Synthesis on the Shores

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Douglas House interior
Floor-to-ceiling walls of glass offer breathtaking views and allow Lake Michigan to reflect natural light into the Douglas House, which sits on a bluff in Harbor Springs. Photography courtesy Scott Frances/OTTO

Homes built on the water are as varied and distinct as the landscapes they rest upon.

From summer retreats nestled in wooded pockets to sprawling estates with unparalleled views of the state’s freshwater lakes, designing a waterfront home means creating harmony through the juxtaposition of manmade and natural beauty.

The simplicity and the integration of the landscape that are hallmarks of modern home design makes it a popular choice for homes on the water, and Michigan has been an epicenter for the style that dates back to the 1930s.

Now, home designers draw inspiration and pay homage to the style that defined the 20th century with striking results.

One of Michigan’s most celebrated examples of lakefront modern design is the Douglas House, a Mid-Century Modern home sitting on a steep bluff on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Douglas House white exterior
The all-white exterior of the 3,400-square-foot Douglas House marks architect Richard Meier’s signature style. Photography courtesy Scott Frances/OTTO

Designed by acclaimed American architect Richard Meier for Jim and Jean Douglas in the early 1970s, the Harbor Springs home has long been the subject of architectural praise and recently was nominated to the National Register of Historical Places.

One of the home’s most striking characteristics — its white color — created an issue that threatened to block its existence. The developers that oversaw the original site for the home refused to allow anything other than earth-toned exteriors, forcing the Douglases to either find a new site or a new color.

Given Meier’s reasoning for the choice — “All of my houses are white; the interior and exterior, all of the color comes from what’s around it, the color of nature, the color of light,” he explained — it’s no surprise the Douglases opted to find a new site for the home.

There was a tremendous amount of challenge with a 20-foot-wide home, but it led us to a really fun solution.”
— Wayne Visbeen

They eventually settled on the challenging terrain of the Harbor Springs bluff, a piece of property that local builders deemed impossible.

The Rocky Summit house
Constrained by a 20-foot-wide footprint and critical sand dunes on the site, the main living spaces were built on the upper level of The Rocky Summit house. Photography courtesy Visbeen Associates

“It’s a very steep, sloping site that goes from the road down to the beach at Lake Michigan,” Meier said.

But instead of viewing the site as an obstacle, the designer used it as a catalyst for creativity.

Meier designed the 3,400-square-foot home with a rear entry — a not unusual choice with waterfront homes — via a private footbridge that leads to the uppermost level. Past the one-story entry level, the home opens to the main living space, which includes the living and dining rooms, offering floor-to-ceiling views of the lake, sky and other natural surroundings.

A series of ladders and cantilevered staircases on the exterior connect each level of the home, creating a floating promenade predicated on the steep site that others deemed “un-buildable.”

“Every site has its idiosyncrasies and those idiosyncrasies are what make the most successful architecture,” said Wayne Visbeen of Grand Rapids-based Visbeen Architects. “When you design a home that deals with wind, sun and topography, it forces you to be ultra-creative.”

Or to turn the floor plan upside-down, as was the case with The Rocky Summit, a lakeshore retreat on the banks of Lake Superior designed by the team at Visbeen.

Lake Allegan home interior
This Lake Allegan home was designed with two-story-high windows for natural light and a feeling of openness. Photography courtesy Lucid Architecure

Given the critical dunes on the site, the designers faced the constraint of a 20-foot-wide building footprint.

“We had to go vertical. We had to create an upside-down home,” Visbeen said, explaining how the home’s main living level, which includes the kitchen, living room and dining room, is located at the top of the home, with the bedrooms and other areas occupying the floors beneath.

As with the Douglas House, the three-bedroom Rocky Summit house features a myriad of nautical inspirations aimed to be in harmony with the ever-present views of the lake. In both homes, railings line the decks on the top floors, and in Rocky Summit, its radius front faces the lake and wind, creating the illusion that one is on the bough of a ship.

“There was a tremendous amount of challenge with a 20-foot-wide home, but it led us to a really fun solution,” he said.

With the wide expanse of water a constant feature of the landscape, light becomes an important consideration, and the large panes of glass that have become staples of modern design lend themselves well to the waterfront scenario.

We wanted to try and get as close to the water as possible while still keeping the integrity of the topography.”
— Chris Miller

On the main floor of a summer home on Lake Allegan, designers from Zeeland’s Lucid Architecture opted for a large living space anchored by two-story-high walls of glass that blur the barriers of interior and exterior and allow the lake’s surface to reflect light into the home.

The 3,990-square-foot home sits on three acres and boasts 400 feet of water frontage, which allowed the designers to spread the house out lengthwise, said Eric De Witt, owner of Lucid Architecture.

The home’s form is simple — a two-story linear box topped with a butterfly roof — and includes a master suite, guest bedrooms, and a large sleeping porch that all offer views of the water and Michigan sunsets.

Lake Allegan home exterior
This Lake Allegan home was designed with two-story-high windows for natural light and a feeling of openness. Photography courtesy Lucid Architecure

The discreet use of cedar siding offers a striking contrast to the sophisticated, mostly grey, exterior, with the cedar carrying into the interior where it occasionally warms the contemporary white walls and ceilings.

Near Torch Lake, large bay windows facing the water are the most dominant element of the custom, contemporary home, designed by Joseph Mosey Architecture in Northville and built by Mapleridge Construction.

The walls of glass offer a sweeping panoramic view of Lake Michigan and allow the home to take on a transparent quality when viewing it from the rear.

The team began with a 900-square-foot cottage that stood on the site and transformed it into the sprawling, Prairie-School style home incorporating the latest in residential building materials and technique.

Architect Joseph Mosey said he used the Prairie style — which originated in the Midwest and was made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright — as a guide, evident in the home’s flat roofs, open floor plan and close relationship to its surroundings.

“We wanted to try and get as close to the water as  possible while still keeping the integrity of the topography,” said Chris Miller of Mapleridge Construction, a Kalkaska custom builder.

Mapleridge home
Halquist stone is used on the exterior of this home to help it blend in with the natural stone landscaping. The interior features warm, quiet details that create an intimate space. Photography courtesy Mapleridge Construction

This meant integrating the house into the landscape, Mosey said. The team used Halquist stone on the exterior — a beautiful contrast to the windows — that blends with the stone landscaping and creates a seamless connection between home and garden.

“The stone definitely anchors it and gives it a heft and depth,” said Miller. The three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom home does loom over the lakeshore, although the quiet details of the interior create an intimacy and warmth throughout.

The home features hand-built cabinets, granite countertops and oak trim and flooring that, paired with the stainless-steel appliances, mirror the interplay of man and nature seen when viewing the house from outside.

A tower of stairs creates a central hub for the house, according to Mosey.

“Each area of the house grows from this central space,” he said, which creates dramatic views over the living room and, of course, out to the lake.

The Wright notion that a structure should blend effortlessly into its surroundings was perhaps most poetically summed up by famed architect Alden Dow, a Michigan native: “Gardens never end and buildings never begin” — and in today’s modern and contemporary waterfront designs, this concept creates breathtaking results.


Alexandra Fluegel is a freelance writer living in Detroit.

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