written by:
August 29, 2011
Originally published in Made in the USA

Dow Chemical put Midland on the map, but architect and local scion Alden B. Dow made it the most modern town in Michigan.

aiden b. dow, house, midland michigan

Dow Chemical put Midland on the map, but architect and local scion Alden B. Dow made it the most modern town in Michigan. Dow’s masterpiece is undoubtedly his home and studio in Midland. Designed in 1933 to be built in stages, the spraw­ling manse seems to rise out of a pond, its green copper roof and bright-white, geometric form seemingly birthed by the landscape. It’s a nearly perfect evocation of a guiding Dow dictum, “Gardens never end, and buildings never begin.”

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Alden B. Dow and his wife Vada at home in the 1930s.
Alden B. Dow and his wife Vada at home in the 1930s.
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A screened-in porch that overlooks a pond outside the Alden Dow home.
A screened-in porch overlooks the pond and sports furniture by both Harry Bertoia and Dow himself.Photo by: Balthazar Korab
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The austere drafting room in Alden Dow's home.
The drafting room is austere, though well lit and full of impressive joinery.Photo by: Balthazar Korab
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The Whitman House.
The Whitman House.
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St. John's Lutheran Church.
St. John's Lutheran Church.
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The Dow Test House (Carras House).
The Dow Test House (Carras House).
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The red Lower Pond Bridge at the Dow Gardens.
The Lower Pond Bridge at Dow Gardens.
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A portrait of Alden B. Dow, his wife Vada and three children.
Dow designed his home specifically for his wife and three children, including an interior corridor between the children's bedrooms that was inaccessible from the hall. Wealthy families of the era feared a repeat of the Lindbergh kidnapping.
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An exterior view of the W-Frame house, or Mills Summer Home, designed by Alden B. Dow.
Dow's idea for his W-Frame house exists in model form (here) at the Down Home and Studio and a variant of the structure was built as the Mills Summer Home.
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A chart of the Way of Life Cycle created by Alden B. Dow.
A deeply spiritual man, Alden B. Dow's personal philosophy is best expressed through the Way of Life Cycle he created.
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An exterior view of the entrance to the James Pardee house designed by Alden B. Dow.
The Pardee House in Midland is an example of Dow's work with the unit blocks that would define much of his early career.
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An exterior view of the terrace of the Earl Stein house designed by Alden B. Dow.
The copper exterior of the Stein House from 1933 shows a clear debt to Dow's teacher and mentor Frank Lloyd Wright.
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An exterior view of the sub room of Alden B. Dow's home and studio.
Jump ahead to 1939 and Dow was into the house that he would live in. You can see the lights of the submarine room which sits right at water level. Seats just below the window let the sitter trail a finger in the pond just outside.
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The facade of the Ashmun residence designed by Alden B. Dow.
The Ashmun House in Midland makes use of a strong A-frame. It was designed for a classic pianist on a secluded street.
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Inside the living room of the Ashmun residence designed by Alden B. Dow.
Here's an interior of the Ashmun house with its floating mezzanine and ample natural light.
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The auditorium of the Midland Center for the Arts in Michigan, designed by Alden B. Dow.
One of Dow's great civic buildings, the Midland Center for the Arts has a grand auditorium and a smashing curtain of his design. In 1969, when the theater opened, a local newspaper claimed that the space had standing room for every resident of Midland.
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An exterior view of St. John's Lutheran Church designed by Alden B. Dow.
St. John's Lutheran Church has a series of clerestory windows cropping up at sharp angles. Viewed from above the structure looks like a Lutheran rose with the spire emanating out of the center.
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An interior view of the Midland, Michigan headquarters of Dow Chemical, founded and designed by Alden B. Dow.
A playful interior of the Midland HQ for Dow Chemical.
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An exterior view of the terrace of Alden B. Dow's home and studio.
A geometric bridge connects one of the many outdoor terraces of the Dow Home to green space on the other side of the pond.
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An interior view of the First Methodist Church in Midland, Michigan designed by Alden B. Dow.
Blocks of color in the stained glass windows and decidedly more sober brick are the dominant materials of the main sanctuary of Midland's First Methodist Church.
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The living and dining room of Alden B. Dow's home and studio.
The Dows loved to host and their massive living and dining room had ample space for parties. Decor came largely from Dow's designs and the treasures they collected on their travels.
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The living room and indoor pool of the Defoe beach house designed by Alden B. Dow.
If there's a groovier picture of mid-century modernism I don't know it. This is the living room/indoor pool of the Defoe House Dow designed in Bay City, Michigan in 1941.
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An exterior view of the entrance to the Alden B. Dow home and studio.
Here's a view of the entrance to the Dow Home and Studio from the 1930s. Dow loved his tall, unit-block spires, and the Dow children would climb them as they played on the home's roof.
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An exterior view of the surrounding yard and marsh of the Alden B. Dow home and studio.
Dow's love of nature was boundless. Here an apple tree nicely frames his home.
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An old photo of the Bay gas station.
The Bay Service Center was a bit of an oddity in the Dow canon, but the 1961 structure made of Styrofoam and concrete still stands today.
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An exterior view of the back and roof deck of Alden B. Dow's home and studio.
This view of the back of the Dow Home gives a much better sense of the scope of the place and how inviting the landscape into every element of the design was so critical to Dow.

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aiden b. dow, house, midland michigan

Dow Chemical put Midland on the map, but architect and local scion Alden B. Dow made it the most modern town in Michigan. Dow’s masterpiece is undoubtedly his home and studio in Midland. Designed in 1933 to be built in stages, the spraw­ling manse seems to rise out of a pond, its green copper roof and bright-white, geometric form seemingly birthed by the landscape. It’s a nearly perfect evocation of a guiding Dow dictum, “Gardens never end, and buildings never begin.”

Architect 

If the great Wrightian strain of American modernism is about stitching a structure seamlessly into the landscape, Alden B. Dow is its most committed tailor, an architect who ardently took his small, Midwestern hometown as his cloth and thread.
 
An heir of the Dow Chemical fortune and a pupil at Taliesin, Dow (1904–1983) lived most of his 79 years in Midland, Michigan. Over the course of a career that spanned five decades, he completed over 100 buildings there.

Alden B. Dow and his wife Vada at home in the 1930s.
Alden B. Dow and his wife Vada at home in the 1930s.
The architect designed churches, fire stations, Dow Chemical buildings, and scores of houses, perhaps mak­ing Midland America’s most architecturally unique small town. With one foot firmly planted in mid-century design and the other in the materials lab—having Dow Chemical’s considerable R & D team available for questioning does wonders when devising new building blocks—the architect ably jagged from tony homes for corporate brass to small, modular houses to the local elementary school.

Dow’s reputation and reach, how­ever, were broad. An international architecture prize in 1937; coverage in Time magazine in 1949; and the designing of the low-cost, quickly built city of Lake Jackson, Texas, in 1943 drew considerable attention to the great modernist of central Michigan.

His real love was Midland, however. Architecture was the medium through which Dow helped express what it meant to be an American in the mid­dle of the 20th century. But perhaps even more telling of this fortunate son’s everyman values, his scores of designs in Midland feel like one continuous act of civic pride.

 

Home and Studio

Dow’s masterpiece is undoubtedly his home and studio in Midland. Designed in 1933 to be built in stages, the spraw­ling manse seems to rise out of a pond, its green copper roof and bright-white, geometric form seemingly birthed by the landscape. It’s a nearly perfect evocation of a guiding Dow dictum, “Gardens never end, and buildings never begin.”

A screened-in porch that overlooks a pond outside the Alden Dow home.
A screened-in porch overlooks the pond and sports furniture by both Harry Bertoia and Dow himself.Photo by: Balthazar Korab
Dow’s studio is a compelling mix of the whimsical and the rigid. The draft­­ing studio is all warm wood and crisp angles; Dow’s office is softer, more color­ful, and in a gesture you’d never expect from Wright, located a few steps below his employees.

As for the family spaces, a sense of play abounds. One of Dow’s beloved model trains runs on a circular track overhead in a sitting room; the down­stairs bursts with color and holds a small theater; and the main living and dining rooms are vibrant, open rooms with ample space to display the treasures of the family’s travels.

The home is an object lesson in Alden B. Dow as innovator. In 1938, Dow patented one of his preferred building materials, the Unit Block, and used it to great expressive effect. Comprised of cinder ash residue from the coal furnaces of Dow Chemical, these rhomboid cinder blocks give the home its earthbound, horizontal gravity, while simultaneously shooting up in playful spires and chimneys.

Most dazzling in the studio, a canny balance of modernist form and Dovian wit, is the submarine room. Built eighteen inches below pond level, it has a bright-pink ceiling, and the water just outside the windows refracts dancing light onto the white walls.

 

Midland Modern

The Whitman House.
The Whitman House.

Whitman House
Shortly after his time at Taliesin, Dow came to national acclaim with his 1934 Whitman House for a former mayor of Midland. A fine example of Dow’s Unit Block construction, the house and the Dow Studio won the Grand Prix in residential design at the 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris. The other architecture winners? The Empire State Building and Rock­efeller Center.

St. John's Lutheran Church.
St. John's Lutheran Church.
St. John’s Lutheran Church
A deeply spiritual man, Dow was well suited to design sacred architecture. His 1953 St. John’s Lutheran Church places the altar at the center of the building with the pews, social spaces, and even the octagonal arrangement of the peaked skylights radiating out like a Lutheran rose.

 

 

 

 

 

The Dow Test House (Carras House).
The Dow Test House (Carras House).

Dow Test House (Carras House)
The Unit Block was only the beginning of Dow’s material innovation. For the 1961 Dow Test House—a design laboratory of a kind—the architect used a prefabricated panel made of sand­wiched plywood and Styrofoam as the primary building system. The house was also used to test several Dow products, including plastic clerestory windows and a failed concrete additive called Sarabond. Eventually Dow’s daughter Barbara and her husband Peter Carras moved in.

 

 

The red Lower Pond Bridge at the Dow Gardens.
The Lower Pond Bridge at Dow Gardens.
Lower Pond Bridge at Dow Gardens
Located near where the Dow Home and Studio abuts the Dow Gardens (the massive public gardens the Dow family gave to the citizens of Midland) the dramatic red geometry of the 1974 Lower Pond Bridge shows how his travels in Japan exerted a lifelong influence on Dow’s work.

 

 

For an extended look at the work of Alden. B. Dow, please view our slideshow.

 

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