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.

 

 

Edna Vogel: Cranbrook’s Other Wright Weaver

Researching in the Archives before a big tour, I came across an interesting person whom I earmarked to come back and examine further. I already knew Loja Saarinen wove textiles for Frank Lloyd Wright, but Edna Vogel’s story of weaving for Wright intrigued me; it turned out there was a bit more to learn about Edna Vogel.

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Edna Vogel in her weaving studio, July 1942. Joe Munroe, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Edna Vogel (1901-1953) grew up in St. Louis and studied at a teacher’s college and then Washington University in St. Louis. She wasn’t in love with teaching elementary school, but she did like making costumes, so in the early 1930s she went to New York to study dress design. Not finding the cloth she wanted in stores led her to discover an interest in weaving, and weaving led her to Cranbrook for summer courses in 1939.

Vogel studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art for four summers and two regular academic years, earning her MFA in May 1943. Like so many Academy students, Vogel bounced between disciplines, studying weaving with Marianne Strengell, ceramics with Maija Grotell, and working in the metals shop. She spent most of her time in the ceramics studio, with Grotell commenting in 1941 that Vogel had a “very fine understanding for color and form” and that “her technical research and discoveries are exceedingly valuable.”

Vogel Detail

Ceramics and place-mat by Edna Vogel, made as a student at Cranbrook. Detail of a photograph, June 12, 1941. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In the early 1940s, Vogel moved into the carriage house of Bloomfield Hills socialite Kate Thompson Bromley, who kept detailed diaries that include information on Vogel’s work and travels. 

Vogel worked in the carriage house with two assistants between three looms (small, medium, and very large), she began weaving placemats, pillows, fabrics, and rugs. The largest rug Vogel wove was for architect Albert Kahn, in a Swedish style, and she wove others for Kahn’s family. She also wove the rugs for Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1941 Gregor Affleck House in Bloomfield Hills. Wright instructed Affleck to use long, strip-like rugs for his living room in order to leave much of the concrete floor exposed. Affleck, who may have met Vogel through Grotell or Bromley, commissioned rugs from her sometime in the early 1940s.

Thrilled with receiving the commission, Edna Vogel set off in her car towards Wisconsin and Wright’s estate, Taliesin. Approaching Taliesin, she became nervous that the famous Wright would not want to see her without an appointment. She ended up knocking on the wrong door of the house, introduced herself to an apprentice, and, to her surprise, being taken into a meeting with Wright. He seemed charmed—with both her and her ideas for the Affleck House rugs. He was so impressed by Vogel that he invited her to come and work at Taliesin as both weaver and ceramicist.

She stayed for a long weekend, but as remembered in Mrs. Bromley’s diaries, Vogel’s chief complaint with Wright’s work centered on his interest in providing functional architecture but not always functional furnishings. Wright did not, Bromley wrote, “aim to make a house and furniture one unit as at Cranbrook,” and so Vogel decided to return to Michigan and remain at the Academy. She completed the rugs for the Affleck House, and at a visit to the house later, Wright’s wife Olgivanna commented that the rugs were the “finest she had ever seen.”

affleck

Edna Vogel’s rugs for the Gregor Affleck House, c. 1941-45. Courtesy of Lawrence Technological University.

At the end of the 1940s, after exhibiting ceramics internationally and producing textiles for homes, Vogel moved to New York. She wanted a place to find new inspiration and focus on her weaving. In South Salem, about thirty-miles north of New York City, she bought a former school house with a first-floor residence and an open studio large enough for her 12-foot loom on the second floor. She produced rugs of various sizes that were noted for their painterly, subtle uses of color, and she maintained an extensive collection of yarns from around the world. Tragically, Vogel died of smoke inhalation in 1953 when a chimney fire spread to her yarn storage.

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Rug by Edna Vogel, displayed at Cranbrook. Photograph, July 30, 1942. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

We have just a few images of Edna Vogel’s works in our archives and I found only a handful more in periodicals in the Art Academy Library. If you know more about her, or where her work lives on, let us know in the comments or at center@cranbrook.edu.

– Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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

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