Frank Lloyd Wright’s Landscapes

While George Booth may have had carved “Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art” above the fireplace in his library, I’m not sure anyone adored nature as much as the inimitable Frank Lloyd Wright. Known for his organic architecture, his buildings are sited to be viewed as one with nature. Wright went so far as to say “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.

In the Fall of 1941, Richard Raseman (the Academy of Art’s Executive Secretary from 1932 to 1943) traveled to Wright’s winter home and studio, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona. In beautiful photographs he captured the balance Wright achieved between the desert landscape and architecture. In Raseman’s many photographs, foregrounds of cacti and sand with backdrops of mountains and sky form a nest for the rambling estate. Water also plays a part in these compositions, as it often did in Wright’s work.

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View of Taliesin West, Fall 1941. Richard P. Raseman, Photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

No Wright project is as associated with water as the Kaufmann House, “Fallingwater“, of 1936 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Last week, I had the honor to meet with the head Horticulturalist from Fallingwater, Ann Talarek. She was in town on the invitation of our friends at Lawrence Technological University, to speak to architecture students there and assist in ideas for the historic landscape of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Affleck House, owned by LTU. (A mere mile north of Cranbrook’s Woodward Avenue entrance, the Affleck House was completed in 1941 and Affleck’s son, Gregor Affleck, studied Painting, Design and Modeling at Cranbrook from 1944-45.)

Affleck House

View of Affleck House, c. 1945. Harvy Croze, Cranbrook Staff Photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

More than most historic house museums, for a Wright project the intimate association between site and structure means that maintaining the landscape is just as important as maintaining the building. When working on the landscape, you have to study both historic images and what you can see on the ground today. Ann let us know that one of the most important things you can do with a Wright landscape is to edit: “Keep the view sheds Wright would have been working with, editing out trees that may be pretty but block important views. It may be counter intuitive, but add by reducing.”

Today, the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research serves as the educational steward of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1950 Smith House, just a mile west of our campus. Ann also visited the Smith House, where she was impressed (as most visitors are) by the majestic canopy of oak trees surrounding the house and the dappled light they produce. Whereas the Affleck House has lost some of its view sheds, the Smith House still retains its open views toward the pond dredged by Melvyn Maxwell Smith. She also noted how architectural the landscape was: its perfectly placed pond, trees, and the arc of shrubs along the western end of the house.

Smith House with Farmland

Smith House, c. 1952. Courtesy of Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith Family Albums.

What’s impressive about the Smith House is the stuff inside: the fine and decorative art collection of things acquired and displayed by Mr. and Mrs. Smith, much of it from Cranbrook Academy alumni. After meeting with Ann and then looking through family photo albums of the house’s landscape, I realized that the grounds too were a project of the Smiths: he was constantly adding, cutting back, and reshaping the landscape. It’s most famous iteration may be an impromptu plan developed by the landscape architecture celebrity Thomas Church (for that story, sign up for a Smith House Tour!), yet like any site, the landscape has changed over the years.

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Smith House, c. 1975, with landscape attributed to Thomas Church. Courtesy of Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith Family Albums.

Ann talked at the Affleck House about how they might eliminate certain invasive species (as she has done at Fallingwater) or how trees might be cut back. At Smith House, she helpfully noted some trees nearing the end of life, but suggested the historic photographs be studied to figure out what the Smith’s wanted. “Unlike Fallingwater or the Affleck House, the Smith House is ultimately suburban. What we now call invasive species would have been considered fashionable in the 1950s and 60s, and in a place as personal as the Smith House, you have to consider what Mr. Smith would have done as much as what Wright would have planned.” It’s an interesting idea. I think the most important goal is to make the architectural, landscape, and personal stories of the Smith House dynamic, relevant, and beautiful for visitors. That, and, as Ann said, “Don’t let anyone plant anything that’s going to overrun Bloomfield Hills.”

– Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Harry and Nerissa Hoey’s Weekend Retreat

While cataloging some of the Ralph Rapson architectural drawings in our collection, archivist Gina Tecos and I discovered designs for “Longshadows,” a weekend retreat for Cranbrook School English teacher (and later Headmaster) Harry Hoey and his wife, Nerissa. Hoey came to Cranbrook in 1928, where he taught English until 1944 when he became Assistant Headmaster (1944-1950) and then Headmaster (1950-1964) of Cranbrook School. While the Hoeys lived on campus, first on Faculty Way, and later in the Headmaster’s House, they commissioned Rapson, along with fellow Cranbrook student Walter Hickey, to design a weekend vacation home in Metamora, Lapeer County.

Elevation by Ralph Rapson, 1939. The Ralph Rapson Collection, 1935-1954, Cranbrook Archives.

Coincidentally, I have been corresponding with the Hoeys’s granddaughter, Susan, regarding the disposition of her grandfather’s papers to Cranbrook Archives. In the course of this correspondence, I asked Susan about the home. While Rapson called the home “Longshadows,” the family called it “Hoyden.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “hoyden” means “a girl or woman of saucy, boisterous, or carefree behavior” and the word is sometimes used to mean just “carefree.” As Susan stated, “Somehow, though I have no way to prove it, I am guessing this word was in my grandmother’s [Nerissa] vocabulary. Anyway, it seems to fit the bill for a weekend/summer place.”

Susan’s mother has fond memories of the weekend house – as a five-year old girl when she walked up the hill to the house behind her mother, the forty acre property looked endless. She remembers falling in the wild strawberry patch and staining her dress, and playing with the girl across the street whose father tended the property for the Hoeys.

“Hoyden,” 1940. The Ralph Rapson Collection, 1935-1954, Cranbrook Archives.

The summer the house was completed (1940), the Hoeys began hosting numerous Cranbrook guests who wanted to see the midcentury modern design. Guests included Dorothy and Zoltan Sepeshy of the Academy of Art, Henry and Carolyn Booth, and of course numerous Cranbrook faculty.

Page from the Hoyden Guest Book, 1940. Courtesy Harry and Nerissa Hoey Family.

In a letter to fellow Cranbrook student Ben Baldwin, Rapson described the house as clad in red wood, left natural, with a flat roof. The house had three bedrooms, two fireplaces, and even a basement for storage and a play room. The house still stands today, though it has had some minor additions and has been painted. It is one of Rapson’s only Michigan designs. Hopefully, we will soon have additional photographs of the house, and perhaps even more stories about the relationship between Hoey and Rapson.

NOTE: Harry and Nerissa Hoey were well-loved at Cranbrook. He also served on the vestry of Christ Church Cranbrook. Not only was Harry an effective administrator, but he was one who led the school with kindness and compassion. On the birthday of each boy in the school, Hoey would greet them with them a “happy birthday,” and shake their hand into which he pressed a shiny penny! On his 85th birthday, Hoey’s former students surprised him by mailing birthday cards – each one with pennies – he received over 500.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

Three C’s: China, Cranbrook, and the Crane

It is generally known that our founder, George Booth, named our community “Cranbrook” after the Booth’s ancestral home in Kent, England. Even the portion of the Rouge River which flows through the property was called the “Crane” by the Booth family. I’m certain that Booth must have been aware of the derivation of the Cranbrook name, which began with the Old English words “cran broc” which means “crane marsh.” The spelling, which evolved over time from Cranebroca to Cranebroc then Cranebrok, eventually became Cranbrooke.

On a recent trip to China, I was surprised when I saw large bronze cranes at the Teng Wang Pavilion in Jiangxi province’s capital city of Nanchang. They reminded me of the crane iconography at Cranbrook. While I had previously noticed the use of cranes as a subject in Chinese paintings, I never really thought about their meaning. The Chinese have a symbol for everything including life, death, and immortality. Our guide informed us that the crane symbolizes good health, longevity, and auspiciousness to the Chinese people.

Photo taken at Teng Wang Pavilion, Nanchang, China, Jun 2017. Courtesy of the author.

A crane can also represent happiness and a soaring spirit. A crane that is shown outstretched wings and one leg raised stands for longevity while one shown flying towards the sun is illustrative of a wish or hope for social advancement. There is even a form of martial arts called the “White Crane Style” originated by the female martial artist Fang Qi Niang during the Qing Dynasty.

Back to Cranbrook! References to cranes have been widely used over the past 100 years, many in relation to Cranbrook School. Perhaps the most obvious is the use of The Crane as the title for the Cranbrook School for Boys school newspaper, which won by popular vote at the first meeting of the School League in 1928. (Today the paper is known as The Crane-Clarion since the merger with Kingswood School in 1985.) Below are block prints by Cranbrook School students found on the covers of the 1928 papers. In mid-March 1930, The Crane switched to a new format and instead of being mimeographed, was printed by The Cranbrook Press at the Academy of Art. To go along with this new format, a logo for the paper was designed, likely by art editor Alfred Davock.

The bronze crane inserts for the dining hall chairs for Cranbrook School (designed by Eero Saarinen) are still in use today. Henry Scripps Booth used the symbol of the crane as a directional marker on his architectural drawings. The Academy of Art Administration Building (designed by Swanson and Booth) features a crane brick pattern on the south façade of the building, and Eliel Saarinen designed two “bird motifs” for the bottom of the stairs at the First Arts and Crafts building. The drawings, in the collection of Cranbrook Archives, show Saarinen’s plan to use light and dark bluestone to delineate the body of the cranes with red slate for the eyes and black slate for the beaks. As recently as 1994, Katherine McCoy, co-chair of the Academy’s design department, developed the current Cranbrook community logo which features a contemporary symbol of the crane rising out of a large “C” for Cranbrook. It is shown below, alongside a humorous 1930 illustration for a column heading in The Crane.

While Cranbrook’s history with the crane may not be as long-standing as that of the Chinese, one might argue that we, too, have incorporated the crane into our community’s culture as a symbol not only of longevity, but one of respect for the legacy of our founders and our community’s heritage.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

Going Green: LED Lightbulbs at our Historic Houses

Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d talk about one way the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research is going green.IMG_7957In January 2014, there was a crisis among fans of incandescent light bulbs when the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 went into effect, banning the manufacture of incandescent 40- and 60- watt light bulbs. Some house museums were in a tizzy, and many purchased large stocks of incandescent bulbs to use in their historic fixtures with exposed bulbs—no one wants to see a distracting, spiraling fluorescent light bulb in a period room!

The feared depletion of our national stock of pretty light bulbs didn’t happen (there were lots of loopholes and legal challenges), but one intent of the ban—to force the lighting industry to make more efficient bulbs—was realized. Impossible just a few years ago, today there are energy efficient LED light bulbs that are completely satisfactory for use in exposed-bulb situations. After decades of using incandescent lighting, the Center has switched Saarinen House and parts of Cranbrook House over to LED.

LED, or light-emitting diode, bulbs are most praised for their energy savings, but being such an aesthetically minded place as Cranbrook, we have a few more concerns than the utility bill for our lighting:

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Maintaining the visual warmth of Saarinen House was vital; we wouldn’t have gone LED if it altered the aesthetic. Jim Haefner, photographer.

First is the color. When I told a coworker I was about to change the lightbulbs in George Booth’s Office in Cranbrook House to LED light bulbs, she was crestfallen. “They’re so blue and cold!” she lamented, something a lot of people fear with LED. It’s true, early LEDs were very blue and a far cry from the incandescent bulbs most people are used to (and prefer). But technology has changed, and now we have a range of light warmth to choose from. The spectrum of warmth is measured in kelvins, and incandescent bulbs are around 2400 K, while fluorescent tubes are 5000 K, and sunlight is 7000 K and up. We’ve chosen 2550 K bulbs for Cranbrook. As far as wattage goes, the lighting industry labels LEDs with their watt equivalents to incandescent, as that’s what we know. I used 25-watt incandescent equivalent bulbs in the office that actually use just 4 watts of power (and last, supposedly, 13+ years).

 

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From left: Incandescent bulb removed from Saarinen House fixtures; clear-style LED bulb used in exposed fixtures; LED bulb used in covered fixtures.

The next concern revolved around the look of the bulbs. You may be familiar with the energy efficient compact fluorescent bulb (CFLs) that have a spiral-type bulb—I don’t think anyone would want those in a chandelier. Even earlier LEDs were bulkier than standard incandescent bulbs because of the need for large conductors within the bulb to reduce heat gain—usually in the form a large white base between the glass and the screw threads. Today, you can buy a LED bulb in practically any shape or style with an internal conductor. The main difference between the LEDs we chose and the incandescent bulbs: when the bulb is off, the LED is a visible golden strip instead of a tiny metal filament, so you see a small yellow marking in the center of the bulb.

 

Beyond aesthetics and energy savings, there is the cost of the bulb itself. LEDs are getting constantly cheaper, but there’s a fairly big difference between the cheapest LEDs and the prettiest ones. Here at Cranbrook, when a bulb is not visible (for example, hidden by a solid lampshade), we’ve used cheaper LEDs in the same temperature and wattage as the fully clear bulbs we put in chandeliers and exposed fixtures. Either way, the energy savings should offset the costs within just a few years!

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Saarinen House aglow with LED bulbs inside and out, February 2017. Jim Haefner, photographer.

By switching to LED, we’re doing our part to help realize Cranbrook’s dedication to the environment laid out in the Cranbrook Educational Community’s most recent Strategic Plan; it states that “we commit to the well-being of future generations through our actions and behaviors.” Energy conservation is one simple way we’ve done this!

Kevin Adkisson, Center Collections Fellow

Special thanks to Assistant Registrar Leslie S. Mio for leading the LED Lightbulb conversion.

Stay Tuned…

Apologies for our tardiness! Due to the widespread power outage in Southeast Michigan, the blog will be delayed by a few days.

Postcard of the Mannleinlaufen (a mechanical clock that commemorates the Golden Bull of 1356) at the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Nuremberg, 1921. Courtesy, Cranbrook Archives, The Virginia Kingswood Booth Vogel Papers.

 

House of the Poet

In 1995 a project was initiated to create a living monument to honor Cranbrook’s dedication to poetic imagination. The project, House of the Poet, was to be built on the ridge overlooking Lake Jonah and would honor works of imagination in art, sciences, and letters. Architect and educator, John Hejduk (1929-2000), was commissioned to develop plans for the building.

Hejduk largely abstained from conventional practice, but is known for his drawings that were combined into poetic and often highly personal narratives. Despite completing relatively few buildings, Hejduk is considered one of the most influential architects and theorists of the twentieth century. In an essay about Hejduk, architect Andreas Angelidakis states, “His drawings and writings, his essential approach to architecture, continue to function as a blueprint for a practice without clients, commissions, or even realization. What he built was a world of images and words.”

Exterior drawing, House of the Poet. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Exterior drawing, House of the Poet. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Hejduk designed a house built on stilts that included a bedroom, bath, living room, dining room, and kitchen. The plan was to create a space where “esteemed visitors” to the campus could stay. The exterior consisted of stucco in green, red, blue, and gunmetal, with a zinc roof.

Sketch of Scheme 1: interior paneling.

Sketch of Scheme 1: interior paneling.

In the fall of 1995, architects Dan Hoffman and Jennifer Lee of the Cranbrook Architecture Office (CAO) worked towards the project’s completion. Faculty and students from the Academy of Art’s Department of Architecture would provide the majority of the labor for the construction of the building, continuing the tradition of the integration of arts and crafts in the original buildings on campus. The CAO created extensive cost estimations and budgets, and thoroughly researched available materials for the construction of the house.

Digital model of the House of the Poet - view from Academy Way with the sculpture of Jonah and Whale in the foreground.

Digital model of the House of the Poet – view from Academy Way with the sculpture of Jonah and the Whale in the foreground.

Project correspondence indicated plans to complete the building in time to coincide with a 1997 exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum honoring the work of John Hejduk. The project seemed set to move forward, however, due to lack of sufficient funding, was canceled.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

Special thanks to Rebecca Kallen (CKU ‘08) who contributed to the research of this blog.

Holiday Inspiration

Last week a researcher came to look for holiday inspiration in the Archives. As I was putting the materials away, I came across this lovely card by Academy of Art student, Alice Warren. The card piqued my interest and I did a little digging to learn more.

Holiday card from Alice Warren to Margueritte Kimball, 1947. Margueritte Kimball Papers, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Holiday card from Alice Warren to Margueritte Kimball, 1947. Margueritte Kimball Papers, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Inside design of holiday card from Alice Warren, 1947.

Inside design of holiday card from Alice Warren, 1947.

Warren, born in 1921, came to Cranbrook to study architecture with Eliel Saarinen in 1943-44. Warren’s father (Don) was a genetics professor, and her mother (Mira) assisted him with his lab work. In 1920 Don Warren, with Mira’s assistance, published three scientific papers about his genetic research of the fruit fly. Professor Warren went on to become a pioneer in poultry genetics, earning several awards and distinction in this field.

Alice Warren, like her parents, was a trailblazer. In 1942 she graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.S. in Architecture. In May 1943, she wrote to Henry Scripps Booth expressing her desire to come to Cranbrook for a summer session to “further [her studies] under Eliel Saarinen.” She received a letter of acceptance in June.

While at Cranbrook, Warren studied Architecture and City Planning. As part of a team (Annette Kite, painter and Eliza Miller, sculptor), her work was entered in the 1944 Rome Collaborative – an annual competition conducted by the Alumni Association of the American Academy in Rome. She later worked for Saarinen, Saarinen and Associates. Warren also met her husband, Fred Dockstader, while studying at the Academy. Dr. Dockstader taught history at Cranbrook School from 1943-52, and designed ethnological exhibits at Cranbrook Institute of Science in 1951-52.

Alice Warren working on her city planning model for Plymouth, MI, 1944. Photographer, Harvey Croze. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Alice Warren working on her city planning model for Plymouth, MI, 1944. Photographer, Harvey Croze. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Warren and Dockstader married on Christmas day, 1951. Dockstader was an anthropologist, art professor, and a noted authority on American Indian art. The couple worked together on several publications and also at the Museum of the American Indian in New York, where Alice was a staff architect, and Fred was the museum director from 1960-1975.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

Author’s Note: While researching Alice Warren Dockstader, I came across the finding aid for the Frederick Dockstader Collection at the Arizona Archives. One of the content notes describes holiday cards designed by Alice and Fred that incorporate their interest in Kachinas. You can see one of these on the Cranbrook Archives Facebook page!

The Skeptics Tale

The dichotomy of reading is much like the daily work undertaken in the archives. Reading, like research, can feel private, almost sacrosanct, something to escape to; on the other hand, there is a great draw to share the stories and information one discovers, seek commentary and comparison, enlighten someone’s thought process. As archivists, it is our job to assist researchers on their paths to discovery. Often times this direction and assistance leads us to insights as well. In fact, I have yet to assist a researcher along their path of inquiry without further developing my own along the way.

This was very much the case last week while I was scouring our collections for autumnal ephemera to add color to our Facebook followers’ harvest season. In my seasonally focused search I was delighted to come across Cranbrook’s very own ghost story—Cranbrook Boasts a Ghost; or, The Skeptics Tale, by Henry Scripps Booth (Thistle, as he was commonly known). I was intrigued and excited — what a timely discovery, what with Halloween just around the corner! And while I was enticed by the mystery, and enjoyed reading the descriptions of the vaulted spaces of St. Dunstan’s chapel [editor’s note: St. Dunstan’s is at Christ Church Cranbrook] filled with apparitions (a place I was lucky enough to tour, and you can too!) The Skeptics Tale, more importantly, reiterated an intrinsic truth about Cranbrook – that it is a space imagined and created by many minds and hands.

Christ Church Cranbrook, from "Highlights of Detroit". Cut by Eugene Reeber, Jefferson Intermediate School, 1932.

Christ Church Cranbrook, from “Highlights of Detroit”. Cut by Eugene Reeber, Jefferson Intermediate School, 1932.

Throughout the tale, I gained a sense of workmanship and craft, two features indicative of most spaces on Cranbrook’s sprawling campus. The characters in the tale pined over the construction of the brilliant structure, venerating its beauty as a testament to their commitment to their craft. It is, however, only near the end of the short story where I began to feel (if not see) the intentions of individuals who worked throughout the years to craft Cranbrook into the sprawling idyllic landscape of natural and man-made elements we know today.

“He discovered familiar faces in that strange assembly—faces of men who had lived and worked at Cranbrook. There before him was Tony by the column which bears his name; Mike Vettraino; Henry Booth, the coppersmith; his distinguished-looking father with the sideburns who brought the craftsman’s tradition from the ancient Cranbrook to this continent. There in the fourth chair of the fifth row: Milles, famed for his sculpture; a row or two behind, Saarinen, famed for his buildings; and nearby, Kirk, the silversmith.”

Though only apparitions in The Skeptics Tale, these individuals’ real accomplishments and contributions to Cranbrook, along with those of countless other influential men, women, and students, can be discovered through our collections. In the spirit of the season, we invite you to journey into our crypt and discover some of their stories yourself.

Belinda Krencicki, Associate Archivist

Upcoming Day Away: Albert Kahn and the University of Michigan

Henry Scripps Booth, photographer. Pleasures of Life, Vol. IV. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Henry Scripps Booth, photographer. Pleasures of Life, Vol. IV. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In this 1919 photo taken by Henry Scripps Booth of his two friends and architecture classmates Fred Morse and Martin Lexen, they’re all hanging out (and almost off of!) the roof of the University of Michigan’s brand new General Library by architect Albert Kahn. I found this snapshot in volume four of Booth’s Pleasures of Life series, which has lots of great images of the Booths at Cranbrook and of his friends at the university (where Henry studied from 1918- 1924). The building they’re sitting on here, known as the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library since 1971, figures prominently in the Center for Collections and Research’s next Day Away trip on October 28!

Henry Scripps Booth’s Scrapbook Album, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Dedication of the new (Hatcher) library building, 1920. Henry Scripps Booth’s Scrapbook Album, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

While we won’t be quite so daring as to dangle our feet off the roof, you are invited to join the Center as we explore Albert Kahn’s architecture at University of Michigan. Best known for his industrial architecture in and around Detroit (and of course Cranbrook House), this tour will introduce you to his academic buildings. The day includes morning lectures followed by in-depth tours of five Kahn structures (including rarely accessible spaces like the carillon in Burton Memorial Tower), all interspersed with narrated walks and drives.

I should mention, though, that the Day Away won’t just be about touring. We’ll stop for a delicious lunch at Taste Kitchen, an acclaimed new restaurant by owner and chef Danny Van. It came highly recommended by friends of the Center, and we’re very happy Van has designed a three course meal, with optional drink pairings, just for us.

Henry Scripps Booth, photographer. Pleasures of Life, Vol. IV. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Henry Scripps Booth, photographer. Pleasures of Life, Vol. IV. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In this photo, we see Booth’s friend Fred’s “long, lankey and lean” body around a street sign—with assistance from the bottom-half of another Cranbrook luminary and friend of Henry, J. Robert F. Swanson.* The photo shows the two goofing around on a road outside of Ann Arbor. For this post’s purposes, I’ll imagine they’re on the very route we’ll be taking from Cranbrook to Ann Arbor on October 28! There shouldn’t be any dangerous curves on our trip, though it’s guaranteed to be informative, delicious, and fun. Call and get your tickets today!

*Did you know Booth and Swanson met studying architecture at U of M, where they also encountered a certain visiting professor, Eliel Saarinen?

-Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Vitrolite: Better than Marble

At Saarinen House, the 1930 home of Eliel and Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook, the master bath is one of the best rooms in the house.

img_1580The bathroom is symmetrical, with his and hers sinks on either end of the room. The tile is off-the-shelf, not custom made for Saarinen, but deployed in an utterly unique way. In this post, I want to look specifically at the material of the countertops, Vitrolite glass.

Pigmented structural glass was developed at the start of the 20th century, and its first uses were in hospital, laboratory, and industrial food environments where its qualities of cleanliness, imperviousness, strength, and durability could be exploited. From institutional uses, structural glass took the next logical step into other places where sanitation mattered: bars, restaurants and restrooms.

 

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Vitrolite trade catalog, c. 1922, Courtesy of the Hagley Library Digital Archives

The first structural glass came out in 1900, Sani Onyx by the Marietta Manufacturing Company, but it was under the brand name Vitrolite that structural glass achieved its greatest success. Vitrolite was manufactured from 1908 to 1947, first by the Vitrolite Company, and after 1935, by the Libby-Owen-Ford Company (both out of Toledo, Ohio).

At first, structural glass was manufactured only in black or white, colors befitting its promotion as an alternative to marble (Pittsburgh Plate Glass’ Vitrolite rival was called Carrara Glass, after Carrara marble, and Vitrolite’s sometime slogan was “Vitrolite: Better Than Marble.”) In its 1922 promotional material “Vitrolite Sanitary Tables and Counters,” the company claims that the products “delightfully cool, bright surface is just the place to serve palatable drinks and dainties. It keeps clean— nothing stains it and it just wears and wears.”

img_1585The sanitation and durability arguments likely appealed to Eliel Saarinen as he specified white Vitrolite for the master bathroom, but he was probably also drawn to its aesthetic potential: a single, seamless, and uniform surface for the countertop. It offsets the grid of the bathroom tile beautifully, providing a place to rest both your toothbrush and your eye.img_1590

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Correspondence concerning Saarinen House Vitrolite bathrooms, from our Archives

Installed by the plumbing contractor Robert Purcell, the sink bowls are vitreous china set beneath the Vitrolite counter. It’s likely that the oval for the sink basin was cut out of the Vitrolite by hand by Purcell’s team, and if you look at the result, it’s not a perfect oval—this isn’t your machined Corian countertop! In a house (and on a campus) where craftspeople are often celebrated, it’s neat that the bathroom counter’s utterly modern material still reflects the hand of the maker.

 

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Colors of Vitrolite from 1936, published in “52 Designs to Modernize Main Street with Glass,” Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co., Courtesy of the Winterthur Library, Printed Book and Periodical Collection

Once Vitrolite bcame available in an array of colors and patterns, its aesthetic potential boomed. After its purchase by Libby-Owen-Ford in 1935, the glass was heavily marketed towards architects for its use in building facades, particularly for remodeling storefronts. In many design competitions and promotional literature, Vitrolite was sold as a way of “Modernizing Main Street,” a quick way to freshen up old buildings. Its these flashy, Art Deco facades that stand out in structural glass history, but it’s nice to remember its humbler, utilitarian beginnings.

 
One final note on the Saarinen House countertops: where are the faucets?! Look inside the sink, the water came out of the small bump at the top of the bowl itself. I hope they had great water pressure.

 

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Back cover of “Vitrolite Sanitary Tables and Counters,” c. 1922

-Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

 

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