Living Wright

by John Henke

On a beautiful day in June, DAADS members had the great fortune to tour two Frank Lloyd Wright historical landmarks in Bloomfield Hills — the Smith and Affleck homes.

Both homes are Usonian design. A design conceived by Wright after being asked by a client to design a home that could be built for $5000.00 for everyone to afford. Wright never accomplished this goal. Wright’s insistence on detail and costly higher quality materials consistently drove the cost well above the mark. smith2.jpg - 44749 Bytes

Only 60 Usonian homes were built. The Usonian home is a compact single story dwelling. The living room is the dominant part of the design. Wright believed that the living room was central to the design because it was to be shared by the entire family; that it would create an atmosphere to “lift” otherwise mundane everyday activities—giving the homeowners delight and dignity. Wright felt that his open floor plans—“made order out of chaos.” Each home had similar structural characteristics. A basic “L” floor plan laid out on a square grid allowed the design to be turned to best suit the geography of its site. Concrete slab floors with gravity heat were also featured in these homes. This was an idea Wright adapted after visiting the Tokyo home of the Emperor’s Hotel Representative.


Gregor Affleck’s exposure and appreciation of Wright’s work begin in early childhood. He spent a portion of his childhood on a farm near Taliesin. When Gregor and Elizabeth saw drawings and renderings of Fallingwater, they became obsessed with the thought of having their own Wright home. We can only wonder if they knew that Wright actually designed Fallingwater in less than three hours! Wright had been given many months to design Edgar Kaufmann’s home in Pennsylvania, but it wasn't until Kaufmann phoned Wright and told him he was on his way from Madison Wisconsin to Oak Park (about a three hour drive) that Wright finally put pencil to paper.

The Afflecks thought that a Usonian home could make their dream of owning a Wright home a reality. Wright told the Afflecks to “find a site no one else can build anything on.” The plans arrived in 1939 and the house was completed in 1940.

Lawrence Institute of Technology, the present owner, was our host and has flawlessly restored the living room, keeping all the original Wright designed furniture. The living room is built on piers and cantilevers over the basement and a garden level with a fountain. Doors surround the room allowing access to the porch overlooking the the pond. Rain gutters extend beyond the porch—keeping you dry during a rainstorm, yet allowing you to stand on the porch to enjoy the sounds of rain.

As you stand in the hallway between the living room and the bedrooms, you can look through windows placed in the floor and see the fountain. Wright designed them so they could be opened in the summer to allow the breeze to cool the house. The Afflecks would also be able to hear the sound of the fountain and stream filter into the house. Unfortunately, the lower level tunnel which Wright had drawn caved in during the concrete pour.

Like most Wright homes, Wright had drawn a piano on the plan. However, upon one of Wright’s visits to the home he noticed that a built-in bookcase interfered with the corner where he felt the piano should sit. Rather than move the piano, Wright simply sawed off the shelf.

Every detail of the home could not be captured during our short visit. Each piece of the interior cypress siding overlaps perfectly, making doors disappear into the walls. Each vertical grout line in the bricks was tinted to match the brick making the brickwork appear all linear. Even every screw head aligns with the next!

Friends of the Affleck house continue their efforts to preserve and restore a home which I have the pleasure to see every day as I drive to work.


smith3.jpg - 72860 Bytes Melvin Smith became enamored with Wright after seeing photos of Taliesin in the special June 1938 issue of Architectural Forum devoted to Wright. Upon returning from war in 1946, Smith found three acres of “cheap” land in Bloomfield Hills. Smith sent photos and a survey to Wright for inspection. The plans arrived in 1948 with estimates far beyond what the Smiths’ schoolteacher salaries could afford. Undaunted, the Smiths decided to act as their own builder/contractor and labor. Mr. Smith was told it would be impossible to obtain the 14,000 board feet of red cypress he would need. Still unpersuaded, he not only found but bought the cypress for 40 cents a foot less than his original quote.
Each night the Smiths would drive from Detroit up Woodward and work until late into the night on their dream home. Thirteen months later the house was nearly complete; but the Smiths had only $500, and the house still needed windows. Overcome with desperation, Mr. Smith decided that he would just board up the house until he could save the money for the windows; the selflessness and generosity of a local businessman would change all that. The businessman had taken a keen interest in the project and stopped and asked Mr. Smith about his plight. Within a few days, the windows were measured and installed for $500, thanks to Mr. Alfred Taubman.
The Smith family commitment to the preservation of this landmark must be applauded. Mr. Fred Bidigare and Max Smith have set up a foundation to preserve and maintain the home much as it was in 1950. Mrs. Smith now lives in California. I wish to extend a personal thanks to her for her and Mr. Smith’s fortitude, vision and foresight. Few of us would make the sacrifices they made to pursue a dream home. For anyone who was unable to tour these homes, you missed a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Only when you sit in a room of these landmarks do you begin to truly appreciate the vision of Wright, and those fortunate enough to have lived in a piece of history. DAADS wishes to again thank Lawrence Tech and its volunteers, Mr. Fred Bidigare and the Smith family for allowing us the opportunity to visit these historic landmarks.

Copyright © 1999 Detroit Area Art Deco Society. All rights reserved.