How one man's bad luck paved way for creation of Cranbrook

George Booth at the entrance to The Detroit News building, sometime prior to 1919.

If Samuel Alexander hadn’t had bad luck, he would have had no luck at all. Although he had studied for a year at Michigan Agricultural College (later Michigan State) and had a dream of using the Rouge River for fish cultivation, his great plans seemed doomed to wither away under various misfortunes.

Booth purchased Alexander’s 100 acres, and 75 more. He hired a superintendent for the farm, Sam Morley, for $40 per month and a share of the farm proceeds. He hired Frank Brose, a farmer, for $30 per month and the use of a house, in which Sam boarded, and the men began on March 1, 1904, to turn the ramshackle farm into a paying enterprise. Booth named it Cranbrook after the town in Kent, England, where his father was born. His grandfather was a coppersmith in that village, and the first Cranbrook School, chartered by Queen Elizabeth I was founded there.

George Booth

George Booth

After the family’s first summer in the little cottage, George Booth decided he needed a landscape gardener, with thoughts toward the creation of an estate for his family — wife Ellen (known as Nellie) sons James, Warren and Henry, and daughters Grace and Florence. H.J. Cornfeld, an Englishman, was chosen. He planted the seed of abandoning farming for an ornamental country home estate. All the Booth family members contributed ideas and sometimes labor, to the development of the gardens.

Booth set his eye on a site for a house, and contracted with rising architect Albert Kahn, who had previously constructed an $800 barn for Booth in Detroit, and construction of Cranbrook House was begun in 1907. The original structure was completed in 1908. The wings were added 10 years later. The family moved from Detroit to Cranbrook in 1908, and George Booth commuted to his newspaper by electric interurban car.

Morley, the superintendent, came to an untimely end when Booth talked his Detroit cook, Bertha, into moving out to the country, promising handsome bachelor Morley as company. Unfortunately, his plans hadn’t taken into account a pretty neighborhood girl, who Sam chose as his bride-to-be. Bertha, upon learning of Morley’s preference, shot and killed Sam, who was on his way to a church fair. With the familyies assistance, Bertha was acquitted on grounds of insanity.

Throughout the 1910s, the gardens were enhanced and ornamental pools, fountains and grottos created. The wings including the library were added to the house. The Greek Theatre, the first landmark open to the public, had its formal opening midsummer 1916, with the choir from Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) and 132 cast members and stagehands.

The first public structure on the property was a cottage-style waiting room for passengers of the interurban. The second was a meeting house, in which religious services were held for the community, which was beginning to grow. It opened on January 1, 1919. Katherine McEwen, who later did the frescoes in Christ Church Cranbrook, provided the murals in the meeting house. The meeting house became a school for children and was eventually expanded and built up, designed by Henry Booth, Georges youngest son, who attended the University of Michigan School of Architecture. The meeting house became Brookside, the elementary school.

And when Henry Scripps Booth graduated from the University of Michigan with an architecture degree in 1924, he brought more than his architectural expertise home from school.

In Finland, at the turn of the century, a young Finnish architect was building a reputation. His firm, founded with two classmates, was Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen, and the partner whose path crossed with George Booth to such compelling benefit, was Eliel Saarinen. The young partners were making a name for themselves as the leading firm in Finland. The studio and home they built outside of Helsinki, Hvittrask, was a triumph of art and function combined with nature and beauty.

George and Ellen Booth on their 50th wedding anniversary.

George and Ellen Booth on their 50th wedding anniversary.

While Henry Booth was attending the University of Michigan architecture school Eliel Saarinen was traveling from Finland to the United States after winning second place in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition in 1923. After completing a plan for the lakefront of downtown Chicago, which he published in American Architect, he was sought out by Emil Lorch, head of the Architecture School at Michigan, and took up residence there in the autumn of 1923. It was at U of M that the extraordinary partnership was set in motion between the Booth family and the Saarinens.

When Henrys father George visited the campus and spoke with Saarinen, he discussed his plan for creating an educational community and art academy to be structured almost like artisan apprenticeships were in Europe. He already had various shops in place for the artisans and craftsmen who were working on his estate. He and Saarinen, in collaboration from 1926 to 1943 created the Utopia that would become the Cranbrook community. With the arrival of Saarinen, Booths vision could become reality.

The first joint venture, Cranbrook School for Boys, rose out of the farmland that once belonged, so unluckily, to Samuel Alexander. George Booth’s initial plan was to convert the original farm buildings into school buildings and add to them in ways that complemented the early buildings.

In this Booth was following his appreciation of the Arts and Crafts Movement, begun in England late in the 19th Century. John Ruskin, philosophical leader of the movement, made a direct connection between art, nature, and morality: good moral art was nature expressed through man. Ruskin and fellow architect William Morris emphasized the reduction of gaudy decoration and the necessity of natural materials, focusing on detailed, personal craftsmanship in wood, metalwork, and ceramics. Saarinen too had been greatly influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, and it shows throughout their collaborations across the campus.

The Booth family lived in this mansion on Trumbull and Grand River in Detroit until they moved to Cranbrook in 1908.

The Booth family lived in this mansion on Trumbull and Grand River in Detroit until they moved to Cranbrook in 1908.

Although the actual conversion of the farm buildings proved impractical, the new school buildings recreated the setting of the farm and many of the elements of the architecture.

The Cranbrook School for Boys, begun in 1925, was completed in 1930. It was Saarinens first executed architectural work in the United States.

In 1927, the Cranbrook Foundation was created. None of the Booth children wished to inherit the Cranbrook property, so George Booths plans to create an educational and cultural Mecca there could go forward. Having already built Christ Church, Brookside School and Cranbrook School for Boys, Booth and his wife Ellen endowed the new Cranbrook Foundation with their estate and $12,000,000 (equivalent to $122,000,000 in 2001 dollars). They kept a life rent of the house and immediate grounds. The Declaration of Intent of the Foundation gives its purpose as ” [to] add and strengthen the educational and cultural facilities within the state of Michigan”

The Booth family's Cranbrook House.

The Booth family’s Cranbrook House.

Eliel Saarinen built his new house on the campus, near what would become the art studios. And with this beginning, the philosophy of the Academy of Art became reality: True to his arts and crafts leanings, Booth envisioned a community of artisans and artists who would each have a studio and a “master”, along the lines of the European apprenticeships of craftsmen. Renowned artists would live on the campus and students would be able to work and live under their tutelage. In some sense, the craftsmen who were working on the estate were the genesis for the Academy of Art. Booth had provided them with studios and workshops, and with the arrival of architect Saarinen, and the formation of the foundation, a more concrete plan could be put into place.

But first came Kingswood School. Ellen Booth told her husband that if the boys had a school, then their granddaughter Elizabeth should have one too, and so Kingswood School for Girls was born. Begun in 1929 and completed in 1930, it was Saarinens from start to finish, unlike the boys school, which had much input from George Booth. By now Booth was willing to put complete faith in Saarinen. A site was planned on a lake for the girls school, and it arose over the next year, to be completed in 1930. Again, the site, between a wooded hillside and a lake, was integral to the design of the building. The horizontal overall shape echoed the shoreline, and the different levels reflect the gradual slope of the land.

Kingswood was a family effort. Saarinens wife Loja, an artist in her own right, did the most extensive work of her career to date as a weaver here: She designed the rugs, curtains, and furniture coverings for the school. Their daughter Pipsan decorated the ballroom and auditorium interiors. Son Eero, age 19, designed the furniture a precursor to later fame as designer of the womb chair and pedestal chair, as well as the St. Louis Arch and such huge undertakings as Washington National Airport and New Yorks TWA terminal at Kennedy.

The rear gardens of the Cranbrook House.

Next came the Institute of Science, started in 1931, completed in 1933. It was built to stand next to a reflecting pool, with the sculpture of Triton figures by Carl Milles.

Milles was a Swedish sculptor who, on Saarinens invitation, came to the Academy of Art as resident sculptor and director of the department of sculpture. Saarinen had been appointed president of the Academy of Art in 1932. To date, it consisted of the crafts building, studios for the artists, and Milles residence and his own. Booths extensive collection of art books was outgrowing his Cranbrook House library. What were now needed were a library and a museum to display the works that were being produced. Over the course of the next 10 years, Saarinen created the Academy of Art library and art museum, connected by the elegant peristyle, and framed by reflecting pools, with glorious sculptures by Milles. The artists and artisans included British silversmith Arthur Nevill Kirk, metalsmith Harry Bertoia, Edward Miller to establish the Cranbrook Press and Jean Eschmann for fine bookbinding. Tor Bergland to set up a cabinet shop, and Loja Saarinen, Eliels wife, set up the weaving department. Milles headed up Sculpture, and other departments included ceramics, design, graphic arts, textiles, painting, and of course architecture. The design shop was run by Eero Saarinen and the renowned Charles Eames. The Academy of Art was formally founded in 1932, and give degree-granting power in 1942. It was the birthplace of incomparable mid-century talent.

George Booth was unique in his dream, and in the practicality of his grand design. He was privileged in his partner, Eliel Saarinen, who shared his vision and his energy, and brought his unmatched talent. Theirs was an astonishing collaboration. Cranbrook was the culmination of their lives work and stands today as a monument to the genius of the two men who came together to create an unparalleled cultural and educational resource in a setting of elegance and quiet beauty, and masterful architectural design.

Christ Church Cranbrook in 1928.

Christ Church Cranbrook in 1928.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News