Art and architecture come together in artist Cal Navin’s mid-century town house in Detroit’s famed Lafayette Park community, where architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s vision of “less is more” lives on.
Her 1,470-square-foot, two-story home is filled with classic mid-century modern pieces, from an Eames lounge chair in the living room to a Knoll credenza and Steelcase couch. Mingled throughout is Navin’s vast art collection, including a plaster self-portrait bust and metal full-size sculpture she created.
But the main attraction may be the town house itself, one of 186 designed by the German-born Mies as part of Lafayette Park, one of the nation’s first urban renewal efforts in the 1950s. Floor-to-ceiling windows span an entire wall in nearly every room, including both upstairs bedrooms and Navin’s study. Looking out into the park-like, tree-filled setting is like looking into a garden — right in downtown Detroit.
“It’s spiritual,” says Navin, 57, a sculptor and painter who works for General Motors’ design staff as a creative sculpting model manager for the aerodynamics studio. “When the windows are open and the light is coming in, it’s amazing.”
Navin first discovered Lafayette Park through her brother, John, a huge architecture buff and Mies fan. Her daughter, Katherine, who lives in California, actually saw the town house online first. Katherine wanted it for herself, but Navin took one look and found her future retirement home.
Untouched by the original owner since it was completed in 1958 — which is what Navin wanted — everything needed to be refurbished. There was extensive water damage. The plaster needed to be redone. There was a hole in the kitchen ceiling.
“There wasn’t anything that didn’t need to be redone,” said Navin, who is used to gutting houses, after having redone her previous 1917 home in Ferndale. “All the (concrete) floors had to be re-floated. The mirrors had to be re-silvered. The plumbing and electrical are all new.
“Anything I could rebuild was rebuilt to the original design.”
The three bedroom, 1½-bath house opens immediately to an entryway with three wooden stadium seats from the old Navin Field, the precursor to Tigers Stadium. Former Tigers owner Frank Navin was Navin’s great-great-uncle. Nearby is a Fronzoni ’64 rectangular table and two of Navin’s doll oil paintings, one of her favorite subject matters.
Just off the dining area is the galley-style kitchen, which Navin completely gutted and remodeled with the help of her contractor and friend, Steve Lee. After getting permission from the co-op board to run a gas line from the basement to the kitchen, she installed all new stainless steel appliances from Specialty Showroom in Royal Oak. The red Formica cabinets, assembled by Navin, are from IKEA. A clear glass tile backsplash from Home Depot shows off Navin’s quirky bug collection.
“I have a fascination with bugs,” admits Navin. “And I go to Texas every year. They’re real bugs, set in acrylic.”
With space at a premium in the kitchen — it’s only 12½feet by 6 — it was an adjustment for Navin when it came to cooking.
“The first thing I ever cooked in here was for our Lafayette Park picnic, which we have annually,” says Navin. “My house in Ferndale had a huge kitchen. At first, I didn’t know what to do. I literally had no idea what to do. It took some really getting used to. Now, I have it down to a science.”
Stark white walls and ample natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows show off Navin’s art collection in the living room. And her furniture is like a who’s who of quintessential mid-century modern brands: Eames, Knoll, Steelcase and Stow Davis.
Nearly every piece was salvaged or bought at an antique store. Navin found her Knoll credenza in an old warehouse. And she found one of her two 1950s Steelcase couches at the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale and had it reupholstered it in a Knoll fabric.
Navin says it was also her brother, John, who really turned her on to mid-century design. Visiting him in Chicago, they’d often tour other buildings designed by Mies, Frank Lloyd Wright and others. And working in the design building at GM’s Tech Center, which was designed by Eero Saarinen, Navin also is surrounded by mid-century furniture.
“To me, the simplistic elegance that mid-century has is what really draws me to it,” says Navin. “Having worked here at (GM’s) design (building), it’s about the lines of everything you look at. Mid-century isn’t bulky and heavy, it’s just simple beauty. As Mies put it, less is more.”
And that simple, clean aesthetic works well with her eclectic art collection. In her upstairs study, an entire wall is filled with a mix of three-dimensional pieces, many of which feature old dolls. Navin says her fascination with old dolls started in college.
“I just found them to be very creepy and kind of cool,” says Navin, who graduated from Wayne State and the College for Creative Studies, and remembers painting her first portrait of a Kewpie doll.
Navin says she’ll often she just sit in her study and look at the birds. Cooper’s hawks are common.
“It’s a little oasis for birds,” she says. “We have everything down here. I’ll just sit in this seat and stare at the birds. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
One of six kids, creativity seems to be part of the genetic makeup of the Navin family. Her younger brothers, Frank and John, are the musical duo the Aluminum Group, based out of Chicago. And Navin’s parents also loved to restore old homes.
No wonder Lafayette Park feels like just the right fit for Navin, who documented her journey restoring her town house on a blog — lafayetteparkmies.blogspot.com — and is now making a six scale model of it from the original drawings. A mix of artists, architecture lovers and families, it’s the kind of community where neighbors will stop by to check on one another if they see your car when you’re normally at work. She wants to retire in Lafayette Park in about five years.
“I grew up in Birmingham, but oddly I feel like I’m home here in Lafayette Park,” she says.
Lafayette Park: A brief history
Located on 78 acres in Detroit’s former Black Bottom district, Lafayette Park was one of the nation’s first urban renewal efforts and was developed to help keep the middle class in the city, according to the Mies van der Rohe Society at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Bounded by Gratiot Avenue, Rivard, East Lafayette and St. Aubin streets, it consists of 186 one and two-story town homes and two high-rises next to a 19-acre municipal park also named Lafayette Park. It’s the largest collection of Mies buildings in the world.
The buildings, built in the 1950s, were planned along three roadways that enter the development from the west. Alfred Caldwell, Mies’ longtime collaborator, did all landscape design on the project, and Ludwig Hilberseimer handled the urban design.
Lafayette Park was originally intended to be three times the size it is now, but developer, Herb Greenwald, died when the project was just a third of the way completed. That may be one reason why it’s been so successful, says Christian Unverzagt, an assistant professor of practice in architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning who also lives with his family at Lafayette Park. He believes it would’ve been hard to sustain if it was bigger. For years, it has been hidden, literally and figuratively, Unverzagt says, and it’s just now getting its due.
“It means so many things to so many people,” Unverzagt says. “He (Mies) was criticiczed for saying less is more, but I think in the end, that allowed people to have their say, too.”