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.
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.
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.