New Archival Collection: the Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers

Cranbrook Archives is delighted to announce that the Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers are now open for research. This archival collection was acquired as part of the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House, which was donated to Cranbrook in 2017 by the Towbes Foundation with assistance from Anne Smith Towbes. Melvyn and Sara were schoolteachers who dreamed of building a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home – a dream that was realized in 1950. They cherished their dream home and adorned it with art objects which they bought from local artists, including Cranbrook Art Academy students and artists-in-residence. Over the years they welcomed many visitors, students, and guests into their home, including Frank Lloyd Wright himself and the landscape architect, Thomas Church.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s entry in the Smiths’ guest book, 1951. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The collection documents the personal and professional life of the Smiths, as well as their many contributions to the community through patronage of the arts, including theater and performing arts. It documents the construction and adornment of the house, as well as its preservation as a historic home and renovation under the Towbes Foundation. It also contains a rare and unique collection of news clippings and periodicals, spanning from 1937 to 2016, about Frank Lloyd Wright and his work .

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Letter from Sara to Melvyn Smith, July 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Melvyn Maxwell Smith aspired to be an architect. After graduating Northern High School in Detroit, Michigan, he was accepted into the School of Architecture at the University of Michigan. However, due to the economic depression, his parents suggested he attend Wayne University College of Education until his brother had completed his degree in dentistry. Much inspired by an English teacher, Miss Boyer, in his first semester, Melvyn decided to pursue a career in teaching, and remained at the university to pursue a doctorate. Melvyn’s architectural aspirations were instead to manifest in his life in quite a different way than he had first anticipated. In an art history class taught by Jane Betsey Welling, Melvyn learned of Frank Lloyd Wright. This was the beginning of a lifelong love of Wright’s work and the pursuit of Melvyn’s dream home. After graduating, Melvyn became a teacher at Cody High School in Detroit, where he remained for his entire career of 38 years. He later became a board member of the Wayne State University Alumni Association and created the Betsey Welling Memorial Court for which he donated the sculpture, In Lieu, by Robert Schefman.

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Melvyn, Sara and Robert Scheffman in front of Scheffman’s sculpture, In Lieu, at Wayne State University, 1977. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Sara Evelyn Stein was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Detroit during her childhood. She met Melvyn at the B’nai Moshe Sunday School in 1937 and they were married in 1940. Sara had dreamed of being an actress, but she too joined the teaching profession and trained to be a kindergarten teacher. As it had been for Melvyn, Sara’s theatrical aspirations were fulfilled in a different way than her young mind had envisioned, namely an enthusiasm for teaching the performing arts to others. She was deeply involved in community theaters, including the Popcorn Players at Birmingham Community House and the Cranbrook Theatre School. Both Melvyn and Sara were passionate supporters of all the arts and actively worked to cultivate and sustain the arts in Detroit, Bloomfield Hills, and the surrounding communities.

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Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House, August 1960. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Sara shared Melvyn’s dream of a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home. In 1941, they traveled to Lake Louise and Banff National Park in Alberta. Their journey took them through Wisconsin, where they were able to visit Taliesin, the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, and meet with the architect himself. Melvyn later recalled that during the visit, Wright had advised him to find land that no one else wants because it will likely have an interesting natural feature. In 1942, Melvyn joined the US Army and it would be 1946 before he returned to Detroit. Sara was able to join him for much of the time and their son, Robert “Bobby” Nathaniel Smith, was born in 1944. Having located a property upon which to build their home on Ponvalley Road in Bloomfield Township, they began work in 1949. The house was completed in 1950, and Wright visited the house for the first time in 1951, calling it “My Little Gem.” He visited several more times – among the highlights of this collection are his entries in the guest books. Also included in the collection are two books signed by Wright (there are more than 900 books in the Center’s cultural properties collection at Smith House, which may be made available for research in the Archives reading room by request).

The Smiths welcomed countless guests and visitors to their home, providing house tours for local community groups as well as architectural schools. The collection also contains an abundance of thank you letters in gratitude for the hospitality of the Smiths. Many visitors thank Sara for her gift of sharing joy.

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Letter to Melvyn and Sara Smith from Wayne State University Theatre, 1973. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers tell the story of the Smiths’ home and of the lives of the couple who dreamed the home. The Smiths were not only teachers in the classroom: through their tenacity, generosity, and sheer joy of living, they inspired countless people who visited their home or met them through their artistic and philanthropic endeavors. As the Smiths’ home is preserved just as it was when they lived in it, their zeal to share and teach is perpetuated. This collection is a fine example of how the team at the Center for Collections and Research works together to tell the story of Cranbrook through historic houses, cultural properties, and archival materials.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House is a must-see. Find out more about house tours here. If you’ve already been, consider going again in a different season to see the changing blend of architecture and nature that is pure Frank Lloyd Wright.

–Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

 

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

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