Cranbrook acquires Frank Lloyd Wright house
Correction: The Towbes Foundation donation of Smith House to Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research was incorrectly reported and Melvyn Maxwell Smith’s first name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.
Cranbrook, known worldwide as an architectural set piece, is getting a new gem in its diadem — a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
The house was built in 1950 by Sara and Melvyn Maxwell Smith. The donation came from the Towbes Foundation.
“The Smith family always said they didn’t want this to just pass to another set of homeowners,” said Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. “The phrase they used was they wanted it to be ‘an educational resource.’ ”
Cranbrook will open the Bloomfield Hills house several times a month for tours from May to November.
The donation is a remarkable stroke of good fortune, one that other design schools would kill for.
“This is an incredible gift to Cranbrook,” said Minneapolis architect Nick Koch, who graduated from the high school in 1972. “Wright’s Usonian houses represent a significant chapter in 20th-century American residential architecture.”
“I’ll be sure to visit the next time I’m in town.”
Many of Wright’s homes were built for the very rich, but Usonian houses were conceived for people of modest means.
That certainly described the Smiths, both Detroit public schoolteachers. In 1941, just before the outbreak of war, they asked the great architect if he could design a home for just $5,000 — about $88,000 in today’s dollars.
Wright said he might be able to do it for $8,000, but when the house was finished nine years later, the price tag hit $20,000.
Financially, it was an astonishing feat for the Smiths.
“At the time of construction,” said Wittkopp, “they were living in public housing in Detroit and each making $35 a week as schoolteachers.”
To keep the price down, Melvyn Smith acted as his own contractor. Additionally, Wright relied on photographs and topographical surveys to design the structure, rather than making a costly site visit. (He did come once the house was finished.)
Barry Bergdoll, a Wright expert who’s an art-history professor at Columbia University, marvels at that.
“The house is so astoundingly, exquisitely related to its site that it’s almost impossible to believe Wright didn’t draw it in-situ,” Bergdoll said.
But in the fall of 1949, with winter looming, the house still didn’t have any windows. The Smiths had $500 to their name, and that wasn’t enough.
That’s when a mysterious stranger stepped in.
Melvyn Smith, so the story goes, was at the house and in the dumps over his financial woes.
A man walked up and asked Smith why he looked dejected, and the homeowner explained.
“The stranger said, ‘I’m in that field — let me see what I can do,’" Wittkopp recalled.
“So men came out and installed all the glass. When the bill came,” he added, “it was for exactly $500. And the name on it was A. Alfred Taubman,” just getting his start in the construction business.
Smith House tours
39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills
Tickets: $55, general; $20, full-time students with ID