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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.