Cranbrook, Unseen: My Senior May Experience

When I first visited Cranbrook on a snowy January day, the campus felt magical. I knew nothing about its history—not of the Booths, Saarinens, Milles. Yet when I pulled open the heavy leaded glass doors and stepped into a green-tiled lobby, I was in awe of its beauty.

Desai Wang, CKU ‘19, with Jim Miller-Melberg’s Porpoise play structure at the Cranbrook Middle School for Boys.

Desai Wang, CKU ‘19, with Jim Miller-Melberg’s Porpoise play structure at the Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School for Boys. Photo Kevin Adkisson.

For the past three years, I have been fortunate to study here and to call Kingswood dorms my home. The names previously foreign now ring close to heart.

Or do they?

As senior year came to a close, I realized that perhaps my understanding was no more than the facts handed to Gold Key student tour guides. I knew “the names,” and roughly, their accomplishments, but not why; I did not know their stories.  

I knew I wanted to use my Senior May Project to better understand Cranbrook. My wish was vague, and if asked to define it I probably would have said something about wanting to learn more about the buildings and “the names.” As my three-week internship with the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research comes to an end, I think my time working with Mrs. Mio and Mr. Adkisson can be summarized by one word: unseen.

I finally toured Cranbrook House, Saarinen House, and the Smith House, and the past three weeks were filled with discoveries of details I never noticed before. However, I think the most important thing the Center gave me is a change in perspective.

Previously, my interest rested directly on what was visible: the existing architecture, their designers and their history. But, as trips to Cranbrook Archives proved, plans unbuilt are just important as those built. I saw George Booth’s plan for a school attached to Christ Church, Saarinen’s original designs for the Institute of Science and Academy of Art (only parts were realized for both), the multi-story elevations for Gordon Hall of Science, and a guest house proposed by John Hejduck that would have sat behind Lake Jonah.

Further, I was introduced to Cranbrook beyond its schools and museums. I joined Eastern Michigan University historic preservation students as they surveyed Tower Cottage and Lyon House. The former previously hosted a water tower, Cranbrook’s fire truck, and apartments that were in use through the 1980s. The latter was a family home built in the 1920s and acquired by Cranbrook almost twenty years ago. Both historic buildings have been repainted many times, so a paint analysis was performed. I found the process of slicing out small pieces of the buildings, analyzing them under a microscope, and studying the layers of paint and dirt to determine original colors, exciting. For the Tower Cottage window frames, layers of green appeared under the current brown.

Ron Koenig, the owner of Building Arts & Conservation, takes samples of paint on the window frame at Tower Cottage.

Ron Koenig, the owner of Building Arts & Conservation, takes samples of paint on the window frame at Tower Cottage. Photo Desai Wang, CKU ’19.

Most importantly, I saw Cranbrook from behind the scenes. I spent some of my first week scanning photographs and slides of Andrea Arens, a local artist who wove pillows for the Smith House.

Slide of Andrea Arens's pillows on display on the bench in Smith House. Courtesy Arens Family.

Slide of Andrea Arens’s pillows on display on the bench in Smith House. Courtesy Arens Family.

Yet the small stack of material I digitized is nothing compared to the cabinets after cabinets of pictures and files stored in the Archives. Just thinking about the amount of time it took to digitize my small binder sends a shiver through my spine about how much work it takes to digitize records, and about just how vast the collections of Cranbrook Archives are.

Scanning aside, at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House Mr. Adkisson, Mrs. Mio and I cleaned the Smiths’ exterior cabinets and organized a closet full of their pamphlets and magazines. We vacuumed and moved around artworks so UV protection film could be installed on windows to prevent further textile damages.

One day, we drove to Ken Katz’s conservation studio in Detroit to deliver a wood panel painting, a lamp, and a jade piece—all in need of restoration. Mrs. Mio and I applied inventory numbers to George and Ellen Booth’s silverware and china, and we even scrubbed Menelaus with Elephant Snot (a cleaning product).

Ken Katz, Mrs. Mio, and Mr. Adkisson discuss restoration plans for the painting on wood panels— Flora, Ceres, Pomona (Three Goddesses) by Corrado Scapecchi.

Ken Katz, Mrs. Mio, and Mr. Adkisson discuss restoration plans for the painting on wood panels— Flora, Ceres, Pomona (Three Goddesses) by Corrado Scapecchi. Photo Desai Wang, CKU ’19.

Desai, brushing Elephant Snot onto Menelaus.

Desai, brushing Elephant Snot onto Menelaus. Photo Leslie Mio.

I feel privileged to have organized items in a Frank Lloyd Wright house-museum, handled art created by famous painters, sculptors and ceramicists, and labeled plates and spoons that were used by the Booths. Above all, I am grateful to have met some of the people who dedicate themselves to preserving and sustaining Cranbrook’s history and beauty.

Desai, applying removable adhesive on Booths’ saucers to attach inventory numbers.

Desai, applying removable adhesive on Booths’ saucers to attach inventory numbers. Photo Leslie Mio.

Mr. Adkisson, at Smith House, organizing Smiths’ pamphlets, brochures and magazines.

Mr. Adkisson, at Smith House, organizing Smiths’ pamphlets, brochures and magazines. Photo Desai Wang, CKU ’19.

Three years ago, I opened a door that led me to Cranbrook, and to my interest in its past. Three weeks ago, I opened a door that led beyond history and urged me to see the present. I leave here with “the names,” some stories, but most importantly, acknowledgment and appreciation of the ongoing work that keeps this place running.

Desai Wang CKU ‘19

Editor’s NoteThe Senior May Project is a school-sponsored activity that encourages Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School seniors to acquire work experience in a field they are considering as a college major, a potential profession, and/or as a personal interest.

A native of Xi’an, China and Ann Arbor, Desai Wang has been a boarding student at Cranbrook since 2016. This fall, she will head off to Cornell University to study architecture. We thank her for her willingness to assist in projects across campus and her enthusiasm for Cranbrook history. We wish her luck as she embarks on another chapter of her life!

6 thoughts on “Cranbrook, Unseen: My Senior May Experience

  1. Wonderful experience. Thank you for sharing.

    On Fri, May 31, 2019 at 3:02 PM Cranbrook Kitchen Sink wrote:

    > cranbrookkitchensink posted: “When I first visited Cranbrook on a snowy > January day, the campus felt magical. I knew nothing about its history—not > of the Booths, Saarinens, Milles. Yet when I pulled open the heavy leaded > glass doors and stepped into a green-tiled lobby, I was in awe o” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: In the Archives: My Senior May Experience | Cranbrook Kitchen Sink

  3. Pingback: A Sculpture So Nice They Named it Twice | Cranbrook Kitchen Sink

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