Ann Arbor, MI
In the 1950s and 1960s, a group of young Ann Arbor modernists built dozens of homes in the suburbs surrounding the University of Michigan. The Spruce House, built by local architect Ted Smith in 1959-60 for his family, was part of this trend. Located in a typical post-war American suburb, the most remarkable thing about the house is just how different it is from its neighbors, and just how well that difference works.
Ted Smith designed the house as a flat-roofed glass and wood box reached by a bridge on the street side and featuring an enormous cantilevered porch on the back. The house was sited to take advantage of the slope down from the curving street, showing its two full stories at the rear supported by a concrete block base. It was, undoubtedly, quite a sight when it was built. Fast-forward fifty years, however, and the modest 2,000 square foot house was in a desperate state. Built inexpensively, it was no wonder it wasn’t in good condition. Today, after a major renovation, the house has surpassed its original glory, and limited floor plan to become a modern gem. The finished project was featured in the April 2007 issue of Metropolitan Home.
In order to create a contemporary space, the floor plan of the house was completely rearranged, but within its structural limits. The Spruce House now has two offices and a terrace on the roof (an addition to the original two story house); a living and dining room, kitchen, pantry and bedroom on the first floor; and, in what was previously the garage, den and mechanical area, a master suite with a bedroom, large master bath and gym on the ground floor. The original four tiny bedrooms, all located on the main floor, were transformed into a large kitchen pantry, a light filled open stairway and a home theater. On the ground floor, the backyard was excavated to provide light for the master suite and to create a private terrace.
The renovation was commissioned by a local couple, a history professor and a writer, who bought the house to share with their teenage son. What was so compelling about the house, and what made the work and additions so gratifying, was that it had classic good bones. Quite literally, the structure of the house and its spaces, the large timber beams, columns and solid wood plank ceilings, were well organized and simple to adapt and revise.
The house required a gut renovation, all the previous modifications were removed, the floor plan was rethought within the original structural grid and all the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems were replaced. In order to finish the job in a timely manner, the project was divided into four parts. First, the original two-story house was renovated so the family could move in as soon as possible. Then, the partial third story with two offices and a terrace was added. Finally, to complete the project, a separate garage with a small den above for the teenage son and a writer’s studio nestled in the trees behind the house were built.
The writer’s studio, the den above the garage and the partial third story were all designed to provide private space for the family. Fundamentally, the house needed places to escape from the original one floor design. Living on one floor is convenient, but if there is any need for quiet, retreat or separation it can be maddeningly close. The owners needed that sense of retreat and it informed the first extension as well as the next two. The three buildings were all designed in keeping with the original aesthetic and pattern of the house. The same palette of materials were used and we always tried to respect the original, we wanted it to look like one architect had designed the whole ensemble.
The finishes and furnishings were all chosen for their sympathy to the original period of the house and significant signature pieces were retained such as medicine cabinets, the fireplace and the original color red used by Ted Smith. We didn't want to invent every piece of the house simply because we could. Sometimes the architect’s job is to let the original intentions come through. The furniture is classic mid-century with original pieces by George Nelson, Eero Saarinen and Harry Bertoia. The end result is a modestly sized, livable house with privacy for each member of the family and a sense of practical luxury; a mid-century house redesigned for the twenty-first century.