Walls Can Talk: Robert Snyder, the Buckner Residence, and the Mid-Century Home

The other day I had the pleasure of taking a fantastic (albeit very cold!) field trip to view a mid-century modern home designed by Birmingham architect Robert Snyder.  Snyder studied architecture at Cranbrook’s Academy of Art (1948-1950) and eventually took over as the Head of Architecture (1952-1965). The house, located on Walnut Lake in West Bloomfield and commissioned by Noel and Isabel Buckner, is slated for demolition any day.  I learned about the house from Liz Buckner, who called to donate the original blueprints of the house to the Archives.  Liz offered to give me a tour of the house and I enthusiastically accepted!

View of Buckner House from the drive above, circa 1955. Courtesy Liz Buckner. Detroit Free Press/Ray Pillsbury.

View of Buckner House from the drive above, circa 1955. Cranbrook Archives, Detroit Free Press/Ray Pillsbury.

To approach the house you must drive down a long, hillside drive that dead-ends at a cove on Walnut Lake.  The house is perfectly situated – set back from the lake and built into the natural sloping hill with a beautiful view of the lake and the wooded surroundings.  When you approach the house, you can easily see the T-shaped outline of brown fir siding and white cinder block, highlighted with bright primary colors of blue, red and yellow.  The front door leads into a two-story entrance hall, where a large expanse of glass reveals views of the cove.  Liz told me the story of how the family used to cut down a large Christmas tree every year, lower it over the balcony railing and decorate it from top to bottom.

View of the house from the lakefront, with decorated Christmas tree in the entrance hall. 1955, courtesy Liz Buckner.

View of the house from the lakefront, with decorated Christmas tree in the entrance hall. 1955, courtesy Liz Buckner.

The entrance hall is the link between the daytime and nighttime areas of the house.  The left wing contains the kitchen and an open living room on the upper level, which features a central free-standing fireplace clad in Vermont marble.  The lower level is home to a rec room lined with brightly painted built-in cabinets along one wall.  The kitchen is appointed with hand-oiled walnut cabinets and an island work surface that pre-dates the American rage for islands.  Though small by today’s standards, every available space is utilized – from a kitchen pantry with felt-lined shelving for the silver, to a kickboard underneath the cabinets that opens up to allow dirt and scraps to be swept down a chute into the furnace room.

Buckner House kitchen, 2013. Photo by Leslie S. Edwards.

Buckner House kitchen, late 20th century. Courtesy Liz Buckner.

The “bedroom wing” on the right is also two stories, with the children’s bedrooms upstairs and the master bedroom suite below.  Single beds with built-in drawers underneath (Snyder’s nod to Frank Lloyd Wright) line the children’s rooms, while the master suite features an office, a master bath and two large closets.  The walk-in closet even includes a roll-out wooden “hamper” which held the dirty clothes that the kids sent down the laundry chute from above.  Resourceful to a fault, Liz and her siblings often used the hamper and chute as a hiding area when they were young.  Cork floors and wooden accordion closet doors are additional features of the home.

Isabel Wolfner's senior yearbook photo, Kingswood School Class of 1943. Cranbrook Archives.

Isabel Wolfner’s senior yearbook photo, Kingswood School Class of 1943. Cranbrook Archives.

One last note: The Buckners had several other Cranbrook connections. Isabel Buckner (nee Wolfner) and her sister Nancy were graduates of Kingswood School —as a student, Isabel met Carl Milles and Eliel Saarinen.  Nancy later returned to Kingswood to teach history, staying on from 1950 to 1965. The Buckners, who were familiar with the Academy artists, commissioned painter and later Academy of Art Director Wally Mitchell to design a rug for the living room.   Wally also helped design the color scheme of the house.

The Buckner residence appeared as the lead story in the Living section of the Detroit Free Press. Note the fireplace and the rug designed by Mitchell. February 12, 1956. Detroit Free Press/Ray Pillsbury.

The Buckner residence appeared as the lead story in the Living section of the Detroit Free Press. Note the fireplace and the rug designed by Mitchell. February 12, 1956. Cranbrook Archives, Detroit Free Press/Ray Pillsbury.

Sadly, this modern gem is being raised to make room for yet another McMansion.  I feel truly honored that I was able to experience the house before it is torn down, and to hear the stories of the life lived within its walls.  Thanks, Liz, for making the house come alive!

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

4 thoughts on “Walls Can Talk: Robert Snyder, the Buckner Residence, and the Mid-Century Home

  1. What a shame to lose such an iconic piece of history!! I am sure there are wonderful memories of living in a gem of a house. Too bad it’s being replaced with yet another ‘cookie cutter’ residence that will add nothing to the beautiful surroundings.

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  2. Where are the historical societies in suburban Detroit? And why are they not better funded by the wonderful people that enjoy that lake district as beautiful as the storied lakes in the north of England?

    Like

  3. The lucky Day family enjoyed many great Thanksgivings on either side of that fireplace. It was a weekday house and a holiday house all in one!

    Like

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