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Frank Lloyd Wright home ahead of its time

 House in Palmer Woods is restored to its former glory

By Maureen Feighan | Detroit News Design Writer

In January 1955, Dorothy Turkel of Detroit wrote a letter to America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, asking him to design her a new home.

After he agreed, Turkel, whose family owned a chain of parking lots across the country, had several very specific requests for her future home, according to letters she exchanged with Wright. No small windows, she wrote — she wanted large windows, preferably ones she could open. She wanted very few exterior doors. She also wanted a work space for her husband and a soda fountain.

What she got is almost the exact opposite — more than 400 windows and 19 exterior doors. There is no soda fountain.

“This is actually nothing like she envisioned,” says Norman Silk, who bought Turkel’s home in 2006 with his partner, Dale Morgan.

But even if Wright completely ignored Turkel’s wishes, the results are stunning. The 4,300-square-foot “L” shaped house on 7 Mile in Detroit’s Palmer Woods neighborhood is a spectacle of function, form and beauty.

Made of more than 6,000 concrete blocks in 36 different patterns and threaded together with steel bars, it’s one of only seven Usonian automatic homes Wright designed, the only one with a second story, and the only Wright-designed house in Detroit. It’ll be part of a tour Saturday on Usonian homes for the Michigan Modern symposium at Cranbrook. Registration is already closed.

“This house is so phenomenally significant in American architecture because it’s the last style that Frank Lloyd Wright developed and was the biggest of” its kind, says Morgan, who with Silk owns Blossoms, the Birmingham florist. “People from all over the world are coming to look at it.”

A mixture of concrete, glass, and steel — as most Usonian automatic homes are — it features a two-story living room that Wright called the music room with hundreds of small windows, each of which provide their own unique view of the lush landscaping. A hallway off the music room leads to the kitchen and then a downstairs den, also with dozens of small windows. Several sets of steel doors off the kitchen allow it to flow seamlessly into an outdoor terrace, perfect for entertaining.

“The outside influences the inside and the other way around,” says Silk. “That’s why the floor color (polished red concrete) continues out to the terrace so it blurs the difference between the inside and out.”

Wright was in his late 80s when Turkel wrote to him after she’d read his book, “The Natural House.” She told him about her vision for a new house in Detroit, according to the website, turkelhouse.com. The letter ended with a question: “Will you design such a house?”

The five-bedroom, three-bathroom house cost $65,000 to design and $150,000 to build, “when an average house cost $12,000,” says Morgan.

Living room

Philippine mahogany panels line the back of the two-story living room, or music room. Silk says they used photos of original furniture from another Wright house that was being auctioned off at Sotheby’s to have some of the music room furniture made. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Turkel — she and her husband divorced before the house was finished — lived in the house for 20 years, before it was sold to Loretta Benbow, who helped get it designated as a historic district (it’s sometimes referred to as the Turkel-Benbow house). It’s also on the state’s Register of Historic Homes.

But by the time longtime Palmer Woods residents Silk and Morgan bought it in 2006, it had been vacant for three years. The exterior concrete was in disrepair, the heating and electrical systems were shot, and it was “unlivable,” Silk says. One former owner had stored snow mobiles in the music room.

With a copy of the original blueprints and photos from Turkel’s granddaughter, Silk and Morgan spent more than four years working to restore the house to its original glory. They had a new roof installed, the heating and electrical systems redone, and completely redid the kitchen. No basement and no attic “means everything had to come out,” Silk says.

“With a project like this, everything is custom,” says Morgan.

Today, it looks as much like an art gallery as an architectural wonder. Built-in shelves made of Philippine mahogany line the music room walls, hallway and upstairs office. They’re filled with a mix of books, artwork and sculptures. They hired Detroit furniture maker Alan Kaniarz to make custom-made tables and stools for the music room based on pictures of a set of original furniture auctioned off at Sotheby’s.

Silk says he and Morgan wanted to make the house “as much like 1955 with some concessions for modern living,” he says.

In the kitchen, they followed the original footprint, but instead of using metal cabinets as the house had originally, they installed cabinets made of Philipine mahogany. The counters are made of stainless steel.

Just outside the kitchen, several sets of doors open to the terrace, revealing a rectangular water feature and what may be some of the biggest changes since the house was built — the lush gardens.

Silk and Morgan worked with Richard Hass of Stewart Hass & Associates on the landscape design, which was inspired by the Lurie Garden in Chicago and has a mixture of colors and textures.

“This looks green but it changes,” Silk says. “It blooms all summer.”

A stone walkway winds through large beds of perennials, punctuated with sculptures of different deities, including a Hindu God and a Buddha. South of the house is a large sculpture garden.

“She (Turkel) planted some rosebushes that winded up at the doors downstairs. Mr. Wright didn’t design any of the landscaping. We put everything in. It was a five-year project to get to this stage,” Silk says.

Three maples trees planted in the 1960s are the only thing left from when Turkel and her children lived in the house.

Wright died in 1959, just one year after Turkel moved in to her new home. And while Wright’s popularity faded before rebounding, the Turkel House is an example of his enduring legacy.

“A lot of people have a different idea of a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” says Silk, who with Morgan is active in the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago. “They think of prairie homes or Usonian houses, which are different materials. So they’re surprised (when they see the house).”