Baby I'll treat you Wright

Cranbrook is gifted Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Smith House

Architecture Midwest News Newsletter
Cranbrook is gifted Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Smith House (Andrew Jameson/Wikimedia Commons)

Already the home of work by Eliel Saarinen, Albert Kahn and Stephen Holl, Metro Detroit’s Cranbrook has acquired the Melvyn Maxwell and Sarah Stein Smith House, a 1950 Usonian home in Bloomfield Hills designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for two Detroit public school teachers. The home comes to Cranbrook via a donation from the Towbes Foundation and provides the institution with ownership of the Smith House as an educational resource. The Smith house has been preserved exactly as it was when the Smiths lived in it.

While studying at the City College of Detroit, now Wayne State University, Melvyn Maxwell Smith saw an image of Fallingwater during a slide presentation and was instantly hooked on Wright. With equal financial backing from his wife Sarah Stein Smith, the couple travelled to Taliesin, where they asked Wright to design a home for $5,000. Wright negotiated $8,000 and waited for the couple to save up to purchase a suitable piece of property. Deeply occupied by his work on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Wright communicated regularly with the Smiths once he delivered the design for the home and urged Melvyn Maxwell Smith to work as his own general contractor to keep costs down, and one that would allow Smith to control the quality of work. Smith gathered a team of contractors, journeymen and friends to work on the house, including those that agreed to work for a reduced rate in exchange for the privilege of being a part of the project.

With the Smiths paying as they went, construction moved slowly. As the house was nearing completion, the Smiths found themselves without funds to purchase the windows. Real estate investor Al Taubman, another FLW super fan, found himself visiting the construction site just as Melvyn Maxwell Smith was boarding up the window openings with plywood. After listening to Smith lament that he was down to his last $500, and worrying that inclement weather would damage the house, Taubman had installers from the Pittsburg Plate Glass Window Company arrive the next day to measure and install the windows and sent the Smiths a bill for exactly $500. Over time, the Smiths filled the house with sculptures and designed objects by artists associated with Cranbrook. Melvyn Maxwell Smith lived in the house until his death in 1984. Sarah Stein Smith stayed until moving to California in 1991.

The Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research is responsible for stewarding the Smith House and is also undertaking an oral history project to collect stories from artists and contractors that worked on the project.

Related Stories