The Monreale Fountain in the Quadrangle

In the center of the Quadrangle at Cranbrook School is a replica of a fountain which stands in the southwestern corner of the cloister of Duomo Monreale in Palermo, Sicily. Completed in 1182, the cathedral unites Arabic, Byzantine, and Norman architectural and cultural influences and is famed for its mosaics.

The inspiration for the fountain’s long-treasured presence on the Cranbrook campus dates back to 1922, when Henry Scripps Booth first saw the original in the cathedral cloister. This was a site that Henry seems to have particularly wanted to see while on a ten-month architectural study tour of Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Great Britain, and France, with his friend, J. Robert F. Swanson.

View of the Duomo Monreale, December 1922. Henry Scripps Booth, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Writing to his father, Cranbrook founder George G. Booth, on December 26, 1922, he describes the cathedral thus:

“Mosaic everywhere — luminous gold, and dull colors — with intricate geometric patterns in abundance and fine but rather arcaic [sic] representations of Biblical stories roofed over with a richly decorated trussed ceiling. The cloister in the cathedral’s shade is that delightful one with such delicate columns in pairs, decorated by mosaics, that is illustrated so frequently.”

View of the Duomo Monreale, December 1922. Henry Scripps Booth, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Henry laments that there isn’t time enough to study the monuments as closely as he would like, to measure them and draw them up, for if they did, they would end up knowing only one thing well but miss out on so many others. His letter includes this sketch of the fountain:

Letter from Henry Scripps Booth to George Gough Booth, December 24-26, 1922. Cranbrook Archives.

Several years later, George is in Naples, Italy, at one of his favored workshops, the Chiurazzi Foundry. On March 2, 1927, George wrote to Henry to tell him of numerous purchases he made at the foundry, all to be gifts to the new Cranbrook School for Boys. While the specific uses of the items might be determined later, as was characteristic of George he had a tentative plan for all of them. The most important was the replica of the Monreale fountain. Here, we can see George’s sketch of the replica fountain, showing its dimensions:

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A Tale of Two Chairs

When asked, late in life, about the furniture he designed for Kingswood School for Girls, Eero Saarinen referred to himself as “a child of my period.” Two chairs in particular show how the young, precocious designer was able to work in both traditional and modern modes. As designers in the 1920s and 1930s debated the merits of traditional and modern design, Eero worked with both.

Auditorium and Dining Hall chairs for Kingswood School for Girls by Eero Saarinen, 1929-1931. Cranbrook Art Museum.

He was just 18 years old when he began sketching designs for Kingswood in 1929.  Later that year, he departed for Paris to study sculpture for eight months. These two Kingswood chairs show an understanding of two major European designs trends of the era: the evolutionary Art Deco, with its roots in neoclassical design, and the revolutionary Modern movement, emerging most forcefully out of the German Bauhaus.

First, the Kingswood Dining Hall chairs. These birch wood chairs with painted coral-colored elements and linen damask upholstery are delicate adaptations of the ancient Greek klismos chair. The klismos form, which features curving splayed legs and a concave crest rail, became popular in late-18th-century Europe and America as part of the Greek Revival and the neoclassical style. The form again became a favorite among designers in the 1920s, when its clean lines and soft curves were used throughout Art Deco interiors. Kilsmos chairs were especially fashionable in Scandinavian modern design, with architects and designers like Aino and Alvar Aalto, Gunnar Asplund, Erik Bryggman, and Carl Malmsten producing versions of the chair. In fact, Carl Milles had a set of Malmsten-designed klismos chairs in his Cranbrook dining room. Eero Saarinen’s klismos chairs for Kingswood fit perfectly within the clean lines, rich materials, and Swedish Grace-styling of the light-filled dining hall.

Left: Klismos-stlye chair from Carl Milles House at Cranbrook Academy of Art by Carl Malmsten, manufactured by Firma David Blomberg, designed 1926. Right: Chair for Kingswood Dining Hall by Eero Saarinen, manufactured by Stickley Brothers Furniture Company, designed 1929-1931. Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum.

Second, a chair that eschews historic forms for the avant-garde: the chrome plated, tubular steel Kingswood Auditorium armchair. Eero Saarinen’s cantilevered design recalls the furniture coming out of Germany in the 1920s, particularly the work of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus. Breuer was a twenty-three-year-old student at the revolutionary German design school when, inspired by bicycle handlebars, he ordered tubular steel from the bicycle manufacturer Adler and built the world’s first tubular steel chair in 1925. Architect and president of the Bauhaus Walter Gropius was so taken with the initial tubular steel chair he invited Breuer to design most of the furnishings for the school’s new modern buildings in Dessau.

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The Smiths and World War II

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.”

Melvyn Maxwell Smith’s draft card, 1942. Source: Ancestry.com. U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

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.

Melvyn (circled in back row) and other officers, circa 1943. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

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.”

Sara and Melvyn Smith in Atlantic City, 1942. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

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.”

Warrant Officer Melvyn Maxwell Smith. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

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.

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Mail Matters: Another Michigan Mural

On the eve of World War II, while Americans continued to suffer from the economic fallout of the Great Depression, the United States Treasury Department’s “Section of Fine Arts” commissioned Zoltan Sepeshy, the Head of the Painting Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, to paint a mural for a new post office in downtown Caro. At the same time, one of his star students, David Fredenthal, was commissioned to paint a mural for the new post office in Lincoln Park. (Having trouble placing Caro, if not also Lincoln Park, on a map of Michigan? For your first geography lesson, place your right hand, palm side up, next to you. Caro is located in the middle of your thumb, while Lincoln Park is closer to your wrist.)

Separate and distinct from the more extensive and influential WPA or Works Progress Administration’s “Federal Arts Project,” which essentially was a work-relief program for artists, the purpose of the Treasury Department’s “Section” program, as it came to be known, was “to secure for the Government the best art which this country is capable of producing, with merit as the only test.” Sepeshy and Fredenthal, with their recently minted Cranbrook credentials, fit the bill. Fredenthal even had some mural experience, having recently painted an octopus mural for the Academy’s now infamous Crandemonium Ball in 1936.

Octopus mural by David Fredenthal for Crandemonium Ball, March 1936. Cranbrook Archives.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Southers, Lincoln Park’s postal superintendent, was more than a little perplexed and worried about the mural David Fredenthal was to paint for his post office. The week of September 25, 1939, Southers received a letter from Washington notifying him that Fredenthal, who the government described as a “sensational young artist” from Cranbrook Academy of Art, had been named to paint the mural—a fresco no less. Southers, who more than likely had not paid a visit to the seven-year-old Academy in Bloomfield Hills, not only had no idea what a fresco painting was but was intimidated by the government’s suggestion that he was to confer with the artist about the subject matter. His big idea? He thought a mural showing all of Lincoln Park’s postal superintendents (no doubt with him in a position of prominence) would do just fine.

Fortunately for Southers, geography intervened. Pulling out his own map of Michigan, Sepeshy did some calculations (which I just repeated using Google Maps). Realizing that Caro was some seventy-two miles from his studio in Bloomfield Hills while Lincoln Park was just twenty-six, the Hungarian painter decided to pull rank. He had the commissions switched and assigned the Caro project to his student while he decided to paint the mural in Lincoln Park, a few miles south of Dearborn.

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