The Smiths and World War II

World War II caused global upheaval and change. Closer to home, two schoolteachers from Detroit—Melvyn and Sara Smith—and their dream of building a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright would have to wait for war.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Sara Smith recalled her husband’s concern: “One day he confessed to [me] that in addition to his worries about the catastrophe the country was facing, he felt if there was a war, that also would be the end of his Frank Lloyd Wright house.”

Melvyn Maxwell Smith’s draft card, 1942. Source: Ancestry.com. U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

In February 1942, Melvyn Maxwell Smith was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. “Smithy thought about being a conscientious objector because he didn’t believe in wars,” recalled Sara, “but the more he thought about it, the more he decided he would have to go. ‘We want peace and I’m going to do what I can to help,’ he told me.” The thought of Smithy going off to war weighed heavily on Sara. They had only been married a short time, and now they were being separated.

Smithy was sent off to training, first at Fort Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan, then Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, and finally Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Smiths could only see each other during school vacations (Sara was still teaching) or holidays, provided Smithy was not shipped off to the front.

Melvyn (circled in back row) and other officers, circa 1943. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

In Atlantic City, Smithy was offered the opportunity to train as a Warrant Officer in the Army Air Corps. He would be sticking around Atlantic City for a while and, with an officer’s salary, Sara could finally join him. At Christmas 1942, “[Sara] boarded the night train to Atlantic City and her new life.”

Sara and Melvyn Smith in Atlantic City, 1942. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

After Atlantic City, the Smiths were relocated to Goldsborough, North Carolina. Sara and Smithy lived in a studio apartment in an Army project. Sara enjoyed living there, commiserating with all the other Army wives. Since they were all typically newly married and removed from their families, the wives helped each other. “The women, on their own during the days, supported each other by sharing supplies and tips and small and large acts of kindness.”

Warrant Officer Melvyn Maxwell Smith. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

It was in Goldsborough that Sara became pregnant with her son Bobby. When she was seven months pregnant, Smithy was transferred to Gulfport, Mississippi. Sara was sure this would mean Smithy would be shipped to the front. Smithy worried too, so he asked Sara to return to Detroit and her family for the birth of their baby, instead of following him to Mississippi. While Sara was in Detroit awaiting the birth of Bobby, Smithy was again transferred, this time to Biloxi, Mississippi, for which the Smiths were happy. It meant not being overseas.

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Carter for President

Recently, I discovered a few objects that had belonged to Melvyn or Sara Smith, the builders of our Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House. They were from 1976 — the year of the United States Bicentennial and a presidential election.

I discovered that the Smiths were supporters of soon-to-be President Jimmy Carter. Since we just had our presidential primary here in Michigan, I thought they were appropriate to share. 

So, why were the Smiths such big supporters of Carter? They were supporters of the Democratic Party in general.

Their son Robert Smith was the National Director of Youth Affairs for the Democratic Party in the 1970s. Melvyn and Sara held fundraisers at their home for Democratic candidates. Melvyn was a member of The President’s Club of the Democratic Party. And the Smiths attended the Inauguration of Jimmy Carter in 1977.

Melvyn and Sara Smith's invitation to the Inauguration of President Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, January 20, 1977. Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Melvyn and Sara Smith’s invitation to the Inauguration of President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale, January 20, 1977. Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

The A-maize-ing Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright, architect of the Smith House, called it his “little gem.” Many of his apprentices considered it one of the best examples of Wright’s Usonian style. So it should come as no surprise that he liked to stop by and see the Smiths when he was in Detroit.

On a visit in 1953, a luncheon was organized by Mary Palmer, Elizabeth Affleck, and Sara Smith. The Smith House was to be the site of the event. Sara Smith recalled the event in her biography, Building a Dream: The Sara Smith Story by Kathryn Watterson.

“‘Mary called me and Elizabeth Affleck and we decided to have a luncheon at my house,’ Sara says. ‘I had just been to the store and I had bought a whole lot of corn on the cob and much more fish than I could possibly use in a week.'”

The luncheon also consisted of lamb and some salads, but it was Sara’s corn that was a hit. “‘[Wright] said that one of his favorite foods was corn on the cob, and he helped himself and came over here to the built-in lounge.'”

Frank Lloyd Wright lunches on corn-on-the-cob at Smith House.

Frank Lloyd Wright lunches on corn on the cob at Smith House in 1953. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Smith Family Papers.

The funny thing was, of all the people at the house for the luncheon, no one was sitting with Wright. “‘Frank Lloyd Wright was sitting toward the end of the lounge alone and no one came near him. No one was talking to him. Then he said, ‘Isn’t anyone going to sit with me?””

“‘So some people moved in. But they didn’t stay. They would go over and say a word or two and walk away. People just don’t seem to want to go up to a genius or a great person. I don’t know whether it’s fear of something else.'”

Sara Smith in her kitchen, August 19, 1976. Photo by Joyce Seid.

Sara Smith in her kitchen, August 19, 1976. Photo by Joyce Seid. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Smith Family Papers.

“‘At the time, I was in the kitchen taking care of the dishes and the thought came to me, ‘Sara, you’re doing a Mary-Martha.’ In the bible story, Martha was the one who was always staying in the kitchen mumbling and grumbling because Mary didn’t help her. Well, there I was in the kitchen pulling a Mary-Martha, and the thought came, ‘What are you doing in the kitchen? Get in there and talk to that man.’ So I did.””

Sara and Wright discussed a number of things, including shadows and how Wright used them to best position a house to take advantage of the sun’s energy. “‘It was very interesting,’ she says, ‘and I was so grateful that I had gone over to sit with him. While we were talking, I asked him, ‘Mr. Wright, what do you consider to be your greatest design you ever made?’ His replay was ‘Why, the next one.'”

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Note: Public tours of Smith House are offered from May through November. For information about private and group tours, please contact the Center at 248.645.3307 or visit us online.

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

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.

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

Frank Lloyd Wright & Cranbrook

With the strong lineage of Modern masters here at Cranbrook, it is no surprise that Frank Lloyd Wright has some relationship to the campus and its history. As a renowned architect, Wright had many projects all over Michigan from Kalamazoo, Okemos, Benton Harbor, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Bloomfield Hills. Many of these homes came out of his “Usonian Architecture.”

FLW ext rear daylight-dc2

Photograph by James Haefner ©

The term Usonian means “of the United States,” and was used by Wright to emphasize his architecture as uniquely American, specifically the American Midwest.  The Usonian style was Wright’s solution to the rise of suburbia where people moved outside of cities. This was his solution to what he deemed “the small house problem,” a direct response to post war needs and the growing necessity of affordable and comfortable homes.

FLW ext front dusk-dc2

Photograph by James Haefner ©

Partnering with The Towbes Foundation, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research will be providing tours of one of Wright’s Usonian homes in Bloomfield Hills, the Melvin Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith House. Known as “My Haven” by the owners, Wright called the house, “my little gem.” Designed in 1946 and completed in 1950 the home is a great example in Wright’s oeuvre of a Usonian home.

Another of Wrights’ Usonian homes within Bloomfield Hills can also be connected to Cranbrook.   Commissioned by Gregor S. Affleck, a chemical engineer who invented an automotive fast-drying paint, the Affleck House was completed in 1941. Affleck’s son, Gregor Porter Affleck, attended Cranbrook Academy of Art and studied Architecture with Eliel Saarinen from 1944-1945. In 1978, the Affleck children donated the house to Lawrence Technological University.

FLW073

Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Foundation Records.

Saarinen and Wright were colleagues who supported each other in the field of Architecture, at least as much as two established architects with considerable egos could get along. Wright visited Cranbrook at least three times, for lectures in 1935, 1936 and 1937. All were sold out to standing room only.

The Melvin Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith House will be open for tours May – October on one Friday and one Sunday of each month. For more information on the tours, please visit our website.

Stefanie Dlugosz-Acton,  Collections Fellow, Center for Collections and Research

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