Demand, space led to mid-century building boom in Southfield

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

How did Southfield become a destination for mid-century modern design in Metro Detroit? Location, location, location.

With its central location to Detroit's freeways, lack of of railroads and abundant farmland 70 years ago, developers flocked to the city after World War II to build homes and address pent-up demand for housing, said Southfield Mayor Kenson Siver. Siver is a longtime mid-century modern aficionado who also organizes tours in the city every year, focusing on both the city's iconic commercial and residential design.

"There was an explosion of development," said Siver.

Plumbrooke Estates in Southfield is one of two subdivisions in the city that have been named to the National Register of Historic Places for its mid-century modern design.

Hundreds of homes were built in subdivisions such as Cranbrook Village, Magnolia, Washington Heights, Ravines, Northland Gardens and Plumbrooke Estates. 

And now, two of those developments -- Northland Gardens and Plumbrooke Estates -- have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of their iconic design. Northland Gardens, which has 120 homes built between the 1950s and mid-1960s, was designated as historic last month. And Plumbrooke Estates, built between 1961-1964 with 76 homes off Plumbrooke Drive north of Nine Mile Road and west of Evergreen Road, was awarded a designation last year.

Unlike other inner ring Detroit suburbs where bungalows were built heavily after World War II, that wasn't the case in Southfield. Developers, who brought their own architects, built often built sprawling ranches. Some had elaborate features like travertine floors and huge "bowling alley" basements, said Siver. 

One development, Northland Gardens, was built by the same developer of Northland Mall, Hudson-Webber. Siver said after the war, they looked at Detroit and wondered where their future was if the city grew. 

Northland Gardens, located along Westland Avenue Westhampton Road, Rutland Drive, and Westover Road between Southfield Road and the John C. Lodge Freeway, was listed to the National Register of Historic Places in January. It's known for its mid-century design.

"So they picked this acreage that had been first optioned by Lawrence Tech and bought the property," said Siver. "They were nervous, 'Would anybody shop in the sticks?'" 

To provide housing for their shoppers, Hudson-Webber also built Nortland Gardens. Built in 1956, it has 117 homes, most in mid-century modern ranch style. The development became well-known because five Motown stars lived there.