Musical Hassocks, Anyone?

While we celebrate Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith for their tenacity in getting their Frank Lloyd Wright house built and maintained, there are other aspects to their home ownership to entertain us.

Visitors enjoy coming into a home which is unlike most other FLW houses they have ever seen. This house is full of objects the Smiths collected, loved and placed pretty much where they remain now.  Instantly visitors feel this is a home, not just a house museum and that the personalities of the owners come across loud and clear.

Smith House Library. Photo Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research | Brett Mountain for SEEN Magazine.

Smith House Library. Photo Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research | Brett Mountain for SEEN Magazine.

The Smiths had a zest for life which filters through to this day.

The Smiths in March 1968.

The Smiths in March 1968. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

They were readers; they loved art, particularly ceramics and smaller sculptures they could place on the built-in cypress shelves.  At the far end of the living room where Smithy had his built-in desk you might spot a GE Stereophonic High-Fidelity Turntable and speakers. You might also see on the shelves beneath stacks of record albums.

The "entertainment center" of the Smith House, with its GE Stereophonic High-Fidelity Turntable and records stacked three deep on shelves added below the desk in the late 1960s. Hassocks in the foreground. Photo Cranbrook Center for the Collections and Research | Brett Mountain for SEEN Magazine.

The “entertainment center” of the Smith House, with its GE Stereophonic High-Fidelity Turntable and records stacked three deep on shelves added below the desk in the late 1960s. Hassocks in the foreground. Photo Cranbrook Center for the Collections and Research | Brett Mountain for SEEN Magazine.

The Smiths owned at least 400 albums and boxed sets ranging from spoken voice through the great musicals to opera and classical music, but the vast majority of their collection was dance music: The Smiths were dancers. Smith himself taught ballroom dance as a means to supplement his meager teaching salary as a younger man. In 1934 he served as president of Detroit’s Northern High School Alumni Association and chaired a semi-annual ball in the General Motors Building ballroom.

In those days, dance halls were everywhere, dancing was the great social activity of the 40s and 50s and easily accessible even to the penurious. Kathryn Watterson in her book Building a Dream quotes Sara Smith as mentioning at least one evening of dance in their young days at the Northwood Inn, a roadhouse in Berkley, Michigan famed for its dance floor and frog legs.

Writing down the names of the albums for cataloging purposes brought me right up against the music the Smiths enjoyed listening to. I can just see them dancing the Lindy Hop to Big Band leader Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing. Or maybe more adventurously the quickstep which is a lively, fast-moving dance for the fleet of foot. Something about the Smiths in photos tells me they could handle these dances. Here’s a clip of some So You Think You Can Dance competitors starting with a little Lindy Hop then Charleston then quickstep. All these dances are 4/4 time and fast: Sing, Sing, Sing (Quick step)

Your Guy Lombardo Melody album cover.

Your Guy Lombardo Melody album cover, one of many in the Smith’s record collection.

Guy Lombardo is another favorite. To these smooth, slightly jazzy tunes you would dance the foxtrot which by the 30s had slowed down from its fast pace. This was a dance invented in the Smiths’ lifetime by one Harry Fox.

If the Smiths got tired of 4/4 time they could find themselves a waltz, maybe to one of their Sing Along with Mitch Miller albums.

Sara and Melvyn Smith dance together in Smith House.

The Smiths dancing in their house on that glossy dance floor they were so proud of. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

They had a number of records called Dance Party.  I wonder…

Melvyn and Sara Smith on the dance floor

Melvyn and Sara Smith on the dance floor. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The Smiths left their house and their possessions intact, and through the great beneficence of their extended Smith and Towbes families, the Smith joie de vivre persists in a light-filled gem of a house. In their honor, let’s set up a dance floor outside, put on some big band music and dance by the golden glow of a Frank Lloyd Wright jewel box.

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

Sunscreen for Smith House: UV Window Film

Sunlight is the enemy of artwork and textiles. As the sun’s rays filter through unprotected windows, they cause fading. In addition to colors changing, sunlight can cause holes in fabric, paper to become brittle, plastics to fall apart, and wood to warp.

Woven Tapestry by Urban Jupena.

You can see the effects of light and heat from the windows on the woven tapestry by Urban Jupena in Smith House. On the left is the part exposed to sunlight, and on the right (folded back) is the underside that has been protected.

Recently, the Center had a Conservation Assessment for Preservation (CAP) done for the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House by ICA-Art Conservation. In the report, one of the recommendations was to protect the artifacts in Smith House from visible and UV light streaming in the wonderful floor-to-ceiling single-pane windows of the house.

Rear exterior view of Smith House.

Rear exterior view of Smith House.

To protect the house, we would either need to create storm windows to apply to the outside, put up shades on the inside, or apply a UV-blocking film to the windows. As you can imagine, the storm windows and shades would alter the look of the house, so they were rejected outright. The UV film, however, was something we could consider.

What we discovered is that not all films are created equal. There is dark film, light film, mirror film, frosted film – we needed a clear film that diffused 99.9 percent of the harmful ultraviolet light but still allowed natural daylight into the house. Every company promised theirs was the best and gave the most protection. How would we choose? This was a pretty long-term decision. We decided to turn to the experts.

When there is a question about the condition, the best environment for collections, or the damage caused by environmental factors, we turn to experts called conservators. We were able to find some studies of the effectiveness of window film by conservation experts published in the Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC) Newsletter: UV-Blocking Window Films for Use in Museums and the follow-up Aging Properties of Select UV-Blocking Window Films.

After we got through all the scientific talk about procedures and data and met with product representatives at the house, we landed on a film. Aging Properties of Select UV-Blocking Window Films stated that “CPFilms (Llumar and Vista) performed well according to all criteria used. None of the films tested showed a significant change in UV absorbance . . . Because this brand easily met all our criteria, it can be strongly recommended with regard to optical performance”

Llumar/Vista films had performed well in the conservation studies, they had the clear film we were looking for (SpectraSelect VS61 SR CDF), and we had a distributor/installer in the area: SRF Enterprises, Inc. William Kish, the owner, stood behind his product with an excellent warranty, personally acting as the installer of the film, and proof that the product lasted, in some installations, for up to 40 years.

Bill Kish of SRF Enterprises, Inc. installing window film in Smith House.

Bill Kish of SRF Enterprises, Inc. installing window film in Smith House. Can you tell where he has put the film and where he has not?

Other benefits of the film: you can still clearly see in and out of the windows; there is reduced glare from the sun; the textiles will last longer and book jackets can stay on (they were beginning to crumble and fade); and the house will be cooler in the summer. Finally, the windows will be safer. When Smithy installed the windows, they were not safety glass. With the film on the windows they now function as safety glass should one ever break (heaven forbid).

Rear exterior view of Smith House after the installation of the window Film.

Rear exterior view of Smith House after the installation of the window film.

All of this research for Smith House served us well– we decided to use it in the Studio at Saarinen House to protect the textiles on display in our 2019 exhibition Studio Loja Saarinen.

Bill Kish of SRF Enterprises, Inc. installing window film in Saarinen House Studio.

Bill Kish of SRF Enterprises, Inc. installing window film in Saarinen House Studio.

To learn more about conservation, you can read “What is a Conservation?” on the American Institute for Conservation and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation website or attend our free 2019 Bauder Lecture with Timothy Whalen, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, this Sunday, May 5, 2019 in de Salle Auditorium. Whalen will discuss the Getty’s conservation work in the tomb of Tutankhamen, repainting sculpture by Louise Nevelson, restoring building of Louis Kahn and other modern masters, and the future of conservation and cultural preservation.

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Garden Plans: A Tea House and Jacuzzi Gazebo

As we continue to research Cranbrook’s recently acquired Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House, new treasures keep popping up. When California landscape architect Thomas Church visited the Smiths in 1957 and sketched out changes to the grounds, he included a small Japanese garden due west of the house. From that point on, Melvyn Smith always pictured adding a small tea house or garden gazebo to the landscape.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture (including the Smith House) was deeply influenced and indebted to Japanese design: the country’s architecture, landscape, gardens, and art–Wright was one of the foremost collectors and dealers of Japanese prints in America. The Smiths too had a deep interest in Japan (perhaps inspired by Wright’s own interest) and hosted many Japanese visitors to their home over the years. Their photo albums are full of images of Japanese guests and holiday cards from Japanese friends, while in the house sit many items from Japan: sake sets, nabemono pots, and multiple cast iron Japanese teakettles.

Melvyn and Sara Smith in Kimono at Smith House 1968.jpg

Melyvn (Smithy) and Sara Smith in Kimono outside of their Frank Lloyd Wright home, March 1968. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Nothing, however, shows their interest as fully as plans drawn up in July 1965 for a Japanese Tea House to be built across their backyard pond. The design was by Taliesin Associated Architects’ William Wesley Peters, Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégé who managed Wright’s office following his death in 1959.

The small tea house, designed on a diagrid, centered on a hexagonal room with six triangular tables (forming a hexagon) surrounded by benches on two sides and tall french doors looking back to the Smith House. Immediately outside was an ample patio and trellis above. Across the rear of the tea house ran vertical louvered panels, pieced by Wright’s earlier design from the clerestory windows of the house. (This system of cut-out folding panels was incorporated in Peters’ 1968 sunroom addition to the main Smith House).

Whether the sunroom addition took funds away from the tea house, or the fact the Smith’s never owned this side of the pond, the 1965 tea house would remain unbuilt. After Melvyn Smith retired from teaching English at Detroit’s Cody High School in 1977 or 1978, he again took up the idea of building a tea house on the property. This time, it would be situated due west of the house where Thomas Church had suggested a Japanese garden and on land the Smith’s already owned.

Around 1980 Wesley Peters was again called in to do a design for the tea house. This version of the tea house was taller, featuring french doors flanked by brick walls set with glass openings. Behind the pavilion was a plunge pool for swimming. Peters was assisted in this design by Jon deKoven Hill, who joined the Taliesin Fellowship in 1938 and worked there off and on until 1996.

Smith fell ill in the Summer of 1984, at the same time revisions to his little tea house were being completed by a local architect or builder Ron Kelly. Perhaps in retirement the purpose of a tea house had changed from purely a place of beauty and repose: the latest versions, reviewed by Smith in the hospital, featured a Jacuzzi sunk within the center of the tea house.

Smith House Tea House c 1984 with changes by Ron Kelly and possibly Melvyn Smith

Plan of the Garden Gazebo with Jacuzzi at center, plunge pool at top right, and mechanical space top left. Adapted from plans by Taliesin Associated Architects, 1984. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Melvyn Smith died that summer. At his memorial service, William Wesley Peters spoke about the philosophy of architecture; how much Wright had enjoyed Smithy as a client; and paced out the spot for the newly redesigned Japanese tea house. “What else would your dad want me to be doing right now?” Peters asked Robert, the Smith’s only son, who had admired his father’s endless determination to beautify and ornament his dream house.

Although there was never any tea house or gazebo built on the property, fast forward to earlier this summer. As we were changing out light bulbs in the high soffits of a bedroom at Smith House, we found two Ziploc bags holding quite the surprise: An unfinished model of the tea house.

Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Cranbrook Center Collections Fellow

To learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and his lifelong relationship with Japan, the Smith’s tea house, and the traditional Japanese Chanoyu tea ceremony, join us next Saturday, August 25, 2018 for presentations and demonstrations at Cranbrook Institute of Science and the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House. I’ll be delivering a free lecture on Wright at 10:00am, followed by a presentation and Karesansui demonstration by Japanese Horticulturalist Chisato Takeuchi. In the afternoon, there are a few spots left for the 1:30 and 2:30 Chanoyu Tea Ceremony in Smith House presented by the Japan Society of Detroit Women’s Club. More information and registration is on our website.

 

 

Photo (Album) Friday

Over the past decade, digital photo albums have become commonplace. Although I enjoy seeing photos in digital albums, there is something magical about peering into the pages of a book constructed by someone decades ago. Here in the Archives we have many scrapbooks – from oversized books with newspaper clippings to school scrapbooks with photographs and ephemera related to sporting events, dances, and awards ceremonies.

Scrapbooks are a fundamental part of many of our manuscript collections – documenting the work and life of artists, educators, and scientists. The four scrapbooks in the Saarinen Family Papers contain newspaper clippings of Eliel Saarinen’s work, as well as photographs of family and friends in the U.S. and Europe.

I find that photographs and scrapbooks document life in a way that is unique to written correspondence. A letter provides detail to the reader or researcher, but a captioned photo provides visual representation and the details that were important to the creator. The Archives recently accessioned the Smith House Records, which includes 20 albums. The albums include artwork that the homeowners valued, as well as photographs of people enjoying their home. These images show what a fun couple the Smiths were – and how much they loved entertaining guests in their Wright home.

Smith Family album

A page from one of the Smith family albums, Dec 1970.

Henry Scripps Booth, youngest son of Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth, elevated the scrapbook to a new level with his series of 14 albums, titled “Pleasures of Life.” These albums celebrate travel, as well as family life here at Cranbrook from 1911-1940. The carefully constructed pages in the “Pleasures of Life” series include captions for nearly all the photos (penned by Henry), including one of a house party at Cranbrook House in 1915.

Pleasures of Life, Vol II

“House Party, Cranbrook House,” Pleasures of Life, Vol 2, 1915.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

NB: This weekend, 103 years after Henry captioned his photo of “House Party, Cranbrook House,” the Center for Collections and Research is hosting a gala fundraiser A HOUSE PARTY AT CRANBROOK. It will celebrate the three historic houses under the Center’s care, and honor the legacies of the families who built and lived in them. Hopefully someone takes photos for an album to be appreciated in another 100 years!

Eagle Scout Project in Smith House

This past March, the Center for Collections and Research was honored to host Kevin Wilburn, a Life Scout going for the rank advancement of Eagle Scout, as he performed his required service project.

https://www.scouting.org/programs/boy-scouts/advancement-and-awards/eagle

Eagle Scout badge from scouting.org

The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Scout Law. The ranks of the Boy Scouts are Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle. To receive the highest achievement rank in the Boy Scouts of America, a Life Scout must not only earn twenty-one merit badges but also perform an extensive service project. He must plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project helpful to any religious institution, any school, or his community.

Kevin’s project was to work with the book collection in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith House. It was especially great having Kevin work with the house, as Robert Smith, the only son of Melvyn and Sara, also achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in his youth (the Smith House collection contains his Eagle Scout uniform).

When Cranbrook acquired the Smith House late last year, we also acquired the extensive library amassed by the Smiths. The collection of more than 900 works ranges from books on Frank Lloyd Wright to Art in America and other periodicals, to yearbooks and popular fiction.

EagleScoutProject_Mar2018 (KevinWilburn) (2)

Kevin and his team working on the Smith House book collection.

On the day of the project, Kevin and his team of scouts and parent volunteers did an inventory of the books in the Living Room and the Study. They utilized a computer program which allowed them to gather all pertinent information about the books by simply searching the Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) or the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). They also took images of the books as well as any inscriptions found within. What they ended up with, after just one day working in only two rooms in the house, was a database of 658 individual titles. (Knowing how many more books are in the other rooms, maybe there are more than 900 books in the house…)

I recently asked Kevin his thoughts on the project over email:

LM: First off, what does becoming an Eagle Scout mean to you?

KW: I’ve been in Scouts for 11 years now there were times that I questioned my continuation in Scouts. However, on the cusp of this final accomplishment, I don’t regret staying on the path. It has been a lot of commitment and there is no substitution for the hard work required, but as a scout, I have had opportunities so few people get to have—just like doing this project. It is special to be part of the small group of Scouts that accomplish the Eagle Rank. I think the Scout program and achieving Eagle has made me a better person.

LM: Can you give me your overall impression of the Smith House?

KW: To me, I struggle with the words to describe the Smith House. It is truly a one-of-a-kind home and the attention to detail is absolutely marvelous. Whether it’s the striking color of the red tidewater cypress wood that forms the walls or the glistening flat skylights that illuminate the tight, yet airy library, this home is Usonian Style in its truest form. Additionally, there is such a great story to the Smith’s and how the house came to be that makes it even more special than the physical aspects.

LM: What motivated you to take on this project?

KW: The driving force behind this entire project was the fact that I was assisting in the preservation of a Wright-designed home. I’ve always had an appreciation for his work and have a personal interest in helping the preservation of his work. I never expected that I would have such a unique opportunity to combine my passion and interest so directly on my Eagle project—it was a truly special project. I really appreciate the opportunity Cranbrook provided me.

EagleScoutProject_Mar2018 (KevinWilburn) (1)

Kevin photographing one of the 658 titles cataloged during the one-day project.

LM: What was the hardest thing about the project?

KW: We had very unique requirements compared to many projects that are often construction based, so going into it I knew that getting people started on the cataloging process would be difficult and it probably took an hour for volunteers to get into a rhythm. It was also physically demanding, in some cases sitting or standing for hours at a time—luckily we were able to rotate some positions to help people with fatigue. In the end, the hardest part was it was a very long 10 hour day typing in book details into our cataloging software and photographing the books.

LM: What was your favorite part of the project?

KW: Planning to pursue architecture as a career, I’ve always been interested in Frank Lloyd Wright; so, my favorite part was to be able to do a project in one of his Usonian homes. It was also exciting during the cataloging process to see some of the personal connections of the Smiths with Wright.

LM: Any final thoughts?

KW: I want to thank Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, Leslie Mio, Associate Registrar, for supporting the project, and Lynette Mayman, Program Presenter, for being on-site during the project. I also want to thank the members of Troop 1005 that came out to support this effort. Finally, I want to thank Collectorz.com for donating the Book Collector software used to catalog the collection.

EagleScoutProject_Mar2018 (KevinWilburn) (4)

Kevin (fourth from the right) and some of his team of volunteers on the back patio of Smith House.

The Center for Collections and Research wishes Kevin the best of luck in achieving his Eagle Rank and would like to thank him and his team for the hours of work on this project.

Leslie Mio, Associate Registrar

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.

raseman002

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.

Smith House later

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

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