There aren’t many places in the world where you can walk on water. But that’s possible on guided tours of the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio, a marvel of mid-century modern architecture in Midland, near the Thumb in the Great Lakes Bay region.
The home’s showcase pond, where the architect and his family rowed and ice-skated, is dotted with white, rhomboid-shaped stepping stones—Dow’s signature Unit Blocks—that beckon adventurous visitors.
“Every tour that goes through the home and studio has the option, weather permitting, to walk out onto the pond, whether the visitors are eight or 80,” says Craig McDonald, the home’s director.
That sense of playful engagement is a hallmark of the compound, built in four phases from 1934 to 1941. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989 and ranks among the 25 “Best Historic Homes in America” by Traditional Home magazine.
It also made Travel + Leisure’s list of America’s 25 “coolest” houses, alongside Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the White House, Hearst Castle and the Biltmore Estate. Cool houses, the magazine explained, are always experiments—domestic laboratories where designers, builders and homeowners work out better ways to live. And Dow, who wove together structure and nature, did exactly that.
In 1933, he and his wife, Vada, spent a brief but formative apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in Wisconsin, and they remained lifelong friends. During a 50-year career, Dow designed some 600 structures, including nearly 150 in his native Midland; he was named Michigan’s first— and only—architect laureate in 1983, shortly before his death.
With its airy vaulted ceilings, soaring roof lines, diverging angles, geometric patterns and abundant natural light, the complex is his 20,000-square-foot masterwork. Surrounded on three sides by the pond, it reflects Dow’s philosophy of “organic architecture” in which “gardens never end and buildings never begin.” His imaginative use of color, shape and texture makes it blend almost seamlessly with the woods and water, in keeping with his mission of bringing the outdoors in and extending the interior outside.
Visitors get an immediate feel for that in the studio’s “floating conference room,” also called the Submarine Room, as it is situated 18 inches below pond level. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows provide expansive views of the terraced garden and wooded yard. The space, with a vivid crabapple-pink ceiling, is dappled with reflective light from the pond.
The home opens into flowing, colorful spaces, grand in scale yet conveying intimacy and comfort. Dow fostered those feelings by creating spaces within spaces, such as the sprawling living room that transitions, three steps up, into the dining room.
Décor includes Bertoia chairs and Eames and Herman Miller classics, plus American pottery and Scandinavian glass. For tour visitors, exploring secret passageways and an underground tunnel, and watching model trains chug through various rooms, are unexpected delights.
Terraces and walls, indoors and out, as well as the pond’s ornamental stepping stones, are composed of Dow’s Unit Blocks, which gain strength as they’re stacked together. They were cast from recycled cinder ash from the nearby Dow Chemical Co., founded by his father, Herbert H. Dow.
Many among the 12,000 annual visitors are surprised by Alden Dow’s creativity, whimsy and forward-thinking, according to McDonald. “Most people guess it was designed in the 1960s or 1970s, not the 1930s,” he says, and observes: “You don’t have to like modernism—you don’t even have to like architecture—to appreciate it.”
Tours are offered at 2 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, plus 10 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The home is closed on Sundays. Reservations are required; make them online at abdow.org.
When he wasn’t designing his own clothes or experimenting with fur-covered houses and other unconventional design projects, Alden Dow liked to garden at his home and in the neighboring Dow Gardens, which he helped design on his parents’ rolling estate.
Open year-round (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day), the 110acre botanical park showcases seven gardens devoted to roses, herbs, children and other themes. A “color garden” (shown on the cover) features the striking red Sun Bridge, one of four bridges Alden Dow designed in Dow Gardens. dowgardens.org; (800) 362-4874.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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