Stepping into the Smith House on a grim and wintry day, one is instantly enveloped in warmth. The warm tones of brick and tidewater cypress walls, and the soft, textured furnishings help to create a cozy atmosphere, but the real effect is felt through radiant heat rising from the pigmented concrete floors.
Underfloor heating was a frequent feature of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses. Concerned with elegant and efficient use of space, these modest buildings for middle-income families utilized radiant heating set into the concrete slab flooring. Warm floors prevented heat transfer from bodies to cold buildings and allowed the air to be kept at a cooler temperature than conventional radiator-heated homes.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas about underfloor heating were adapted from the principles of the Korean heating system called ondol, literally ‘warm stone,’ that he encountered during his time in Japan. While working on the Imperial Hotel project, Wright was invited to visit the Tokyo residence of Baron Okura Kihachiro. After dinner in a freezing cold dining room, the party was invited for coffee in the Baron’s heated “Korean Room.” In his 1943 autobiography, Wright described the shift in temperature in rapturous terms:
The climate seemed to have changed. No, it wasn’t the coffee; it was Spring. We were soon warm and happy again – kneeling there on the floor, an indescribable warmth. No heating was visible nor was it felt directly as such. It was really a matter of not heating at all but an affair of climate.
Frank Lloyd Wright, 1943
Wright was instantly taken with this “indescribable warmth” and immediately specified electric heating in the Imperial Hotel bathrooms. On returning to the United States, he continued to explore the use of heating systems in both residential and commercial projects.
His first private home to incorporate underfloor heating was the Herbert Jacobs House, in Madison, Wisconsin, completed in 1937. The Jacobs House would become a model for Wright’s Usonian houses and an inspiration to architects and homeowners worldwide. By the time that Melvyn and Sara Smith began construction of Smith House in 1949, developers like William Levitt were popularizing the use of radiant heating in tract housing developments across the United States.
The Smiths employed engineer Clarence Toonder to help implement the heating plan designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s office. Blueprints show the copper tubing as it snakes through the L-shaped floor plan of Smith House, ensuring that every room would be warm and comfortable.
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.
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.
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).
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
Thanks to the Decorative Arts Trust, based in Media, Pennsylvania, the Center has a new Resident Collections Fellow—Nina Blomfield.
Recipient of the Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fellowship, Nina joined the Center on July 26. We’re delighted to report that in just her first few weeks, Nina has jumped right into the work of the Cranbrook Center!
A native of New Zealand, Nina received her BA from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and earned her MA in History of Art at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, where her thesis focused on the use of Japanese decorative arts by middle-class American women. She is currently completing a PhD at Bryn Mawr that examines the material culture of domestic space and the global origins of Victorian home decorating. At Bryn Mawr, she curated the well-received exhibition “All-Over Design”: Lockwood de Forest between Ahmedabad and Bryn Mawr.
Nina has had formative collections-based experiences at the National Library of New Zealand, Bryn Mawr College, and the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nina is the Center’s fourth Collections Fellow, and in her two years here she will be focusing her attention on the decorative arts in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House. She’s been hard at work researching the family and the home’s rich collection. Her efforts have already identified the artists behind a dozen previously unidentified objects in Smith House. Look forward to hearing from Nina on the blog soon, and join us in welcoming her to Cranbrook!
On November 21, 1935, celebrated French architect Le Corbusier arrived in Detroit and promptly demanded to be taken to Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex. That one of the world’s leading modernist architects wanted to visit Ford’s factory shouldn’t have been too surprising, as for the previous two decades Le Corbusier—born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret—had been advocating for a revolution in architecture like Ford’s revolution in transportation.
In his groundbreaking 1923 book, Toward an Architecture (or, as it was titled in its first English translations, Towards a New Architecture,) Le Corbusier made the famous claim, “A house is a machine for living in.” As he believed, “Machines will lead to a new order both of work and of leisure.”
Le Corbusier told reporter Florence Davies of the Detroit News that “Detroit is the logical city for the production of the houses of tomorrow, the pre-fabricated efficient mass-production house.” He went on to claim that it would be automobile manufacturers, not architects, who would “undertake the production of the homes of tomorrow” because they understood the problems of mass production.
But while Ford may have attracted Le Corbusier to visit Detroit during the his one and only trip to America, it was Cranbrook Academy of Art and its president Eliel Saarinen that played host to the great architect.
After seeing the Ford complex and a making a few stops downtown, Le Corbusier wound his way up to Bloomfield Hills. On display in the Cranbrook Pavilion (now St. Dunstan’s Theater) were twenty-four enlarged photographs, a selection of movies, fourteen building and city plans, and a single model documenting his work. These items were part of a small show on the architect open from November 19 to November 22. But the main event was Le Corbusier’s lecture at 8:00pm on November 21, 1935.
Delivered in French and translated by his American associate Robert Jacobs, Le Corbusier enthralled an at-capacity audience with his theories of architecture. He spoke of his work in Europe, including the recently completed Villa Savoye in Poissy. The focus, however, were his theories of city planning and mechanization. Le Corbusier used a sheet of tracing paper some 8- to 12-feet-long and pinned along the wall to execute large, colorful pastel sketches that illustrated his ideas of architecture and planning. This drawing was saved by the Academy, though it has since, sadly, been lost.
Le Corbusier lectured throughout most of his career as an architect. As he told an interviewer in 1951:
I never prepare my lectures…Improvisation is a wonderful thing: I draw, and when you draw and speak at the same time, you create something new. And all my theory—my introspection and retrospection on the phenomenon of architecture and urbanism—derives from my improvisation and drawings during these lectures.
After the Cranbrook lecture, Le Corbusier was the guest of the Academy of Art’s Executive Secretary Richard Raseman and Instructor in Interior Design Rachel DeWolfe Raseman. The couple had both studied architecture at Cornell (Rachel Raseman was Cornell’s first woman architecture graduate) and resided at Academy Residence #3 across Academy Way from Saarinen House. In the morning, Le Corbusier continued by train to the next stop on his cross-country journey.
As the Detroit Free Press reported November 22, “With a few deft strokes Thursday, Le Corbusier, the famous French modernist-architect…sketched the vision that he sees through what is perhaps the most ponderous pair of eyeglasses ever fabricated.”
Alongside an earlier lecture in April 1935 by Frank Lloyd Wright, the visit to Cranbrook by Le Corbusier was one of the highlights of the Academy’s first decade. Reflecting in his Annual Report to the Cranbrook Foundation, Richard Raseman wrote that:
The Le Corbusier lecture, although delivered in French, was a good show, and as he is a world figure we were well satisfied…the public must have agreed with us as these lectures [by Wright and Le Corbusier] were by far the best attended of any of our functions…men of this caliber are rare indeed.
To learn more about Le Corbusier and his visit to Cranbrook, sign up for the Center’s History of American Architecture: Cranbrook VisitorsLecture Series! For the next five weeks, I will be discussing visitors, like Le Corbusier, who have lectured at Cranbrook since the Academy opened in 1932. From Le Corbusier, Wright, and Alvar Aalto in the 1930s through to Jeanne Gang, Greg Pasquarelli, and David Adjaye in the 2010s, I will tell the story of American design through architects who’ve spoken at Cranbrook. Learn more and sign up on our website. “See” you Monday at 11:00am or 7:00pm EST for our first virtual lecture!
—Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
Cranbrook Archives is delighted to announce that theMelvyn 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 objectswhich 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.
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 .
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.
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 theperforming 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.
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 aninteresting 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 housefor 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 collectionat 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.
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.
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 Usonianstyle. 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 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. 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.
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.
The Smiths had a zest for life which filters through to this day.
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 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)
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.
They had a number of records called Dance Party. I wonder…
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.
Sunlight is the enemy of artwork and textiles. As the sun’s rays filter through unprotected windows, they cause fading. In addition to colors changing, sunlight can cause holes in fabric, paper to become brittle, plastics to fall apart, and wood to warp.
You can see the effects of light and heat from the windows on the woven tapestry by Urban Jupena in Smith House. On the left is the part exposed to sunlight, and on the right (folded back) is the underside that has been protected.
Recently, the Center had a Conservation Assessment for Preservation (CAP) done for the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House by ICA-Art Conservation. In the report, one of the recommendations was to protect the artifacts in Smith House from visible and UV light streaming in the wonderful floor-to-ceiling single-pane windows of the house.
Rear exterior view of Smith House.
To protect the house, we would either need to create storm windows to apply to the outside, put up shades on the inside, or apply a UV-blocking film to the windows. As you can imagine, the storm windows and shades would alter the look of the house, so they were rejected outright. The UV film, however, was something we could consider.
What we discovered is that not all films are created equal. There is dark film, light film, mirror film, frosted film – we needed a clear film that diffused 99.9 percent of the harmful ultraviolet light but still allowed natural daylight into the house. Every company promised theirs was the best and gave the most protection. How would we choose? This was a pretty long-term decision. We decided to turn to the experts.
After we got through all the scientific talk about procedures and data and met with product representatives at the house, we landed on a film. Aging Properties of Select UV-Blocking Window Films stated that “CPFilms (Llumar and Vista) performed well according to all criteria used. None of the films tested showed a significant change in UV absorbance . . . Because this brand easily met all our criteria, it can be strongly recommended with regard to optical performance”
Llumar/Vista films had performed well in the conservation studies, they had the clear film we were looking for (SpectraSelect VS61 SR CDF), and we had a distributor/installer in the area: SRF Enterprises, Inc.William Kish, the owner, stood behind his product with an excellent warranty, personally acting as the installer of the film, and proof that the product lasted, in some installations, for up to 40 years.
Bill Kish of SRF Enterprises, Inc. installing window film in Smith House. Can you tell where he has put the film and where he has not?
Other benefits of the film: you can still clearly see in and out of the windows; there is reduced glare from the sun; the textiles will last longer and book jackets can stay on (they were beginning to crumble and fade); and the house will be cooler in the summer. Finally, the windows will be safer. When Smithy installed the windows, they were not safety glass. With the film on the windows they now function as safety glass should one ever break (heaven forbid).
Rear exterior view of Smith House after the installation of the window film.
All of this research for Smith House served us well– we decided to use it in the Studio at Saarinen House to protect the textiles on display in our 2019 exhibition Studio Loja Saarinen.
Bill Kish of SRF Enterprises, Inc. installing window film in Saarinen House Studio.
As we continue to research Cranbrook’s recently acquired Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House, new treasures keep popping up. When California landscape architect Thomas Church visited the Smiths in 1957 and sketched out changes to the grounds, he included a small Japanese garden due west of the house. From that point on, Melvyn Smith always pictured adding a small tea house or garden gazebo to the landscape.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture (including the Smith House) was deeply influenced and indebted to Japanese design: the country’s architecture, landscape, gardens, and art–Wright was one of the foremost collectors and dealers of Japanese prints in America. The Smiths too had a deep interest in Japan (perhaps inspired by Wright’s own interest) and hosted many Japanese visitors to their home over the years. Their photo albums are full of images of Japanese guests and holiday cards from Japanese friends, while in the house sit many items from Japan: sake sets, nabemono pots, and multiple cast iron Japanese teakettles.
Melyvn (Smithy) and Sara Smith in Kimono outside of their Frank Lloyd Wright home, March 1968. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
Nothing, however, shows their interest as fully as plans drawn up in July 1965 for a Japanese Tea House to be built across their backyard pond. The design was by Taliesin Associated Architects’ William Wesley Peters, Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégé who managed Wright’s office following his death in 1959.
The small tea house, designed on a diagrid, centered on a hexagonal room with six triangular tables (forming a hexagon) surrounded by benches on two sides and tall french doors looking back to the Smith House. Immediately outside was an ample patio and trellis above. Across the rear of the tea house ran vertical louvered panels, pieced by Wright’s earlier design from the clerestory windows of the house. (This system of cut-out folding panels was incorporated in Peters’ 1968 sunroom addition to the main Smith House).
Whether the sunroom addition took funds away from the tea house, or the fact the Smith’s never owned this side of the pond, the 1965 tea house would remain unbuilt. After Melvyn Smith retired from teaching English at Detroit’s Cody High School in 1977 or 1978, he again took up the idea of building a tea house on the property. This time, it would be situated due west of the house where Thomas Church had suggested a Japanese garden and on land the Smith’s already owned.
Around 1980 Wesley Peters was again called in to do a design for the tea house. This version of the tea house was taller, featuring french doors flanked by brick walls set with glass openings. Behind the pavilion was a plunge pool for swimming. Peters was assisted in this design by Jon deKoven Hill, who joined the Taliesin Fellowship in 1938 and worked there off and on until 1996.
Smith fell ill in the Summer of 1984, at the same time revisions to his little tea house were being completed by a local architect or builder Ron Kelly. Perhaps in retirement the purpose of a tea house had changed from purely a place of beauty and repose: the latest versions, reviewed by Smith in the hospital, featured a Jacuzzi sunk within the center of the tea house.
Plan of the Garden Gazebo with Jacuzzi at center, plunge pool at top right, and mechanical space top left. Adapted from plans by Taliesin Associated Architects, 1984. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
Melvyn Smith died that summer. At his memorial service, William Wesley Peters spoke about the philosophy of architecture; how much Wright had enjoyed Smithy as a client; and paced out the spot for the newly redesigned Japanese tea house. “What else would your dad want me to be doing right now?” Peters asked Robert, the Smith’s only son, who had admired his father’s endless determination to beautify and ornament his dream house.
Although there was never any tea house or gazebo built on the property, fast forward to earlier this summer. As we were changing out light bulbs in the high soffits of a bedroom at Smith House, we found two Ziploc bags holding quite the surprise: An unfinished model of the tea house.
–Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Cranbrook Center Collections Fellow
To learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and his lifelong relationship with Japan, the Smith’s tea house, and the traditional Japanese Chanoyu tea ceremony, join us next Saturday, August 25, 2018 for presentations and demonstrations at Cranbrook Institute of Science and the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House. I’ll be delivering a free lecture on Wright at 10:00am, followed by a presentation and Karesansui demonstration by Japanese Horticulturalist Chisato Takeuchi. In the afternoon, there are a few spots left for the 1:30 and 2:30 Chanoyu Tea Ceremony in Smith House presented by the Japan Society of Detroit Women’s Club.More information and registration is on our website.