Wright's Treasure, or Preserving the City
You've probably heard about Detroit's $100 houses, the burned-out buildings and the empty shells deteriorating block after block.
But have you heard about the million-dollar plus renovation happening to this little place on Seven Mile?
Thanks to two visionaries, many Detroit-area craftsmen and “a touch of insanity,” one of Frank Lloyd Wright's unique homes is shining again. It is the Dorothy Turkel House, designed by Wright in 1955 and the only one of its kind in Detroit.
You want to know the best part of my job? It's all about getting to tour this work in progress, talk with its owners and breathe in the possibilities of what Detroit could look like when people invest in it.
The house – and all of the credit – belongs to Norman Silk and Dale Morgan, co-owners of Blossoms, a flower boutique in Birmingham. They bought it in 2006 and have been working on it ever since. Silk was kind enough to let me nose around recently with Barbara Barefield, one of the organizers of the Palmer Woods Music in Homes events.
The house is the crowning jewel in Palmer Woods, an impressive statement considering the neighborhood. Here sits Tudor Revival, Neo-Georgian, Mediterranean, Modern and Craftsman homes, all meticulously renovated, updated and adored. At the time, however, its appearance was considered quite shocking to those nice ladies on the block.
We parked by this concrete beauty and tread across the crushed gravel driveway. I'll admit to being a Wright fan, touring some of his other homes in Chicago, Wisconsin and Arizona. It was thrilling just to be on the grounds of such a stately home. It stands at more than 4,000 square feet with seemingly endless expanses of windows and woodwork.
Morgan's congenial tour featured a mix of history, personal anecdotes and social commentary. He and Silk have embraced this huge project for a variety of reasons: the challenge, the prestige and, most importantly, the location. You don't see many Wright creations in Michigan. And Detroit is where Morgan feels most at home, he said. Forget quiet, kid-friendly boulevards. Bring on the traffic, the noise, the urban and the human.
How could you not want to live like this? Looking out the house's many peek-a-boo windows, you see everything yet no one can see you. The house's overhangs keep you cool and hidden away at the same time. It is a level of privacy and intimacy I have never felt before in a house.
The most gracious room is the large living room, a surprisingly bright space lined with bookshelves and a fireplace at one end. Silk and Morgan's reading materials here center on the famous architect, a collection that is a mix of gifts and purchases. Wright supposedly called it the music room, and the soaring 15-foot ceiling height combined with the 200 block windows certainly sang to me. It connects to the den via a 48-foot gallery, which has eight glass doors that open to the large backyard. Imagine throwing those doors open during a balmy summer night…bliss.
Some history: Dorothy Turkel commissioned the house in January 1954 after reading Wright's book “The Natural House.” She wrote a letter to the architect, recounting her vision for a new house in Detroit. The letter ended with a question “Will you design such a house?” Within three months she had blueprints, Morgan said. It is the only built example of a two-story Usonian Automatic, a style created by Wright as an example of his organic architecture.
Six owners came and went between Turkel and the current ones (including a short stint by Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, although it is said he never lived there). According to Silk and Morgan, “cracked and broken exterior concrete block needed repair and replacement. The leaking roof had caused structural damage to the carport and wiring. Mechanical systems no longer worked. The original kitchen cabinets had been mostly replaced, Philippine mahogany paneling and built-in cabinets had faded from the sun.”
Don't even ask about the heating system; it is a maze of pipes that look more like a kid's drawing than anything relatively understandable. And a flat roof? Really, Frankie, this is Michigan. We get a lot of snow here.
Morgan notes that much of the heavy lifting is done -- but it will never truly end. The kitchen is up and running. It is a blend of simple lines, true to the original intent. There is a small working area off to the side for when real life demands real food. The den is still under construction, but it looks like it will be a cozy space thanks to its warm paneled walls.
On the second floor, the little balcony overlooking the living room is both comfortable and inspiring. The master bedroom and bath are slightly larger now to befit modern living, but the owners tried to stay true to the house's bones. Morgan said the second-floor office area is still freezing cold, but that will be improved in time, he said.
I look forward to seeing the house later this year for the Palmer Woods jazz series that will be held there; Morgan said they will have an outdoor area prepared befitting Wright and his original vision for the property.
“He had a respect and understanding of how nature worked,” Morgan said.
Wright was pretty pleased with himself and the project. When he came back to see the house as it neared completion, a local newspaper quoted him as saying: “A gem. … You have a treasure here,” he told Mrs. Turkel. “We will count it among our success.”
In doing some research on the house, I came across another quote, which truly describes how exciting the renovation project is:
"If someone else had managed to buy the house, chances are whatever job they were to do would not have this level of historic integrity," Vogel says. "What these two gentlemen are doing is tremendous."