Edison House: A Modern Icon

Approaching the Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS), one easily overlooks the low-set modern structure built into the eastern hillside. Shaded by trees and obscured by a brick courtyard wall, Edison House assumes a low profile much like its Modernist predecessors.

The 1960’s was a decade where modern conveniences flourished. Electric appliances began appearing in households across the country which made the lives of working families easier and more efficient. Backed by CIS’s Chairman of the Board of Directors, James Beresford, Director Robert T. Hatt and Detroit Edison’s Edwin O. George began plans for an innovative, all-electric residence that would suit their needs equally. Cranbrook would house scientists as part of the Distinguished Scholar Program, while Detroit Edison would have a showcase for their newest and greatest electrical equipment. The architect, William P. Smith Jr., was commissioned by Detroit Edison, and construction began in 1965. National and local firms contributed products, services, time, and funding to complete the house. Once construction was completed Detroit Edison turned Edison House over to CIS in a dedication ceremony held on June 1, 1966.

Thomas Edison's son, Charles Edison, visits Edison House Courtesy Detroit News, June 1966

Thomas Edison’s son, Charles Edison, visits Edison House
Courtesy Detroit News, June 1966

The finished product was a functionally efficient piece of art and an “outstanding demonstration of the application of science to everyday living.” Not only did it have the best and most innovative appliances, it was aesthetically advanced as well. The architectural style melds aspects of late Modernism and Art & Crafts. The broad eaves and natural material selection are reminiscent of the American Craftsman style home, while the clean-lines and mechanical innovations evolved from the Modernist International Style.

Also referred to as “Cranbrook’s New Idea Home,” a 1965 Detroit Free Press article described it as “organic contemporary in design.” Expansive windows run floor to ceiling which opened up the back face of the house to the surrounding natural landscape. Constructed of laminated redwood, extruded brick, and masonry, the home blends with its neighbors – the trees, grass and rocks. Broad overhanging eaves provide a feeling of shelter and enclosure. The natural backdrop contrasted with the interior’s modernist chrome and leather furnishings, and in true modernist style, linen drapes graced the windows in order to soften the hard surfaces. In addition to traditional living space, the open floor plan also accommodated conference rooms for faculty needs.

Dr. Robert Hatt in Edison House  living room, August 1966. Harvey Croze, photographer  Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Dr. Robert Hatt in Edison House living room, August 1966. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Every aspect of the 3,500 square foot house was intended to promote electronic living. Snow melting heating coils were laid under the pavement and built into the eaves and gutter system which trace the perimeter of the copper roof. Snow sensors were installed to automatically switch on the melting equipment. Electronically heated windows, state of the art at the time, line the lower-level family room. An invisible metallic coating spans the interior glass surface and is warmed by an electric current in order to remit just enough heat to reduce the cold.

The garage boasted automatic radio-operated door openers. In the master bedroom dressing room a sun lamp was mounted in the ceiling with a timer for automatic shut-off. A built-in toaster was installed adjacent to the breakfast table for easy access. The kitchen also held the control panel for the intercom system that reached every room in the house as well as the front door and terrace. Speakers on the terrace doubled as microphones so the residents could “pick up sounds of birds and other wildlife.”

After a summer as a demonstration house open to the public, Edison House was occupied by notable botanist and geneticist Karl Sax, the first Distinguished Scholar. Farrington Daniels, Denis L. Fox, and V. Elliott Smith followed. The last Edison House resident was mineralogist and CIS Director, Daniel E. Appleman, who was instrumental in the Earth Exhibit housed in the Institute’s 1996 addition designed by Steven Holl.

Over the past twenty years, Edison House has been used for a variety of purposes including office space for Events Planning and a staging area for IT infrastructure technicians. And although the once innovative electrical equipment is outdated and certainly not modern by contemporary standards, Edison House remains an icon of Michigan Modernist architecture. Edison House will celebrate its 60th anniversary in June 2016.

Originally authored by Stephanie White (2011); updated in July 2015

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