The Fashions of Ruth Adler Schnee

Sometimes it seems there are infinite possible discoveries within a single archives collection. Such is the case with the Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers. Just over a year ago I wrote about the Schnees’ long-running Detroit retail business, Adler/Schnee, but I knew then that story was only the tip of the iceberg.  

And so I was happy to find myself returning recently to one of my favorite collections in the Archives. Replacing materials that had been on loan to the Cranbrook Art Museum for their exhibit, Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living, I was once again struck by her achievements as a high school student at Cass Technical High School in Detroit from 1940-1942. In particular, her skill at fashion design. Maybe it was the months of hearing about sweatpants and Zoom shirts, but it was so refreshing to spend a few moments remembering what real fashion means. 

Ruth Adler Schnee illustration, circa 1941. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Before Ruth Adler Schnee made a name for herself in interior design, including her iconic textile designs, she was interested in becoming a fashion designer. Attending Cass Tech afforded Ruth the opportunity to nurture her natural artistic talents, which are clearly evident in drawings from her primary school days. And, she had already shown an affinity for fashion design—out of necessity, Ruth had already been designing her own clothes since she was a 13-year-old Jewish girl in Nazi Germany (her family emigrated in 1939).

Amongst other documents in her collection, the story of Ruth’s high school years and her passion for fashion are perhaps best captured in three notebooks. One of my favorite boxes in the collection holds nothing but pages from a notebook entitled Dress Design VI. Labeled “hours 1-4″ it is clearly a class project, and one for which Ruth received high marks. Divided into four parts (Machine Attachments, Illustrative Material, Drafting Problems, and Analysis of Dresses), the book includes drawings, pattern pieces (not to scale), paper mockups of mainly women’s sportswear designs, samples of sewing technique (actual fabric pinned to the page), textile identification pages (with real fabric samples), and an essay on silk. 

Sleeve Form page, in “Notes on the Draping of Garments,” Ruth Adler Schnee, circa 1942. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
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Le Corbusier Comes to Cranbrook

On November 21, 1935, celebrated French architect Le Corbusier arrived in Detroit and promptly demanded to be taken to Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex. That one of the world’s leading modernist architects wanted to visit Ford’s factory shouldn’t have been too surprising, as for the previous two decades Le Corbusier—born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret—had been advocating for a revolution in architecture like Ford’s revolution in transportation.

In his groundbreaking 1923 book, Toward an Architecture (or, as it was titled in its first English translations, Towards a New Architecture,) Le Corbusier made the famous claim, “A house is a machine for living in.” As he believed, “Machines will lead to a new order both of work and of leisure.”

Le Corbusier told reporter Florence Davies of the Detroit News that “Detroit is the logical city for the production of the houses of tomorrow, the pre-fabricated efficient mass-production house.” He went on to claim that it would be automobile manufacturers, not architects, who would “undertake the production of the homes of tomorrow” because they understood the problems of mass production.

But while Ford may have attracted Le Corbusier to visit Detroit during the his one and only trip to America, it was Cranbrook Academy of Art and its president Eliel Saarinen that played host to the great architect.

Le Corbusier, with pipe, and Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook, November 1935. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

After seeing the Ford complex and a making a few stops downtown, Le Corbusier wound his way up to Bloomfield Hills. On display in the Cranbrook Pavilion (now St. Dunstan’s Theater) were twenty-four enlarged photographs, a selection of movies, fourteen building and city plans, and a single model documenting his work. These items were part of a small show on the architect open from November 19 to November 22. But the main event was Le Corbusier’s lecture at 8:00pm on November 21, 1935.

Delivered in French and translated by his American associate Robert Jacobs, Le Corbusier enthralled an at-capacity audience with his theories of architecture. He spoke of his work in Europe, including the recently completed Villa Savoye in Poissy. The focus, however, were his theories of city planning and mechanization. Le Corbusier used a sheet of tracing paper some 8- to 12-feet-long and pinned along the wall to execute large, colorful pastel sketches that illustrated his ideas of architecture and planning. This drawing was saved by the Academy, though it has since, sadly, been lost.

Installation view of Modern Architecture:
International Exhibition
at the Museum of Modern Art with Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye at center and in photographs on left, February 9–March 23, 1932. While no photographs of Le Corbusier’s lecture or exhibition at Cranbrook survive, it was likely similar to this installation. MoMA Archives.

Le Corbusier lectured throughout most of his career as an architect. As he told an interviewer in 1951:

I never prepare my lectures…Improvisation is a wonderful thing: I draw, and when you draw and speak at the same time, you create something new. And all my theory—my introspection and retrospection on the phenomenon of architecture and urbanism—derives from my improvisation and drawings during these lectures.

After the Cranbrook lecture, Le Corbusier was the guest of the Academy of Art’s Executive Secretary Richard Raseman and Instructor in Interior Design Rachel DeWolfe Raseman. The couple had both studied architecture at Cornell (Rachel Raseman was Cornell’s first woman architecture graduate) and resided at Academy Residence #3 across Academy Way from Saarinen House. In the morning, Le Corbusier continued by train to the next stop on his cross-country journey.

As the Detroit Free Press reported November 22, “With a few deft strokes Thursday, Le Corbusier, the famous French modernist-architect…sketched the vision that he sees through what is perhaps the most ponderous pair of eyeglasses ever fabricated.”

Le Corbusier in his famous eyeglasses at Cranbrook, November 1935. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Alongside an earlier lecture in April 1935 by Frank Lloyd Wright, the visit to Cranbrook by Le Corbusier was one of the highlights of the Academy’s first decade. Reflecting in his Annual Report to the Cranbrook Foundation, Richard Raseman wrote that:

The Le Corbusier lecture, although delivered in French, was a good show, and as he is a world figure we were well satisfied…the public must have agreed with us as these lectures [by Wright and Le Corbusier] were by far the best attended of any of our functions…men of this caliber are rare indeed.

To learn more about Le Corbusier and his visit to Cranbrook, sign up for the Center’s History of American Architecture: Cranbrook Visitors Lecture Series! For the next five weeks, I will be discussing visitors, like Le Corbusier, who have lectured at Cranbrook since the Academy opened in 1932. From Le Corbusier, Wright, and Alvar Aalto in the 1930s through to Jeanne Gang, Greg Pasquarelli, and David Adjaye in the 2010s, I will tell the story of American design through architects who’ve spoken at Cranbrook. Learn more and sign up on our website. “See” you Monday at 11:00am or 7:00pm EST for our first virtual lecture!

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

The Heartbeat of the Nation

In August 1989, Cranbrook became a National Historic Landmark. America’s highest designation for a place of outstanding historical significance, it was no small feat for Cranbrook to become Michigan’s twenty-second National Historic Landmark (there are only forty-two today). So, what exactly is a National Historic Landmark, and how did we become one?

National Register of Historic Places plaque on the Kingswood Campus. Photographs by Kevin Adkisson, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Statutory provision for historic preservation began in America in 1906 with the Antiquities Act, which was further developed by the Historic Sites Act of 1935. Administered by the Department of the Interior, this Act was enacted to document and protect sites of national significance. In 1960, the National Park Service began administering the survey data from the Historic Sites Act, and the National Historic Landmark designation was introduced.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 expanded the 1935 Act to local and state sites. This created the National Register of Historic Places, which began to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic resources. Many thousands of buildings have since been added to the National Register. In June of 1972, Cranbrook’s application was prepared by an Assistant Historian at the Michigan Department of State in Lansing, and the nomination was based on Cranbrook’s significance as a complete district of educational and architectural structures.

National Register of Historic Places plaque at Brookside.

To be eligible for designation on the National Register (a step below the National Historic Landmark status), the nominated site must have in its architecture, archeology, engineering, or culture integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.

National Register of Historic Places plaque at Cranbrook School.

In addition, sites on the National Register must meet one of four criteria: be associated with events in the lives of significant persons; embody distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction; represent work of a master and high artistic values; or have or be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history. Once these criteria are evaluated and met, the site may be listed.

National Register of Historic Places plaque at Cranbrook Institute of Science.

Cranbrook was added to the National Register in March 1973, and it was at this point seven National Historic Landmark signs were ordered to be placed at each of the original Cranbrook Institutions and on Cranbrook House. (Christ Church Cranbrook was included in the designation, even though it would formally split off as a separate entity later in 1973 with the formation of Cranbrook Educational Community.) In writing to inform us of the designation, Samuel Milstein at the Department of Natural Resources eloquently wrote that:

“The State of Michigan is very proud of the fact that the property is qualified for this designation. The National Register records the story of the Nation, and is a list of distinction identifying those properties by which present and future generations can sense the heartbeat of the United States.”

Letter from Samuel A. Milstein to Cranbrook Institutions, March 30, 1973. National Register for Historic Places Records.
Non-official National Historic Landmark plaque at Christ Church Cranbrook, on right. The official plaque was changed at some point.

This language echoes that of George Booth in speaking to Cranbrook School in 1928, in which he emphasizes the importance of finding the treasure at your feet, the building up of an ethos of service from the local to the national to the global:

“If we feel our first loyalty to our State and are determined in every way we can to enrich it; if we never fail to see that we must give; if we are resolved to strive only for that which is worth while, then will our State have a place in the Nation, of which we will all be proud. The stronger and more glorious each of the States may be, the stronger and more glorious the Nation; and hence, the better and finer our opportunity for service to the world.”

Address by George Booth given on “Founders’ Day” at Cranbrook School for Boys, October 26, 1928. Cranbrook Archives.

But of course, our story doesn’t end with the National Register. In June 1987, the Chief Historian of the National Park Service (NPS) wrote to Cranbrook’s president, Dr. Lillian Bauder, to inform her that they were studying the property to determine its potential as a National Historic Landmark. Only 3% of sites on the National Register of Historic Places receive the higher honor of becoming National Historic Landmarks.

National Register of Historic Places plaque at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

The designation process follows three steps: study, including a visit to the property; review by the NPS Advisory Board; and a decision of designation by the Secretary of the Interior. The study was completed in February 1989 and the Advisory Board made its recommendation to Secretary Manuel Lujan in May. Cranbrook was designated a National Historic Landmark in August 1989.

The Cranbrook House sign was swapped from a National Register of Historic Places sign to a National Historic Landmark sign, encompassing all of the Cranbrook district.

National Historic Landmark plaque for the entire Cranbrook Educational Community next to the front door of Cranbrook House.

The work of the Center for Collections and Research is embedded in the obligations of historic preservation in caring for and maintaining the community’s history, but also in articulating its meaning and value. Our mission nicely parallels the goals of the National Historic Landmark program. Even without such recognition, all who visit Cranbrook know it is a special place—but sometimes it is nice to have a plaque say so, too.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Winter at Cranbrook

As we start a new year, I thought I would share some winter scenes at Cranbrook from 105 years ago. In the Winter of 1916, Henry Wood Booth and his daughter Alice Booth Miller took a stroll around the grounds of a snow-covered Cranbrook Estate. The journey was documented in pictures now in the Estate Albums in Cranbrook Archives.

Henry Wood Booth and Alice Booth Miller on the trail between the Cottage and Cranbrook House, March 1916.
Henry Wood Booth and Alice Booth Miller on the road to the Service Court, just above the Sunken Garden, at Cranbrook House, March 1916.
Henry Wood Booth and Alice Booth Miller beside Tower Cottage (then known as the Summer Cottage and water tower), March 1916.
Henry Wood Booth and Alice Booth Miller on the arched bridge over the Mill Race, March 1916.
Henry Wood Booth and Alice Booth Miller at the Cascades (now the site of the Morris Mill), March 1916.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year from your friends at Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research!

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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