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Architecture

Wright or wrong?

Detroit’s Turkel house drips with history

MT photos: Jake Cooley
Wright's design elements, such as rectangular peepholes and rows of cabinetry, use space and scale playfully.
When the rain comes: Though Wright's flat roofs give his houses clean lines, they can overflow with problems.
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Published 6/28/2006

Detroit's Palmer Park area is a stately neighborhood of architectural showoffs. The area is the pride of the city's leading citizens, with English and colonial revival residences and bright green carpets of manicured lawn that command attention. But those who drive slowly down West Seven Mile Road, easing to a crawl on the busy thoroughfare, are treated to one of Detroit's architectural curiosities. Up a narrow driveway, screened off by foliage, is the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dorothy Turkel house. Where Palmer Woods' homes stand drawn up in all their finery, this house turns its face away from the street like a wallflower at a debutante's ball.

Unseen by oblivious motorists whizzing by, it's a world unto its own. The building will be 50 years old next year, and, due to neglect, it looks its age. The fine lines of the textile-block building show wear, with a light coating of moss in places on top. A plywood patch covers one of the small rectangular windows. The yard is a patch of tough city turf.

Inside, the residence smells musty, thanks to years of vacancy and deferred maintenance. All of the original Wright-designed furniture disappeared long ago, leaving visitors' footsteps echoing off the naked concrete and wood surfaces. Walking through this place is another only-in-Detroit experience. Where else can you find spiders' eggs and the faint beginnings of stalactites in what should be a prized specimen of modernist architecture?

But things are looking up for the beleaguered property. A plate glass door that was cracked a few weeks ago has now been replaced. The house has been for sale since last fall with an asking price of $420,000, but this month it was bought by Norman Silk and Dale Morgan, co-owners of Blossoms flower boutique in Birmingham, who are reportedly optimistic about restoring the property to its original condition. (Silk declined to comment about their plans for the property or to cooperate with the writing of this article.) Its vacancy has been unusual in prosperous Palmer Woods. The deeper story is more complicated than the usual Detroit narratives about class and race, and involves the stubborn sensibility of America's most famous architect, a man who once said he wanted this city demolished.

The "waterfall" house

This American saga, fittingly, begins in 1955, with a woman named Dorothy visiting a wizard. After reading Frank Lloyd Wright's book, The Natural House, Dorothy Turkel was moved to visit the maverick architect at his studio. Described as a "contemporary-minded" woman, she had radically altered the interiors of her traditional house, and was determined to have Wright design a contemporary one for her. In the midst of a divorce, she asked Wright to design a home with her and her four children in mind. After much wrangling with the Detroit Building Department due to Wright's unusual construction techniques, a permit was issued in 1956. The Turkels took up housekeeping there in 1957, and Dorothy Turkel lived there for the next 22 years.

Wright is best known for ambitious, creative, technically challenging designs sited on magnificent parcels of land. Fallingwater, the cantilevered residence Wright designed for Pittsburgh businessman Edgar Kaufmann in the 1930s, is just one example. But the Turkel house is another species entirely, what is known as a Usonian "automatic" house. These houses are usually small, single-story homes with an L-shape fronting on a terrace, well suited to small lots rather than the hilltop or prairie settings Wright used to such great effect. Constructed of "Usonia" blocks, which could be cast on-site, the process allowed those who wanted to work on their own homes to cast concrete blocks and do much of the work themselves, at a savings. If that sounds strange today, the '30s and '40s were a fertile time for prefab housing schemes, ranging from mail-order homes to Wright's boutique innovations. Often, however, the "automatic" homes were cast and constructed by professionals, as was the Turkel house, at significant cost.

Architect Lawrence Brink, of Dexter-based Lawrence Brink Associates, studied with and worked under Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1950s, during Wright's busy final years. Brink says, "The Usonian automatics were almost prefab, but not totally, because it wasn't cheap. The intent was to be inexpensive, because the owners could put it together, but with contractors building it, it was expensive."

Philip Feigenson, a retired Faygo Beverage executive, has lived across the street from the house since 1960. He recalls, "The rumor was that she spent a tremendous amount of money for him to design it. It was really something when they built it. They formed the blocks right there on the site." He adds with a laugh, "It was very ludicrous to me, but that was what they did."

The house also has state-of-the-art mechanical systems, including an elevator, air conditioning and a radiant floor heating system that Wright pioneered. Under a shallow slab foundation lay heating pipes that provided the heat. The air system shows a designer determined to let nothing interrupt his clean lines. In the great room, air ducts come up from underground behind the bench, and ascend through shelving disguised as supports. Brink says, "All the projects I worked on had air conditioning and mechanical systems, and Mr. Wright took care of that and would integrate it throughout the spaces in all the buildings to enhance the architecture. Nothing just was a grill in the side of the wall — that was too simple."

After Dorothy Turkel moved away in 1978, the home was empty for many years. In 1985, a business telephone listing for the property in the name of Gough Interiors appeared in a city directory. The next year, there is also a listing for a Joseph Gough. Neighbor John Hall, who has lived next door since 1980, recalls Mr. Gough as a contractor who bought the property. Judging from the phone book, another business, "Millionaires Training," also operated out of the high-profile address before yet another year of vacancy in 1989.

At one point, in the late '80s, the Turkel house fell into the hands of pizza baron and Wright aficionado Tom Monaghan, who left it in the care of the University of Detroit's architecture school. The university's former academic vice president and current Fisher chair of business ethics, the Rev. Gerald Cavanaugh says, "We had some students that were serving as caretakers, but the neighbors objected because it wasn't zoned for more than one family."

But before complaints cleared the students out, it had been an eventful 54 weeks for U of D alumnus John Niesen. He now makes his living as the director of interior architecture for a large firm in Dallas, but back then, he was a 22-year-old architecture student.

Niesen recalls, "Tom Monaghan was in need of people to live there on the grounds sort of, to take care of it, and so I was selected along with another person to live in the house and just keep it up and have tours when people came through."

Niesen learned firsthand back then what is now common knowledge about Wright-designed homes: They are famous leakers. "They didn't really put significant money into the house, and it needed it," he remembers. "The roof leaked like a sieve. It was the only two-story Usonian home that he ever designed, so it had an elevator in it. And when the roof leaked, that turned into the biggest waterfall in that house. The water came straight down that shaft. We'd have to empty the buckets after each rainstorm. ... I'm glad that I didn't have to pay the heating bills after seeing the ones that came to the house by accident in the winter of 1988. I can't imagine what it costs now."

By 1992, the house had settled down for another period of vacancy, until it was bought by Ivan Doverspike around 1997, who sold it a few years later. It seems to have passed through at least two more owners before it finally became the subject of delinquency proceedings.

Neighbor Feigenson says, "It was vandalized and vacant for quite a while. ... I only hope the new owners enjoy it more than the other people."

"It has been neglected almost since Dorothy left it," Brink says. "I'm sure she didn't put any money into it. Doverspike put a foam roof onto it because the built-up roof was just a disaster, built to last 10, maybe 15 years, and here it was 40 years before another roof was put on. And nobody maintained the inside either. ... They poured concrete into some of the floor duct spaces and changed a lot of those systems. ... The carport's steel is rusting and that's breaking the blocks due to the deflection. It's 50 years old. ... It's like anything else: Roofs go away, sidewalks freeze and crack."

The logic of his buildings

To walk through the Turkel house is to have a tour of Wright's artistic temperament. Former New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable's biography describes him as an irascible mix of genius and charlatan, both a visionary who created works that evoked a rich, honeyed light and a tyrant who demanded total control of his projects — and whose disastrous cost overruns drained his clients' bank accounts.

In the Turkel house, Wright's playful use of space teases or taunts, and it's tempting to assume that he included whimsical, peek-a-boo perspectives to entertain the Turkel children. A concrete lattice encloses the stairway, offering screened views of the stairs. A low row of open blocks on the balcony offers peepholes for spying at the front room. From the kitchen, you can peek into the hall by squatting and peering between the cabinetry and a low counter. And in the den, located at the rear of the house, a raised platform gives a small child a boost to look out the window and see who's arrived.

But not all of the quirky design choices are fun and games. As one ad for the property touts, it's a "uniquely designed" living space, a description that cuts both ways. The front room is the only large, open, communal space in the house. The rest of the interior is a labyrinth of narrow hallways and 2-foot-wide doorways concealing bedrooms, bathrooms and other small rooms. You feel like you're aboard a ship or a railroad car rather than inside a 4,000-square-foot house.

Brink believes that impression stems from our contemporary standards and lifestyle patterns. "Now we have opulent spaces and big castles with big doors," he says. "But Mr. Wright saved all the space for the collection of people. The bedrooms were used just for sleeping, so they weren't that large, but now we study and watch TV there. The doors were small, but you didn't have to get furniture through because Mr. Wright designed all the furniture. This was the 1950s, and bedrooms were 8-by-9 then, so this was a big house by the same token."

Wayne State University professor Jerry Herron agrees, hinting at the architect's obsession with the nuclear family. Of Wright's homes, he observes, "There is the great room and the small rooms, and you are faced with a choice, either be part of the communal space or be alone. You had two choices: You were with everybody or you were with yourself." In an age when young people are more likely to commune in chat rooms, such designs are arguably outdated.

But neighbor Feigenson asks more practical questions. "How do you like those bedrooms? And the bathrooms? If anybody is obese I don't know how they're going to get through there. Or that kitchen: If two people were standing in there back-to-back, they'd better be very thin."

Space isn't an occupant's only constraint. With all the fine wood and concrete walls, it's difficult to imagine somebody tapping in a nail to hang a painting, and something as personal as a family photo would look out of place in the austere setting. You can't help but get the sense that Wright wanted the last word, and he didn't want his occupants to tamper with his vision. This is nowhere clearer than in the row of cabinetry lining the long corridor outside the bedrooms and work spaces. You could argue that Wright was offering up ample storage space, but it seems more like he was demanding that personal items remain out of sight, so they don't distract from his work.

"That was the logic of his buildings," Herron notes, "that, by god, you're not even going to move a chair. He'd build a chair into the wall, and you weren't going to change a thing. Most of the furniture and the seating was built into the house, so that you'd sit where Frank Lloyd Wright wanted you to sit."

In Detroit, that kind of rigidity dramatically constrains the pool of buyers. Our housing stock is filled with "survivors" — buildings that have assumed new identities, going from mansion to rooming house or to storefront and back again. When a home is designed not to be changed, it's a strike against its survivability. Herron adds, "The guy built houses in the Midwest with flat roofs." Many of Wright's homes can make his ideal of "bringing the outside in" seem like a cruel joke.

Tear it all down

In a way, it's fitting that the only Wright home within city limits would also be among the most threatened. Not just because of the disinvestments that have hit the city so hard, but because the city was in many ways inimical to Wright's most ecstatic visions for the future. In The Owner-Built Home, architect and writer Ken Kern tells how Wright was contracted by the city to produce a plan that would make Detroit more livable. After due consideration, Wright made a typically dramatic presentation at a meeting of the City Council. He said, "I suggest, you tear it all down and start over."

Like his contemporary Henry Ford, Wright wanted to empty out American cities. He was captivated by the mobility of the automobile, and among his most ambitious plans he included a sprawling paradise of homes on large parcels, a design he called Broadacre City, which would give each American family an acre of land so they could build Wright-designed communities. These quixotic plans would be embodied in the mushrooming suburbs of the postwar era, the explosion that ended up draining Detroit of people with means.

Another curious detail is that his Usonian houses were designed to circumvent the costs of union labor, which, in a labor town like ours, runs against the grain. Herron rightly points out, "If he wouldn't let you move a chair, imagine how he felt about workers telling him what he's going to do."

Perhaps the worst strike against the Turkel house is that Wright's fiercely individualistic vision made no concession to the neighborhood around it. Herron points out how the edifice doesn't integrate itself into its surroundings. "The Turkel house is built of poured concrete blocks. That's just not what the logic of Palmer Park is all about." In fact, Palmer Woods is all about that which Wright revolted against: tradition.

As architecture critic Paul Goldberger observes, "The fact that what the people really wanted was a little brick Georgian house or a little Cape Cod cottage or something drove him crazy. He hated it. ... His own work appealed to much more sophisticated people."

The Turkel house demands an owner willing to weather the costs and challenges of refurbishing the work of a temperamental genius. But the encouraging news of its recent sale is delightfully ironic: People in the city Wright abhorred are poised to save one of his most endangered works. Finally, everybody wins.

Turkel House Photo Gallery

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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