Why does a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright have forced-air registers in its Cherokee-red floor?
by Sue Maguire
From the July, 2018 issue
The house in Scio Twp. is one of Wright's "Usonian" designs. Intended to be attractive but also highly efficient and cheap to construct, these single-story homes typically were built using natural, unpainted brick and wood on a cement slab with radiant heating. But in this case, the strong-willed architect wasn't around to enforce his wishes: 3935 Holden was built twenty years after his death.
Fred Haddock, the U-M astrophysicist who built it, knew that Wright's radiant heating systems were prone to fail. Haddock's widow, Deborah Fredericks, explains that Haddock not only specified the materials and installation for the radiant system--he had a forced-air furnace installed as a backup.
Maybe the name of the home--"Below Zero"--prompted Haddock to take matters into his own hands. Designed by Wright in 1938, it was originally commissioned by a retiring schoolteacher, Edith Carlson, and her mother for a site in Superior, Wisconsin. But they never built the house--Fredericks thinks they may have been put off by the tiny size of the second bedroom. It remained unexecuted until it was revived by Haddock in the late 1970s.
Haddock's then wife, Priscilla Whiteford, was a WCC anthropology instructor who was keenly interested in Japanese culture. Wright was also fascinated by Japanese design, and that connection seems to have inspired Whiteford to want a Frank Lloyd Wright home.
According to Fredericks, a petite and energetic steward of the home, Haddock bought the plans from Wright's third wife and widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, in conjunction with architect Charles Montooth of Taliesin Associated Architects, the firm Wright formed to carry on his work.
Building a Wright home is not easy, and the marriage lost out to the process. Some of the details of Wright's design needed interpretation, and disagreements about how to execute them led a couple of contractors to drop out, according to Fredericks. One person who stuck it out was lead architect Charles Montooth, who would fly in and dine on Haddock's dime once a month
Bruce Curtis, who helped build the house, remembers Montooth as "tall, stately, impressive." Then twenty-six, Curtis had followed his grad-student girlfriend to Ann Arbor, where he stumbled into a job with Jonathan Jacoby, a busy Burns Park builder.
Curtis found he loved working with his hands and using his creativity to complete challenging designs. "Hungry and eager" to learn more, he started taking woodworking classes at WCC. And when his yoga teacher--Whiteford--talked about a Frank Lloyd Wright home that she was having built, he wanted to know more.
Whiteford showed him drawings and put him in touch with Dick Russell, who was building the home under the guidance of local architect Dick Reinhart. They asked him to design the four-foot-long and one-foot-high windows needed to go around the home. After seeing a prototype Curtis built in his basement, Russell asked him, "Can you do all of it?"
Curtis said he could. "I lost my shirt, no doubt," he says. But it was his first job on his own, and "I was on top of the world." He went on to construct all of the wood doors, using the brass piano hinges specified by Wright, and designed and made what he calls the "stalk lights" that hang from the ceiling.
Haddock died in 2009, but the home near Honey Creek remains a stunner, with soaring redwood walls, a floor-to-ceiling expanse of geometrically designed windows, and a multitude of clerestory windows and skylights that keep the small space feeling spacious. A traditional central brick hearth is complemented by an additional hearth in the bedroom. Both are shallow and high, and Fredericks allows that Wright's fireplaces were notorious for not drafting properly, although she also notes they can be retrofitted with electric venting systems to make them work more efficiently.
Many of the Wright design elements and craftsmanship that make the home comfortable and expansive similarly demand close attention from its steward. That's part of the price of living in a thoughtfully conceived piece of art.
Some of Haddock's own utilitarian adaptations remain just as he left them. He turned a multilevel alcove into a library, lining the narrow but tall space with shelves and installing a ladder to reach the upper shelves. Still hanging from a coarse piece of rope is the plastic five-gallon bucket he used to lower the books he retrieved to ground level.
Because it wasn't built under Wright's supervision on the site he chose, the Haddock house doesn't occupy the top tier of FLW homes. But the home is "certainly an authentic Frank Lloyd Wright design ... a one of a kind small masterpiece for a northern climate," Montooth wrote in a 1988 letter.
"Below Zero" is now for sale at an asking price of just under $1 million. That works out to $768 per square foot, more than double the median price in the Ann Arbor School District last year. But for a Wright afficionado, it might make sense.
Curtis, who still has his original prototype for the windows, is one. "This house is a steal," he says. "It's a steal and a half."
[Originally published in July, 2018.]
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