Affleck House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright reopens for tours in May
If you run your hand along the cypress paneling in the hallway of the Affleck House in Bloomfield Hills, an excellent example of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian designs that he started in the 1930s, you’ll notice even the screws match the grain of the wood.
That’s because the famed architect was obsessed with symmetry – symmetry of materials, symmetry with nature and symmetry within design.
And the Affleck House, built in 1941 for Gregor and Elizabeth Affleck, is all about symmetry. Perched on a sloping hillside just off the west side of Woodward Avenue north of Long Lake Road, the house, now owned by Lawrence Technological University, is a marvel of tiny details that come together to create a masterpiece.
“That’s part of Wright’s legacy back to the old Arts and Crafts movement that was popular when he was young – the notion of the unity of design as a total work of art,” said Dale Gyure, a professor of architecture at Lawrence Technological University and an architectural historian. “He believed in that his entire life, the idea that you have to create a unified environment for the whole thing to work.”
The 2,300-square-foot Affleck House is one of only a handful of Wright’s Usonian-style homes built in southeast Michigan. Donated to Lawrence Tech in the late 1970s after the Afflecks died, it’s now used as a satellite classroom at times, for fundraisers and even a place for visiting professors to stay overnight.
And after extensive renovations, including 19 skylights that were replaced last year, the house, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, will re-open for public tours in May. Tours run through the fall and generate funds to maintain the house year after year (see box for tour details).
Like so many of Wright’s designs, the home seems to be almost sculpted right into the landscape. Floor-to-ceiling French doors in both the loggia, or entryway, and the living room open and flood the home with natural light.
In the living room, the doors lead to an amazing cantilevered terrace, which runs the length of the room. And while you can hear the whirl of traffic from nearby Woodward, the view of the sloping ravine is worth it.
Gyure says the cantilevered terrace is just one feature that makes the Affleck house so special. He considers it among the best of Wright’s work in Michigan, along with the Turkel House in Detroit and the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids.
A new approach
Gregor Affleck grew up in Muscoda, Wisconsin, a town about 30 minutes west of Wright’s design studio, Taliesin, in Spring Green.
“He knew about Wright growing up, knew he was a famous guy but he wasn’t that interested in architecture until he got to college,” said Gyure.
Later, as a chemical engineer who developed a fast-drying paint for the auto industry, he convinced his wife to visit Wright’s famed creation, Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania. By the late 1930s, they’d ask Wright to design them a house of their own.
Gyure said Wright’s Usonian’s designs, which started in the 1930s, were an example of the famed architect taking ideas he’d developed earlier in the century – the use of natural materials, symbolism with nature (the horizontal lines) and trying to create something not based on European styles but more Democratic – and adapting them for a new reality, the Depression.
They were supposed to be far more affordable for middle class Americans compared to Wright’s other designs, around $5,000, but the “reality is they cost a fortune,” said Gyure.
The Afflecks, who spent approximately $14,000 on their house, visited Wright three times at Taliesin during the design process. Construction began in May of 1941 and by late fall that year they moved in.
And while they’d expected to live in the house for the most part as empty-nesters – their son Gregor Jr. was a teenager when they moved in – life had other plans when Elizabeth found out she was pregnant. A spare bedroom was converted into a nursery.
After the house was finished, Wright visited his creation several times. Gyure said he has a photo taken from a home movie that shows Wright with the Afflecks’ young daughter on his knee.
Wright also would visit nearby Cranbrook where he’d see friend Eliel Saarinen. The two had a friendly rivalry, said Gyure.
Wright “was jealous of Saarinen because he got bigger commissions,” said Gyure.
Still, the architect used the Affleck House almost as a marketing tool. “He used the Affleck House as a tool to persuade other clients,” he said.
For an architect obsessed with details, it’s no wonder Wright also designed much of the furniture in the Afflecks’ home. He designed 13 pieces for the house, including chairs, a dining table and bed frames. Several are still displayed in the house.
But by the early part of the 2000s, the house had issues.
“The house was not really livable,” said Deirdre Jimenez, a Lawrence Tech graduate, who was asked to be part of committee called the Restoration Council formed in 2010 to address some of the Affleck House’s issues. “It could be used for an afternoon or a class, (but) there were leaks. The lighting was not of a good quality. The kitchen wasn’t functional.”
One by one, the group has tackled the house’s challenges. They rebuilt an exterior retaining wall, which was near collapse; completely redid the kitchen; and restored the back landscaping.
“There are a lot of historical photos that we used (as a guide),” said Jimenez. “Even the upholstery, we took photos and found fabric as close as possible.”
The skylights, which had been leaky before, were the most recent update. More updates, such as a new roof, will happen as funding falls into place.
Throughout the restorations, Jimenez said there were times the council struggled with whether to restore the house as Wright had designed it or as the Afflecks had lived in it.
“We decided to do a blend,” she said.
For many projects, Jimenez said they incorporated students into the mix so they could learn from the process. A student designed the credenza that now stands in the entry way. And who made sure all those screws in the paneling were perfectly horizontal as Wright would’ve wanted? Students.
“We really tried to get the students involved,” said Jimenez.
Meanwhile, there’s no better classroom.
“An hour out there is worth two weeks of lecture at least,” said Gyure. It’s not just “a historical reference but demonstrates principles in action... It’s amazing.”
Tour the Affleck House
Lawrence Technological University offers tours of the Affleck House, the oldest Frank Lloyd Wright house in Metro Detroit, on the third Saturdays of the month from May through October, except August when tours are on the second Saturday. Tickets are $25 for adults; $15 for children or students. Regular tours are offered at 11 a.m., 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. Go to https://www.ltu.edu/architecture_and_design/places_affleck_house.asp and click on "visit." Or (248) 204-2800. Advance ticket sales are required.