A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit

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By Sam Eichblatt
Calling it a "director’s cut," designer Bryan Boyer reloads his Lafayette Park townhouse with some bonus features.

"I think of the project as a love letter rather than a biography," says designer Bryan Boyer of his restored Ludwig Mies van der Rohe townhouse in Detroit. Indeed, the New York transplant’s take on the Bauhaus master’s legacy, which includes updates like a state-of-the-art kitchen, is more an homage than a reproduction. 

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 1 of 11 - Designer Bryan Boyer and lawyer Laura Lewis bought their townhouse in Lafayette Park in 2015, the same year the storied co-op joined the National Register of Historic Places. Their restoration included laying slate floor tiles the same size as the original linoleum squares, hanging modular Dieter Rams wall shelving, and adding appliances by Fisher & Paykel.

Designer Bryan Boyer and lawyer Laura Lewis bought their townhouse in Lafayette Park in 2015, the same year the storied co-op joined the National Register of Historic Places. Their restoration included laying slate floor tiles the same size as the original linoleum squares, hanging modular Dieter Rams wall shelving, and adding appliances by Fisher & Paykel.

Built in 1960, Bryan’s home is one of 186 units and three apartment towers that Mies designed for Lafayette Park, considered by some the first urban renewal project in the United States. Although it’s just a stone’s throw from downtown, the 78-acre co-op has sprawling lawns, allées of honey locusts, and an enduring sense of community that has persisted over the years, despite the city’s changing fortunes. Some of its early residents still live there. 

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 2 of 11 - The countertops are Verde Alpi marble.  

The countertops are Verde Alpi marble.  

Bryan credits Mies’s clean, modern design for the enclave’s longevity. But the 1,450-square-foot, two-bedroom townhouse that he and his partner, Laura Lewis, bought in 2015 hadn’t held up well over the years. A 1980s remodel had introduced some very un-Miesian touches, like a parquet floor, a glass-bowl sink, and, worst of all, an all-red bathroom. 

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 3 of 11 -

 Before changing anything, Bryan, a partner at architecture firm Dash Marshall, visited the Museum of Modern Art’s archives in New York to study the units’ blueprints. Rather than turn his home into a museum piece, he was curious how Mies might have designed it differently today. "Our research helped us to make decisions based on what felt acceptable within Mies’s architectural universe, but was contemporary enough to be comfortable," he says. 

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 4 of 11 - The couple’s garden-style townhouse is one of nearly 200 units that Mies van der Rohe designed for Detroit’s middle class after World War II. Zac Cruse Construction assisted with their remodel. 

The couple’s garden-style townhouse is one of nearly 200 units that Mies van der Rohe designed for Detroit’s middle class after World War II. Zac Cruse Construction assisted with their remodel. 

The Lafayette Park townhouse’s kitchen felt particularly outdated. "Conceptually, it wasn’t the heart of the home," says Bryan. "They didn’t have the same ideas about socializing that we do today." Slotted into a central block on the ground floor alongside a bathroom and a closet, the kitchen is bookended by two wing walls—partitions with slender four-inch extensions that jut out at the ends to create irregular corners—with the living and dining areas on either side. The space is so narrow that its original design featured a fold-down cooktop, similar to a Murphy bed.

"The spaces are small and interconnected. it’s like one of those flat, sliding-block puzzles where you rearrange the squares to see the full picture." Bryan Boyer, designer and resident

Co-op rules precluded Bryan from altering the scale of the kitchen, but he was able to bring in open shelving and modestly sized appliances. Every inch was considered, even the small gaps between the redesigned kitchen and the wing walls. "Leaving that line of shadow between the old and new parts was our way of paying respect," says Bryan. The dark green marble countertop isn’t original, but the stone matches a variety that Mies used in other projects around the same time.

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 5 of 11 - The kitchen cabinets’ MDF fronts have a serrated finish

The kitchen cabinets’ MDF fronts have a serrated finish

As he pored over the archives, Bryan spotted characterful details that Mies had either nixed or been unable to realize. A curtain separating the entryway and dining room in some of the drawings, for example, was missing in the built version. Bryan and Laura liked the idea and had a saffron curtain strung up.

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 6 of 11 - A Wilhelmina chair by Ilmari Tapiovaara furnishes the living area.

A Wilhelmina chair by Ilmari Tapiovaara furnishes the living area.

"Our research helped us to make decisions based on what felt acceptable within mies’s architectural universe, but was contemporary enough to be comfortable." Bryan Boyer

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 7 of 11 - Bryan painted the metal band that runs around the top of each staircase Space Black by Benjamin Moore to match the treads. 

Bryan painted the metal band that runs around the top of each staircase Space Black by Benjamin Moore to match the treads. 

After the project ended, Bryan really did pen a letter to Mies, which he posted on Dash Marshall’s website. It begins "Dear Mies," and in it he explains the logic behind his modifications and expresses his admiration for the old master’s handiwork.

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 8 of 11 - Dash Marshall, the firm at which Bryan is a partner, designed the marble dining table. The seats are Eames Molded Plastic Chairs and the globe pendant came from a local hardware store.

Dash Marshall, the firm at which Bryan is a partner, designed the marble dining table. The seats are Eames Molded Plastic Chairs and the globe pendant came from a local hardware store.

"Our absolute favorite part of the project is the special closet rod that you designed," Bryan writes, referring to the metal bars that are bent into an odd, backward-J shape. The closet rods are found all over Lafayette Park, but seem not to exist anywhere else in Mies’s oeuvre.

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 9 of 11 - The Kvadrat curtain is based on an unrealized detail from the original architect’s notes. The Carbon Chair is by Bertjan Pot and Marcel Wanders and the Treeflower stool is by Company. 

The Kvadrat curtain is based on an unrealized detail from the original architect’s notes. The Carbon Chair is by Bertjan Pot and Marcel Wanders and the Treeflower stool is by Company. 

Bryan’s best guess is that Mies designed these unusual details because Detroit’s advanced manufacturing capabilities made it possible to produce them. Bryan kept the rods, stripped off decades of paint, and powder-coated them different colors. He writes in his letter, "We can’t help but think of this as a chance to hot-rod a piece of the house, which seems like exactly the right thing to do in Motor City." 

A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 10 of 11 -
A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit - Photo 11 of 11 -

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