Driving along Lone Pine Road in an upscale Detroit suburb, you might not notice the Frank Lloyd Wright house in your midst. Nor would you realize the home of famed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen is open for tours.
The beauty in what the Cranbrook Educational Community offers is its subtlety. This 319-acre gem in posh Bloomfield Hills for more than a century has sought to educate the public through immersion experiences in the designs of the 20th century’s great talents.
In 1904, George Booth and Ellen Scripps Booth bought 175 acres of derelict farmland that was 85 percent treeless. They began to create their shared vision of a place people could come to expand their consciousness, says Stephen Pagnani, Cranbrook’s head of communications. They named it after the Booth family’s origins in Cranbrook-Kent, England. Then they commissioned Detroit architect Albert Kahn to build Cranbrook House and a school. When their youngest son, Henry, took Eliel Saarinen’s first architecture class at the University of Michigan, they invited him to become resident architect.
Cranbrook invites contemplation and exploration as children leap along boulders set in a snaking line in the middle of a meadow or play pretend among the long limbs of old trees.
Over the years, the dream grew along with the campus. Today, more than 1,600 students from some 20 countries attend Cranbrook schools. Cranbrook also offers summer camps and year-round exhibits at its Science Center and Art Museum.
Cranbrook was a leader in the development of Mid-Century Modernism, inspired by the Detroit automotive industry, whose utilitarian and streamlined designs made Michigan a national leader in this contemporary aesthetic.
The campus is covered in robust forest with several landmark trees, according to Pagnani. Water cascades over rocks in lovely tiered gardens, featuring fountains and flowers that fill the seasons with scent.
The best part is hidden beyond a tall copse of trees, descending into an open space of quiet disturbed only by the splash of ducks and the tumble of water from a glass-like lake that funnels into falls at the Oriental gardens.
“MY LITTLE GEM”
Off campus, visitors can tour one of three Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Metro Detroit. Wright called Smith House, designed in 1946 for schoolteachers Sara and Melvyn Smith, “My Little Gem” for epitomizoming the way the common man lives.
Totaling 1,800 square feet with an L-shaped common space, three bedrooms and two bathrooms, Smith House represents Wright’s devotion to integrating landscape while maintaining a sense of privacy, said Stefanie Dlugosz, Collections Fellow.
Created simply and affordably, the house features basic materials: Florida Cyprus ceiling and walls, ordinary red bricks on the hearth, modular wood furniture, and single-pane windows to focus the gaze outside.
Smith studied Wright’s plans for three years to become general contractor, and the couple paid workers in installments to afford their dream home. They collected art in the same way; the house features an array of Cranbrook-educated artists, including a multimedia screen by Glen Michaels (matching the fireplace triptych) to close off the galley kitchen from the dining area.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Center for Collections & Research, referred to the Eliel Saarinen House as “a total work of art.”
After serving as the residence of several architecture faculty members following Saarinen’s death in 1950, Saarinen House was restored and opened to the public in 1994.
Designed in the 1920s, the more than 5,000-square-foot Saarinen House embodies the transition from Art Deco and Arts & Crafts to Mid-Century Modernism.
“Cranbrook is not a place where you can easily walk through Mid-Century Modern buildings,” cautions Wittkopp. “What you see instead is the architecture that gave birth to Mid-Century Modernism. Cranbrook was a cradle of modernism, (educating) the generation that goes out in the world and defines what we call Mid-Century Modern.”
If you go …
The Cranbrook campus is open to the public for hikes on its trails and visits to its two museums, but visitors can also arrange private walking tours to learn about the Cranbrook Vision. Call Kim Larsen at (248) 645-3319 for reservations.
Educator-guided Saarinen House tours take place May-October, departing from the front desk of Cranbrook’s Art Museum. Smith House tours also take place May-October. Visit cranbrookart.edu/museum/tours for tour days and times.
Tour the collections behind the scenes at the Cranbrook Center for Collections & Research every Friday at 1 p.m. See the entire furniture collection, pottery and ceramics, as well as gems such as Eero Saarinen’s model of Dulles airport. Call (248) 645-3320 for reservations.