In late 2011, our friends at Triangle Modernist Houses in Raleigh, North Carolina selected Mid-Century Michigan as one of the recipients of the Macon Smith research grant. For this honor I feel extreme gratitude and deeply indebted. As a thank-you to Triangle Modernist Houses, I offered to explore some of the Alden B. Dow works in Midland that were missing photos on TMH’s already fantastic online archive.
The trip to Midland led us on a journey through a massive sprawl of some of Dow’s finest residential work. Driving from neighborhood to neighborhood in Midland is like exploring a mysterious treasure-trove of mid-century modern mastery, as Dow’s work is literally everywhere one looks.
The pilgrimage to Midland was successful for not only TMH, but Mid-Century Michigan as well, as it provided time to explore the archives of the Alden B. Dow home and studio, where primary documents on Dow’s two Grand Rapids’ projects were ready for review. A special thanks goes out to Daria Potts who works in the archives for her hospitality and help in providing original drawings, correspondence, and articles during my visit. The large manila envelope I left with is filled with photocopies of some of this valuable information, and will help round out the stories of Dow’s Grand Rapids homes when it comes time to present them here.
Settled on a quiet side street in East Grand Rapids lies a time-machine from 1954. It is nighttime, perfect for gazing into the inner architecture of this unit. With its interior lit up like a showroom, there is little to stop an admiring gaze through the long curtain glass façade. What meets the eye is a transparent jewelry box of forms and materials. Exposed brick, lounge furniture, wood veneer, and atomic light fixtures all evoke a sense of the future past. Trees growing from a planter bed inside of the house dissolve the visual barrier of interior and exterior. The separation between the living room and the outdoors becomes nearly indistinguishable.
Little is known about James Bronkema, the man who built the home. However, his legacy is rich in Grand Rapids, having designed and built nearly 200 buildings around the city. (His work is most concentrated in the Fultonwood and Riverside Park neighborhoods.) After creating a modern collection of private residences and sleek office buildings around Grand Rapids, Bronkema moved his design practice to California. There he joined the league of west coast modernists who were rapidly changing the look and lifestyle of post-war America through clever design and modern construction methods. There, Bronkema played an important role developing San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center.
Built in 1954, this four-bedroom home was commissioned by the president of a fire sprinkler company, whose special touch lives on in one of the unusual features of the house: a sprinkler system in the basement. Set into a hill, the house is comprised of four tiered, flowing volumes. The main level contains a large living room, library corner, kitchen, dining room, and breakfast nook. At the top of a set of stairs connecting the three main volumes of the house lies a landing, illuminated by a clerestory window. From here, doors which seem to blend in with the birch-veneered walls, lead to the sleeping arrangements and an office. Below the main floor is a long entry foyer which lies alongside the garage. This entry hall is flanked by built-in closets and cabinetry also covered in birch veneer, a common material throughout the main stairway. “You can tell this house was extremely well built,” remarks the current owner, David. “There has been little to no settling,” he mentions as he pops open one of the tightly-fitted cabinets, which swings out on hidden hinges. This entry hall, dubbed “the mud room” leads into the lounge and bar, which continue out onto the back yard. A descent from this lounge leads to the lowermost level, a true basement which houses a spare bedroom and utilities.
“I’ve always loved this style, even when it wasn’t in style,” David mentions. David, a classically trained architect, studied at Carnegie Melon University. “I was a student at a time when architectural education was split between the International style and Postmodernism. My education was rooted in the modern style, and I just loved it. I have always loved it.” Therefore, it is no wonder that he was drawn to this home’s modern design when he purchased it. David is now the third owner of the house. It was first sold in 1962 to an owner of an auto parts dealership, and then purchased by David and his wife in 2004. “It’s good to live with someone who also understands this style,” he chuckles in reference to his wife Elaine, who is responsible for much of the interior decor. Elaine is a master scout of local estate sales, having years of practice. Along the way, she has scored some important period finds, including a pair of signed C. Jeré brass sculptures, and an original production Verner Panton floor lamp. This lamp illuminates David’s reading corner, where an Eames lounge chair and ottoman sit. The Eames lounge was a gift to David from Elaine. It is here where David prefers to relax and read.
“This was an executive-level home when it was built, and it’s perfect for entertaining. It even has central air. When we found it, it was preserved and had never been remodeled” David explains from the living room. What is remarkable about the interior of the house are the varying architectural elements. On the main floor, redwood, exposed brick, flagstone, cedar, birch, carpet, and linoleum all act in harmony with proportion and volume to demarcate areas meant for different uses in this largely open floorplan. A central brick “core” houses many of the utilities, including the fireplace, indoor barbecue, and ovens. This wide core, typical of Bronkema’s work, pierces through the roof as a solid structure. The main wall of floor-to-ceiling glass creates a sense of vastness. The foundation of the house lies several feet inside of the living room, allowing two Norway Spruce’s to take root and reach the ceiling. Commenting on the condition of the house when he bought it, David recalls, “The neighbors used to call this the Chia Pet house because the indoor planting bed was so overgrown that the windows were completely blocked off. Elaine and I wondered for years what to do about curtains. After a while, we realized the windows are perfect without curtains.”
This visually rich interior space is the perfect setting for all of the mid-century modern furniture and fixtures found throughout the home. Many of the pieces came with the house, such as the Saarinen-inspired tulip table by Burke, which is located in the kitchen’s breakfast nook. Of the few changes made to the interior, the most were were made here in the kitchen. Naturally, David and Elaine took great care and sensitivity to preserve the vintage look when they remodeled. For example, original features remain, such as the original double-ovens built into the brick wall. (Shortly after the photo shoot, the ovens were updated.) Also set into this wall is the indoor barbecue grill with commercial grade exhaust hood. David chose to update the grill with a gas flame. The cabinetry was also updated with vintage metal Geneva cabinets electro-statically repainted in their original pink color. “With all this metal, this kitchen just gleams at night,” David adds.
Outside of the home, David and Elaine have added a deck, ponds, and a waterfall. They also took great care to subtly incorporate these improvements using the natural slope of the hill. These additions have added dynamic spaces to the outdoor environment. Below the added deck lies the original patio area which enters into the lounge on the lower level. These two separate areas give the backyard a sense of demarcation, effectively creating outdoor “rooms,” which act as extensions of the house. They flow freely into the interior through vast expanses of glass, further blurring the lines of interior and exterior.
It is fortunate that this home has been so well cared for during its lifetime. David and Elaine clearly have a great appreciation and understanding of why such exemplary models of modern architecture need to be preserved and enjoyed, and their domestic lifestyle attests to their enthusiasm for mid-century modernism. While Bronkema may not be well known in the history of modern architecture, his contribution to Grand Rapids’ local architectural history is compelling and needs to be further explored. Mid-Century Michigan looks forward to reviewing more of his work and legacy.
Located on a deeply wooded lot lies a prismatic gem designed for living. Hiding below hilltop-level, is a modern masterpiece designed by Gunnar Birkerts, a Latvian born, German-trained, architect. Flooded with natural daylight seeping in through zigzagged panes of glass, this home was designed to connect with nature. Visible from the street, its window-lined pyramidal roof is clear indication of something unusual.
Placed directly off a busy drive, a smooth entrance leads between two retaining walls into the lot. These brick walls, painted the same stark white as the main structure, give the design a strong sense of continuity. The house sits behind a short, but steep hill. The undulation of the earth keeps the home deeply shrouded and blocks off quite a bit of street noise according to the current owner.
Commissioned by a Herman Miller executive, Birkerts began this project in 1964. Following his Finnish inspiration, Eero Saarinen, Birkerts had emigrated to Michigan in 1949 after his graduation from the Technische Universität in Stuttgart, Germany. Less than two years later, Birkerts found himself working in Saarinen’s office. Birkerts later founded his own architecture practice, which is still active today.
Composed on a radial grid, this house is full of angles and designed for maximum privacy. The only hint of an interior glimpse comes through a curtain glass wall that sits below an overhang in a trapezoidal entryway. Immediately behind this iron-gated glass aperture lies another white wall, directly inside the house. This barrier further obstructs outside views, yet acts as a seamless transition from outside to inside, repeating the look of the exterior walls. It is from within, however, that this house is most striking. Features like an indoor-outdoor courtyard, clerestory windows, and doors that fit flush with the walls when fully open, only add to this house’s character.
To be continued…
I invite you to have a look at our Facebook page, to which I’ve uploaded various photos of architectural landmarks I’ve visited in my worldwide travels. There you will see architecture from several notable greats, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alden B. Dow, and Louis Sullivan, just to name a few.
Come join the community at www.facebook.com/midcenturymichigan.
Last week while taking a walk through the neighborhood, I stopped in my tracks as I came across a low-slung house with pitched roof segments and an expansive glass façade that afforded a limited view into the interior. The exterior form intrigued me, but what I saw through the glass was equally striking—this home is every bit as mid-century modern from the inside, outfitted with prime examples of period furniture and decor.
I have now had the pleasure of speaking with the owner, an architect who has been kind enough to invite me over for a tour. What I know so far of the home is that James Bronkema, designed it, an architect/builder who kept busy in Grand Rapids after WWII introducing the city to the then new “modern” style that had grown its roots in California. The newly developing scene in California must have beckoned his talent, as he relocated some time in the 1960’s.
I am very much looking forward to meeting the owner, and learning more about his house. Stay tuned for an upcoming post featuring more of this handsome home.
During a recent bike ride, I discovered a masterpiece by mid-century wunderkind Alden B. Dow. Nestled deep in a wooded lot against a lake, little can be seen of this home from the road. As one approaches the home, its planar expanses begin to reveal themselves from obstruction. A true organic architectural form, its style recalls that of Dow’s master tutor, Frank Lloyd Wright.
I had the chance of speaking to the owner briefly to gauge her interest in being involved in my project. Alas, the circumstances weren’t very conducive for sharing ideas, so I sent her a letter today as a follow-up. I’m really hoping the letter will spark her interest, as it seems her beautiful home is a time-capsule of the finest in mid-century-modern furnishings and design.
In the meantime, I leave you with an image I shot of Alden B. Dow’s own home and studio, which I had the extreme pleasure of touring last summer with my grandmother and a good friend. Surrounded by a flood-proof moat, one can literally exit through patio doors and walk on water, thanks to abundant stepping-stones. Upon entering the building, steps lead down like a waterfall into a semi-submerged conference area, which is seen at the end of the sloping roof on the right.