, circa 1926-1930. A University of Michigan Class Project by Walter Hickey. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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 the Waterfront 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.

Drawing by Walter Hickey, undated. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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.

Jane Viola Shepherd. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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

House of the Poet

In 1995 a project was initiated to create a living monument to honor Cranbrook’s dedication to poetic imagination. The project, House of the Poet, was to be built on the ridge overlooking Lake Jonah and would honor works of imagination in art, sciences, and letters. Architect and educator, John Hejduk (1929-2000), was commissioned to develop plans for the building.

Hejduk largely abstained from conventional practice, but is known for his drawings that were combined into poetic and often highly personal narratives. Despite completing relatively few buildings, Hejduk is considered one of the most influential architects and theorists of the twentieth century. In an essay about Hejduk, architect Andreas Angelidakis states, “His drawings and writings, his essential approach to architecture, continue to function as a blueprint for a practice without clients, commissions, or even realization. What he built was a world of images and words.”

Exterior drawing, House of the Poet. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Exterior drawing, House of the Poet. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Hejduk designed a house built on stilts that included a bedroom, bath, living room, dining room, and kitchen. The plan was to create a space where “esteemed visitors” to the campus could stay. The exterior consisted of stucco in green, red, blue, and gunmetal, with a zinc roof.

Sketch of Scheme 1: interior paneling.

Sketch of Scheme 1: interior paneling.

In the fall of 1995, architects Dan Hoffman and Jennifer Lee of the Cranbrook Architecture Office (CAO) worked towards the project’s completion. Faculty and students from the Academy of Art’s Department of Architecture would provide the majority of the labor for the construction of the building, continuing the tradition of the integration of arts and crafts in the original buildings on campus. The CAO created extensive cost estimations and budgets, and thoroughly researched available materials for the construction of the house.

Digital model of the House of the Poet - view from Academy Way with the sculpture of Jonah and Whale in the foreground.

Digital model of the House of the Poet – view from Academy Way with the sculpture of Jonah and the Whale in the foreground.

Project correspondence indicated plans to complete the building in time to coincide with a 1997 exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum honoring the work of John Hejduk. The project seemed set to move forward, however, due to lack of sufficient funding, was canceled.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

Special thanks to Rebecca Kallen (CKU ‘08) who contributed to the research of this blog.

To Sit or Not to Sit

Chair design at Cranbrook has always had its own special niche and fascination among artists and patrons alike. George Booth altered chair designs for his own use at Cranbrook House. Eliel Saarinen designed unique chairs for Cranbrook School and Saarinen House. Ralph Rapson conceived of his chair design for what became known as the Rapson Rocker while a student here. Most of us are familiar with the famous chair designers, but what about projects by less famous designers?

During the war years, Academy of Art students were encouraged to experiment with modern design and new and unusual materials. In 1944, Academy students Gloria Bucerzan and Jean Roberts designed and constructed a chair born of war shortages, by eliminating the use of springs and creating webbing using “non-critical” materials.

Gloria (left) and Jean with woodworking instructor Svend Steen, 1944. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Unknown student setting up work for Student Show, 1958. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Unknown student setting up work for Student Show, 1958. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Art Room, Early Childhood Center at Brookside School, 1997. Chairs designed by Dan Hoffman, Cranbrook Architecture Office. Photograph copyright Christina Capetillo.

Art Room, Early Childhood Center at Brookside School, 1997. Chairs designed by Dan Hoffman, Cranbrook Architecture Office. Photograph copyright Christina Capetillo.

For more on chair design in general, check out the 2012 Year of No-Chair-Design and the Guide to Great Chair Design which features links to chair blogs, the history of chair design, museums, galleries, and books that all feature what else? Chairs!

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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