Making History on Lake Michigan

Nationally significant home lovingly restored to its former glory // Photography by James Haefner
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Not all online searches for lakefront living lead to such a high-caliber home, but that is precisely what happened with this architectural gem in Harbor Springs. Designed by famed architect Richard Meier and completed in 1973, the stunning Douglas House (named after the original owners) defies all odds with its stark white exterior perfectly perched on a steep bluff with sweeping views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding landscape.

In addition to its prominent past, the award-winning home now has a splendid present and a bright future due to a true labor of love by the current caretakers, retired executives Michael McCarthy and Marcia Myers, who acquired it in 2007. Despite the deteriorated condition upon their arrival, the couple fell hard for the compelling architecture and striking aesthetic as well as the spectacular lakefront setting. Since then, they have taken on a number of major restorations to update key features like the expansive windows, the entry bridge and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

The Douglas House was built on a steep forested sand dune overlooking Lake Michigan.

While the roughly 3,000-square-foot structure currently serves as their primary residence, it will become an operating foundation at some point in the future. “There is a responsibility to be good stewards of history and share the Douglas House with architectural visitors,” said McCarthy, who described their unique find as “pristine, architecturally perfectly integrated, art forms within an art form.” From the soaring three-story living room to a series of outdoor decks, there are plenty of places to sit and savor the surroundings while soaking up the breathtaking views. Outside, steps and a tram lead to the spacious private beach below.

Though McCarthy and Myers clearly appreciate that the Douglas House is considered one of the 100 most iconic private homes in the world, they didn’t realize how significant it was until after their purchase. “It’s an architectural icon and we’re the new stewards of this world-famous place,” McCarthy said. “We needed to do it right by bringing in the right creatives and skilled trades.”

To say the restoration logistics were complicated would be an understatement, but the couple forged ahead as planned with safety as a top priority for workers who had to access the home with a 40-degree slope. Creative engineering took them through what McCarthy calls the triage phase that allowed them to address the necessities like roofing and siding. That led them to the point where they can now choose the sequence in which they do the remaining work. The original project architect Tod Williams has been known to refer to the present condition of the house as being better than new.

Architect and artist Richard Meier was famous for his use of geometric design and the color white in his constructions.

A WORK OF ART

While they enjoy a relatively quiet life that includes baking bread, cooking meals and going for walks, as stewards of the Douglas House the couple feels a responsibility to share their historic environment with architects and students from around the world. During these visits, Myers, an art history major, serves as the onsite historian. “I’m in awe of the brilliant composition of the house,” she said. “For Richard Meier to do that at such a young age is really a rarity. Though he built off (Le) Corbusier (a Swiss-French architect considered a pioneer for modern architecture in the 20th century), it’s still impressive how quickly he adapted that.”

Their entertaining tours often conclude in the ultimate outdoor setting. “We take people up on the rooftop deck for a 180-degree view,” said Myers. “The sunset is spectacular.” Whether recalling a particularly memorable celebration following a day of helicopter shots for the “Michigan Modern” book that features the Douglas House or hosting their neighbors who offer to bring everything just to sit on the roof, their occasional gatherings hold special meaning.

Isolated and beautiful, the white modern home stands in relief against the shoreline forest.

From the rooftop deck, eagles soar above the lake by day, while incredible stargazing opportunities arrive with nightfall. Back inside, the private spaces include the master bedroom on the main level, a guest bedroom on the lower level and three bedrooms on the top floor. The master bedroom feels like a cocoon, said Myers, making it a great place to watch a storm with the roaring waves that can be heard through the open windows.

Precise ship-like features like the railings and the stairs on the exterior suit the lakefront site, while the reverse design gets everyone’s attention with the main entrance marked by a blue door at the top of the residence and the kitchen on the lower level where a dumbwaiter delivers groceries. The treehouse effect includes an outdoor staircase and a ladder along the side of the house.

The Richard Meier design has airy living spaces with lots of glass for natural lighting.

This one-of-a-kind home reveals itself in layers. “At one level, it’s a piece of sculpture. When you see how it is architecturally integrated, you look at each piece as another piece of art,” said Myers, who has a passion for decorating that had her anticipating the potential of a blank-canvas white house. “I thought I would be able to decorate until I realized how it is so perfectly done like a piece of art. If you put something else there, it doesn’t belong.”

Classic furnishings selected by Richard Meier include pieces that were designed by the architect, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and others. That precision conveys the brilliant design behind one of the architect’s first residential commissions. “That speaks to the genre of the architecture; Meier built it to be timeless,” said Myers.

Clean lines and simple décor express the modern aesthetic Meier was famous for.

WHAT A FEELING

Recently retired state historic preservation officer Brian D. Conway has seen many significant structures during his career. Still, this one made a lasting impression. “It knocked my socks off with all the glass, the volume of the interiors and the flow of space from one floor to the other,” he said. “It’s quite an incredible experience how it makes you feel; good architecture has a strong emotional impact on you.”

He also understands the restoration challenges the current owners were facing. “The house is particularly difficult given its site, making it tough to get to the lake side of the house when renovating,” said Conway, who featured a chapter about the Douglas House in his book: “Michigan Modern: An Architectural Legacy.”

“When you walk in, you can immediately look down and see multiple floors. With the reverse entry, the expansive glass and the magnificent view, you feel like you’re floating over the lake.”

The historian and author expressed tremendous respect and admiration for McCarthy and Meyers. “It’s a remarkable restoration and their intent is to make it available to the public,” said Conway, who considers the pizza party on the rooftop deck following the photo shoot for his book to be one of the highlights of his career.

Recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, as Conway explained, a house can be of local, state or national significance. This one is the latter due to the extraordinary talent and vision of Richard Meier. “The Douglas House is recognized as one of his most outstanding early residential buildings,” he said. “Though it was modeled after a similar residence in Connecticut, the challenge of the dramatic site really made it stand out.”

Conway still recalls the very first time he visited the historic dwelling, which was early on when there had been other alterations before the current couple came aboard. “They realized its pedigree after they bought it and they really did step up to serve as excellent stewards,” he said. “As owners in passing, they want it to remain visible.”


Jeanine Matlow is a Detroit-based writer and regular contributor who loves writing about homes and cottages.

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