We couldn’t cover the modern homes of Grosse Pointe without featuring the work of Michigan’s most prominent modernist architect Alden B. Dow. He designed more than 70 residences, along with dozens of churches, schools, civic centers, and commercial buildings.
His home in Midland made the 2014 list of “The Top 25 Best Historic Homes in America” (In Traditional Home Magazine), and Grosse Pointe is lucky enough to have three prime examples of his work. He was a prolific designer throughout the state and his contribution to modern homes of that era is second to none.
Alden Dow was born in 1904 in Midland, Michigan, son of Herbert Henry Dow, the chemical industrialist and founder of the Dow Chemical Company. After graduating from high school, Alden Dow was expected to join his father’s company and studied engineering at the University of Michigan. After three years, he decided on a different path and transferred to Columbia University in New York City to study architecture.
After graduating (in 1931), and having spent a year and a half with architectural firm Frantz and Spence in Saginaw, Dow and his wife relocated to Spring Green, Wisconsin to become an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright in the Taliesin Studio.
Having completed his apprenticeship Dow returned to Midland, Michigan (in 1934) and opened his own architectural practice, specializing (like Wright) in the principles of organic architecture.
Dow described his organic design philosophy as:
“Gardens never end and buildings never begin”
Between 1934 and 1941 Dow designed his own home and studio in Midland on a 23-acre property. The house was constructed using of Dow’s patented “Unit Blocks” which were molded masonry units designed to allow strong vertical and horizontal lines, thereby eliminating the zigzag joints in standard cinder blocks which he said were disturbing to the eye*.
What Dow found most inspirational about Frank Lloyd Wright was his ‘modular design approach.’ Dow’s Unit Blocks were his own exploration of developing a modular building method, for which he won the Grand Prize at the 1937 Paris Exhibition of Arts and Technology. **
Only 13 homes were completed with Unit Blocks before Dow went on to innovate in other building methods. One of those 13 is in Grosse Pointe Park – 741 Middlesex – which makes this home not only a design by a master, but one built by a rare award winning method. (The Unit Blocks molds have disappeared after being sold to an Italian company).
741 Middlesex (Grosse Pointe Park)
Also known, as the ‘Robbie Robinson House’ the home was built in 1941. The design reflects Dow’s philosophy of composed order, with the idea of achieving harmony among the people, materials and concepts involved. The 2,559 sq ft, home has two floors, including a large living room (36’ x 14’), dining room (12’ x 12’) and 4 bedrooms on the second floor.
888 Pemberton (Grosse Pointe Park)
Prior to the house on Middlesex Dow had designed two houses in Grosse Pointe. The first, located at 888 Pemberton – The Millard Pryor House – was built in 1936, is 2,659 sq ft and has four bedrooms. The photos below show the large glass blocks used in the construction and the modern open floor plan.
96 Handy Road (Grosse Pointe Farms)
The second, The Clark Wells House is located at 96 Handy Road. Built in 1939 the 2,481 sq ft four bedroom house is constructed of brick, with fine contrasting wooden details on the garage. The trellises at the front of the property provide the perfect link with nature.
Dow’s buildings, like those of Frank Lloyd Wright, took much of their styling from the natural environment. He remained loyal to his design philosophy throughout his career and his contemporary designs are a testimony to his skill as modernist architect.
In 1957 Alden Dow was made a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, he continued his practice in Midland and the firm continued to grow. In 1963 the firm became Alden B. Dow Associates and undertook many additional projects outside of Midland, including the Fleming Administration Building at the University of Michigan.
In recognition of his 50-year career, the State of Michigan named Dow as it Architect Laureate in 1983, an award no other architect has received since.
Alden B. Dow died in August 1983, survived by his wife and three children.
It is amazing to think, that out of the 70 residences he created, there are three located here in Grosse Pointe and one in Saint Claire Shores.*** It is only fitting that we conclude our look at the modern homes in Grosse Pointe with a tribute to arguably the most skilled modern architect in Michigan.
We will be continuing the series with another extraordinary building next week.
Written by Katie Doelle
Copyright © 2015 Higbie Maxon Agney
We would like to thank the Alden. B Dow Home and Studio for kindly sending us some of the wonderful historic photos of the Dow Homes in Grosse Pointe. For more information and to visit the home and studio in Midland please visit – http://www.abdow.org/
888 Pemberton Interior courtesy of http://www.ncmodernist.org/dow.htm
* Dow patented his series of unit blocks in 1938.
** By comparison there are four of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Textile Block Homes, which predate the Unit Blocks, and seven of his later Usonian Automatic Block Homes – including the Dorothy H. Turkel House, located in Palmer Woods, which was recently restored at a reported cost of one million dollars.
*** There is a further Dow home in the area, located at 22581 Statler St, Saint Clair Shores – The Charles S. Comey Residence, built in 1950.
If you have a home or building you would like us to profile please contact Darby Moran – Darby@higbiemaxon.com – we will try and feature the property.
(For more historical information on Grosse Pointe, visit Grosse Pointe Historical Society).