The Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1946 and constructed in 1949. It is a prime example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian design philosophy for housing the “common” man. The house is a one story structure of approximately 1,800 square feet. It embodies Wright’s design principle of “organically” blending with the house with the site and surroundings. The use of strong horizontal roof planes, cantilevers, and the landscape emphasize the integrated relationship of the structure.
The home is basically “L”-shaped in plan with its major living areas oriented south to southwest. The home’s low horizontal profile is unassuming from the street and appears to be part of the site. The carport, with its dramatic roof cantilever, along with the strong horizontal planes of the living room lower and upper sections are the first noticeable elements of the house. These two horizontal elements are anchored by the kitchen and chimney brick mass, which provide a degree of verticality and contrast. The basic construction is made up of load bearing solid brick walls, sandwich walls made up of a three-quarter-inch plywood core covered with cypress boards and reverse battens, plate glass, and a radiant heat colored concrete floor.
The entry from the road is very dramatic at night, especially with the lit living room clerestory. Smith used to tell the story that when the house was first lit at night (circa 1949-50s) a woman was driving by in her car, saw the home and thought it was a railroad train going through the area. Such was the impact of the dramatic lighting by Wright in this home.
The home is situated on a three-acre parcel in the middle of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The site was originally a meadow with a few maples and oaks scattered throughout. The southeast portion of the site was a marsh area, which was fed from a small stream flowing through the site from the northwest corner to the southeast. In the late 1950s part of the low-lying area was dredged out to create a small pond and fountain. The pond and the landscaping, including trees, shrubbery, and planting was done by Smith under the direction of landscape architect Thomas Dolliver Church.
Sara Smith recalls Wright visiting the house on three occasions: 1951, 1953, and 1957. It was on the first occasion that Mr. Wright referred to the home as “My Little Gem.” Mr. Wright’s presence marked a highlight for the Smith’s and their guests.
The Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Smith house is a great example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian architecture, and is one of thirty-seven buildings Wright designed in the State of Michigan. The Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 28, 1997.
Beers, Peter. “Melvyn Maxwell Smith House: Bloomfield Hills, Michigan,” Peterbeers.net, Jan. 22, 2004, accessed July 13, 2012.
King, R. J. “A. Alfred Taubman Saves a Residential Gem,” dbusiness, Jan.-Feb. 2011, Accessed July 13, 2012.
Ewell, Gary. “Wright’s Little Gem,” Film, (2006, Ann Arbor, WFUM).