If ever a Frank Lloyd Wright house needed intrepid and visionary buyers,it was the Dorothy Turkel residence in Detroit in the spring of 2006. De-spite its location on the edge of the historic and stately Palmer Woods neighborhood, the 1955 house – Wright’s only realized two-story UsonianAutomatic and his sole building within Detroit’s city limits – had fallen on hard times following Turkel’s departure in the late 1970s. The house was protected from owner demolition as a City of Detroit landmark, but the residence had been seriously compromised by long periods of vacancy and years of deferred maintenance. By the spring of 2006 the situation was dire; the uninhabited house was in mortgage foreclosure and its future preservation was in serious doubt. The residence was at significant risk of”demolition-by-neglect” and urgently needed “preservation-minded owners.”Fortunately, just such prospective buyers lived around the corner from the house.
Dale Morgan and Norman Silk, founders and proprietors of Blossoms, a well-known florist in nearby Birmingham, had lived in Palmer Woods for over 20 years and knew of the Turkel house and its architectural provenance. They had always owned older homes and enjoyed the process of returning a historic house to its original glory while adapting it to suit their lifestyle. Beginning in the 1970s, their projects included the renovation of three houses in Detroit’s historic districts. In 1985, they moved into a large Italian villa in Palmer Woods. As Morgan explained in a Dec. 29 telephone interview, they “redid everything in the house…from the chandeliers to the heating in the floor.” However, after living there for 22 years, they began to think about changing their style and moving into a simpler home or building a contemporary house, Morgan said. They realized that the Turkel house, “which no one had ever stepped up to the plate to renovate,” was exactly the unique and interesting house project they had been seeking for “our personal growth,” he explained. In June of 2006 Morgan and Silk purchased the endangered house.
As seasoned renovators and restorers, the two men knew the house was “in rough shape” and did not view the daunting task at hand through “rosy glasses,” as other, less experienced buyers might have done. They knew the roof leaked, the windows had to be replaced and the heating was inadequate. Although they had a “pretty realistic” dollar figure in mind, Morgan admitted to “sticker shock,” when they tallied the projected restoration costs.
Silk and Morgan grasped the significance of the Wright-designed house and knew they needed expert advice in order to proceed. As Morgan observed, with regard to the house, “the more we knew, the more we realized we didn’t know anything.” Wisely, they contacted the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at Taliesin West for guidance, which in turn directed them to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy for additional assistance. The men hired architect and former Conservancy board member Lawrence R. Brink of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a Taliesin Fellow and a Wright house specialist, to assess the condition of the structure and to plan and engineer its restoration. Among the challenges Brink identified were the sagging cantilevered carport roof that was pulling on a corner of the house, a heating system that had to be completely redesigned, and a porous flat roof. An overarching concern of all involved was that the system updates and renovations not compromise Wright’s original vision for the house. Decisions were made – at extra expense – to minimize or conceal the visual impact of heating, plumb-ing, and electrical upgrades. Morgan and Silk also plan to reconstruct the freestanding furniture Wright designed for the space, none of which remains in the house today. Pieces will include several coffee tables and ottomans, and a dining room table with six chairs.
In a very real sense, Morgan and Silk have inherited the unintentional sins of previous owners and in one instance, are facing a situation that cannot be reversed. A former inhabitant painted the concrete blocks-the basic unit of construction of the Usonian Automatic house – on the interior of the home. Despite extensive research and numerous attempts, the paint, which penetrated the surfaces of the blocks, cannot be removed without causing irreparable damage to the concrete. The best possible remedy is to return the blocks to their original concrete color, said Morgan.
Despite the major work that includes a complete kitchen remodel and reconfiguration of a wing of the second floor to create a master bedroom suite, Morgan remains upbeat about the project and can clearly envision the finished product. “This is a very gracious home,” he explained and cited the soaring, spacious music room with 15-foot ceilings and the second floor walkway overlook to support his contention. The Philippine mahogany paneling, hand sanded and refinished, provides a warm, textural counter point to the block fireplace, walls and expansive window walls. Even in its current condition, he finds the room to be “very church-like and tranquil. It’s a sacred space.” If all goes well, Morgan and Silk hope the house will be habitable by mid-summer.
Befitting their professional talents, they have “big plans for the gardens.” Wright did not provide a landscape plan for the house, so they will create their own, and favor “a simple, graphic approach,” said Silk. They have turned to the work of the late Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who worked with Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer and contributed garden designs to the city of Brasilia, for inspiration. But Silk adds, “We are sensitive to Mr. Wight’s preference to use nature in his designs.” Another important consideration is the square grid of the house plan, which the landscape design will reflect. A six-foot wide strip of patio, composed of squares of concrete, was added to the existing terrace and “a big modular square of two kinds of grasses in green and gray,”will extend into the yard beyond. Where the lot meets the street, they are considering something more expansive,”like the music room it borders…an explosion of space,”says Morgan. Although they own many paintings, he believes the house and garden are well suited to sculpture and mentioned the harmonious blend of the work of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles and the architecture of Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook as a successful local model.
In describing the Usonian Automatic house to the Detroit Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1954,Wright explained the simplicity, affordability, and do-it-yourself nature of the hollow concrete block and reinforced steel bar building system he created: “You can go to the plan – we call it the Usonian plan – and you can buy the cement, the steel and the sand and build your own house. “While the words “do-it-yourself” and “affordability” will not apply to the massive present-day restoration project (nor did they apply to the original house which took a crew of workers two years to build and cost almost $100,000 according to Silk), the elegant simplicity of Wright’s design concept remains timeless. It is one of the qualities that attracted Morgan and Silk to the Turkel house. “In our business, we are around beauty constantly and are exposed to a variety of houses, but some people don’t know what beauty is,” said Morgan. He finds the work of many good architects, like Wright, to be beautiful in their simplicity. “When something is right, it doesn’t scream. It’s gentle and quiet,” he observed. And nothing, even the ravages of time and neglect, can change that basic truth.
This article first appeared in the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s BULLETIN, Volume 17, Issue 1.
– Jane King Hession