Cranbrook, Unseen: My Senior May Experience

When I first visited Cranbrook on a snowy January day, the campus felt magical. I knew nothing about its history—not of the Booths, Saarinens, Milles. Yet when I pulled open the heavy leaded glass doors and stepped into a green-tiled lobby, I was in awe of its beauty.

Desai Wang, CKU ‘19, with Jim Miller-Melberg’s Porpoise play structure at the Cranbrook Middle School for Boys.

Desai Wang, CKU ‘19, with Jim Miller-Melberg’s Porpoise play structure at the Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School for Boys. Photo Kevin Adkisson.

For the past three years, I have been fortunate to study here and to call Kingswood dorms my home. The names previously foreign now ring close to heart.

Or do they?

As senior year came to a close, I realized that perhaps my understanding was no more than the facts handed to Gold Key student tour guides. I knew “the names,” and roughly, their accomplishments, but not why; I did not know their stories.  

I knew I wanted to use my Senior May Project to better understand Cranbrook. My wish was vague, and if asked to define it I probably would have said something about wanting to learn more about the buildings and “the names.” As my three-week internship with the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research comes to an end, I think my time working with Mrs. Mio and Mr. Adkisson can be summarized by one word: unseen.

I finally toured Cranbrook House, Saarinen House, and the Smith House, and the past three weeks were filled with discoveries of details I never noticed before. However, I think the most important thing the Center gave me is a change in perspective.

Previously, my interest rested directly on what was visible: the existing architecture, their designers and their history. But, as trips to Cranbrook Archives proved, plans unbuilt are just important as those built. I saw George Booth’s plan for a school attached to Christ Church, Saarinen’s original designs for the Institute of Science and Academy of Art (only parts were realized for both), the multi-story elevations for Gordon Hall of Science, and a guest house proposed by John Hejduck that would have sat behind Lake Jonah.

Further, I was introduced to Cranbrook beyond its schools and museums. I joined Eastern Michigan University historic preservation students as they surveyed Tower Cottage and Lyon House. The former previously hosted a water tower, Cranbrook’s fire truck, and apartments that were in use through the 1980s. The latter was a family home built in the 1920s and acquired by Cranbrook almost twenty years ago. Both historic buildings have been repainted many times, so a paint analysis was performed. I found the process of slicing out small pieces of the buildings, analyzing them under a microscope, and studying the layers of paint and dirt to determine original colors, exciting. For the Tower Cottage window frames, layers of green appeared under the current brown.

Ron Koenig, the owner of Building Arts & Conservation, takes samples of paint on the window frame at Tower Cottage.

Ron Koenig, the owner of Building Arts & Conservation, takes samples of paint on the window frame at Tower Cottage. Photo Desai Wang, CKU ’19.

Most importantly, I saw Cranbrook from behind the scenes. I spent some of my first week scanning photographs and slides of Andrea Arens, a local artist who wove pillows for the Smith House.

Slide of Andrea Arens's pillows on display on the bench in Smith House. Courtesy Arens Family.

Slide of Andrea Arens’s pillows on display on the bench in Smith House. Courtesy Arens Family.

Yet the small stack of material I digitized is nothing compared to the cabinets after cabinets of pictures and files stored in the Archives. Just thinking about the amount of time it took to digitize my small binder sends a shiver through my spine about how much work it takes to digitize records, and about just how vast the collections of Cranbrook Archives are.

Scanning aside, at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House Mr. Adkisson, Mrs. Mio and I cleaned the Smiths’ exterior cabinets and organized a closet full of their pamphlets and magazines. We vacuumed and moved around artworks so UV protection film could be installed on windows to prevent further textile damages.

One day, we drove to Ken Katz’s conservation studio in Detroit to deliver a wood panel painting, a lamp, and a jade piece—all in need of restoration. Mrs. Mio and I applied inventory numbers to George and Ellen Booth’s silverware and china, and we even scrubbed Menelaus with Elephant Snot (a cleaning product).

Ken Katz, Mrs. Mio, and Mr. Adkisson discuss restoration plans for the painting on wood panels— Flora, Ceres, Pomona (Three Goddesses) by Corrado Scapecchi.

Ken Katz, Mrs. Mio, and Mr. Adkisson discuss restoration plans for the painting on wood panels— Flora, Ceres, Pomona (Three Goddesses) by Corrado Scapecchi. Photo Desai Wang, CKU ’19.

Desai, brushing Elephant Snot onto Menelaus.

Desai, brushing Elephant Snot onto Menelaus. Photo Leslie Mio.

I feel privileged to have organized items in a Frank Lloyd Wright house-museum, handled art created by famous painters, sculptors and ceramicists, and labeled plates and spoons that were used by the Booths. Above all, I am grateful to have met some of the people who dedicate themselves to preserving and sustaining Cranbrook’s history and beauty.

Desai, applying removable adhesive on Booths’ saucers to attach inventory numbers.

Desai, applying removable adhesive on Booths’ saucers to attach inventory numbers. Photo Leslie Mio.

Mr. Adkisson, at Smith House, organizing Smiths’ pamphlets, brochures and magazines.

Mr. Adkisson, at Smith House, organizing Smiths’ pamphlets, brochures and magazines. Photo Desai Wang, CKU ’19.

Three years ago, I opened a door that led me to Cranbrook, and to my interest in its past. Three weeks ago, I opened a door that led beyond history and urged me to see the present. I leave here with “the names,” some stories, but most importantly, acknowledgment and appreciation of the ongoing work that keeps this place running.

Desai Wang CKU ‘19

Editor’s NoteThe Senior May Project is a school-sponsored activity that encourages Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School seniors to acquire work experience in a field they are considering as a college major, a potential profession, and/or as a personal interest.

A native of Xi’an, China and Ann Arbor, Desai Wang has been a boarding student at Cranbrook since 2016. This fall, she will head off to Cornell University to study architecture. We thank her for her willingness to assist in projects across campus and her enthusiasm for Cranbrook history. We wish her luck as she embarks on another chapter of her life!

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

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

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