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Tuesday
Sep062011

Frank Lloyd Wright's presence in metro Detroit

Commonly known as America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright designed many buildings in Michigan. His homes are found all around our state but there are three known Frank Lloyd Wright homes in metro Detroit.

All three homes are of Usonian design. The Usonian home was Wright’s answer to affordable housing for the middle class. The homes were to be built for $5000 but they usually exceeded that goal.

Usonian homes were smaller, single story dwellings usually built with an “L” shape. The living room was the largest room of the house and the bedrooms were quite small. They didn’t have attics or basements and the roof was flat.

The Dorothy Turkel House is the only known house designed by the famed architect in the city limits of Detroit. It is also the one that receives the most attention as it was recently purchased and painstakingly renovated. In my opinion, it is also the most beautiful.

I had the pleasure of meeting Norman Silk, one of the current owners of the Turkel House, a few months ago at the home of Kim Tandy at a Transformation Detroit event put on by the Detroit Regional News Hub.

We talked about his home, what it was like to live in a Frank Lloyd Wright abode and all the attention it was receiving. Silk told me that they were currently installing a fence that should help with their privacy.

So, I was quite pleased when I drove by recently to see a wrought iron fence surrounding the property—it allows the beauty of the home to still be viewed from Seven Mile Road.

The Turkel House is a Usonian Automatic, which were made with concrete blocks. Think about them like Legos—they could be assembled in a variety of ways to make the homes unique. The 4,000 square-foot Turkel House is the only two-story Usonian that Wright designed.

I knew of two other Wright homes in Bloomfield Hills and Silk and I began talking about those. He told me that one of them was on Ponvalley Road. How did I not know this? Ponvalley is very close to my home and where I grew up. I’m pretty sure that I used that street as a shortcut while in high school.

The Melvyn Maxwell Smith House is the house located on Ponvalley—it’s just west of Lahser Road and just south of Lone Pine Road. Much smaller than the Turkel House, it sits beautifully in its wooded surroundings and sculptures are placed throughout the grounds.

The story of Melvyn and Sara Smith is quite touching. They weren’t well off—I believe they were teachers—and would drive up Woodward Avenue from Detroit to work on their dream home. The home was nearly finished, they only needed windows, when the Smiths ran out of money.

A local businessman heard of their problems and paid to have the windows measured and installed for $500. The local businessman was Alfred Taubman.

Silk then vaguely told me where the third Wright home was located—north of Long Lake Road on Woodward. He said it was nestled in behind the big bank. This one was more difficult to find but with the help of my mom—a retired U.S.P.S. worker who used to deliver mail in this area—and online maps, I found it.

When you pull onto the street you immediately see the Gregor Affleck House. Wright asked his clients to find property where no one else could build and I’m sure that in 1940 no one imagined the sprawl that has crept in the area. The other homes are almost sitting upon the Affleck house and I feel sorry for the close proximity of its neighbors.

Affleck was a boyhood friend of Wright and after graduating from college asked him to design a home for him. Mr. and Mrs. Affleck lived in the house until their death. Their children donated the house to Lawrence Technological University. Check the LTU site for more information about the Affleck House. They do state that tours are available by appointment.

The Turkel, Smith and Affleck houses are all conveniently located along the Woodward Corridor. There are also a few Frank Lloyd Wright homes in Plymouth, MI and some talk of part of the interior of Wetmore’s Auto Service Station in Ferndale having been designed by Wright. I haven’t been able to research those yet.

Detroit is often hailed for its amazing architecture—there is a reason for the moniker the “Paris of the Midwest.” But it’s not just large buildings and skyscrapers—there is wonder and beauty in the smallest of our structures.

The Smith House: 5045 Ponvalley Road, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

The Affleck house: 1925 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. (Note: that is the official address. The house is located on Bloomfield Woods, just north of Long Lake Road off the west side of Woodward Avenue.)

The Turkel House is on the north side of Seven Mile, west of Woodward Avenue. (Please be mindful that this is someone's home. Have respect.)

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Reader Comments (11)

Don't forget the Palmer House in Ann Arbor, which the new owners wanted to convert into a "high-end hotel" last time I heard:

http://www.annarbor.com/business-review/ann-arbors-only-frank-lloyd-wright-house-now-available-for-rent/

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSven Gustafson

One might consider Plymouth just as much a part of Detroit as Bloomfield Township and Hills.

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBJRCollins

If you're interested in Frank Lloyd Wright you really owe it to yourself to check out the Ken Burns doc. http://www.pbs.org/flw/
It opened up a whole lot of info and insight on the man and his creations. If all you know is FLW=Prarie style homes, there is so much more..(good and bad)

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDan Baker

Thanks for posting on America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright!

If you are looking to connect with other FLW and Moderne fans check out the Detroit Area Art Deco Society at www.daads.org

Detroit Moxie you RULE!

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGary Spondike

Thanks for stopping by, everyone.

Sven,
I've read a bit about the one in Ann Arbor but haven't had time to research it yet.

BJR,
For the record, I called it "metro Detroit" and I mentioned the Plymouth homes at the bottom. I found these three unique as they are all easily accessible from Woodward Avenue. I look forward to checking out the FLW homes in Plymouth and throughout the state—it just would be way too long for one post.

Thanks Dan—I'll check it out. I've been interested in FLW since college—I went to college in Wisconsin—and have heard much of his bad side. But I'd love to do some more research.

Gary,
You're most welcome! I'll definitely check out daads.org. Thanks for the heads up.

September 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterBecks Davis

What a cool post, Becks! I love reading about the history of these homes...I love all the beautifully architected homes in Detroit, too - especially along Ferry Street, near the DIA. This could be a cool standing feature ;)

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauren Weber

Nice story. I've passed by those homes more than a few times and loved every second. A few months back I was able to tour a William Kessler home that sits on a private body of water in Bloomfield Hills. Extremely jealous of the owners.

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJsinghur

I really love this. This is one of those things that I had on my list to do before leaving Detroit and never did. I even had each place marked on a Metro Detroit map book. Awesome story and a great adventure.

September 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark Williams

P.S. I once did yard work at the Turkel House back in the '80s with my high school friends, one of whose brother worked for Tom Monaghan, the Domino's Pizza founder who had a huge FLW fetish and briefly owned the place. So I can lay claim to having partied inside of it once upon a time.

September 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSven Gustafson

Sven,
There are so many great stories about the houses that I just didn't have room for. One of them was from when Tom Monaghan owned the Turkel House and had students live in it to take care of it. The neighbors complained and since the area was zoned for single families only they had the students kicked out. How great that you partied there!

Mark,
You'll just have to put that on your "things to do list" when you get back for a visit. ;-)

September 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterBecks Davis

The FLW houses that were supposed to be built for $5,000.00 were Prairie style homes, not Usonian. There was an advertisement in Ladies Home Journal featuring a fire proof house.

July 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

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