Alden B. Dow: The Mastermind of Midwestern Modernism
Ask someone to name American cities that are hotbeds of midcentury modern architecture, and you may hear Palm Springs, California; New Canaan, Connecticut; or even Columbus, Indiana. Lesser known is the city of Midland, Michigan, located where the thumb meets the palm of the mitt. Aside from the hundreds of modern structures dotting the landscape, Midland is remarkable because of the staggering influence that one visionary architect had on its buildings, people, and character—Alden Ball Dow.
Dow, whose work was a blend of his teacher Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture and European modernism, also drew deep inspiration from nature, Japanese art, and his own philosophy regarding individuality and creativity, which he called the "Way of Life Cycle." Between the early 1930s and the late 1970s, Dow designed about 600 projects, including over 100 houses, offices, manufacturing plants, churches, banks, schools, and recreational structures in his hometown of Midland, Michigan. Today, those who want to witness the architectural force that shaped a region and get to know the man behind the blueprints can tour the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio, a National Historic Landmark.
"Learning about Alden Dow becomes learning about yourself and your ideas about buildings." - Craig McDonald
Son of Herbert Dow, who started the Dow Chemical Company, Alden B. Dow forged his own path in pursuing architecture, and the crown jewel of his projects is his own home and studio. Spread out over 20,000 square feet, the structure winds coyly through the site, anchored by a pond created by damming streams. As Diane Maddex writes in Alden B. Dow: Midwestern Modern, "Just as a meandering stream withholds its full glory until it is conquered bend by bend, so does this most liberated of all Alden Dow buildings unveil its snaking rivulets only hook by crook." The gradually revealed complex is in keeping with Dow’s belief that art and science, feeling and fact, must work together to create buildings that feel natural to the site while serving their function—that "Gardens never end, and buildings never begin."
"Part of the architecture is defining it for yourself," elaborates McDonald. "It doesn’t look like an office, and it doesn’t look like a house, so you instantly start to question it. Learning about Alden Dow becomes learning about yourself and your ideas about buildings."
Designed in 1933 and built in four stages, the home and studio have been meticulously preserved as an embodiment of Dow’s architectural and personal philosophy as well as a living classroom for the public. McDonald, who started working at the firm when he was 15, personally helped Dow’s wife, Vada, develop the tours and programming. "Mrs. Dow wanted people to have an experience, to create opportunities to grow and develop skills to become better humans," says McDonald. "We’re really hands on here."
In addition to private and public tours of the complex, the Autumn Reflections Tour takes guests on an exploration of Dow’s other residential projects throughout Midland. A wide range of educational programs for all grade levels challenges students to find new ways of thinking in the context of the home and studio. One exercise asks high school students to dissect an argumentative letter from Dow to Wright, and make critical observations about the rhetoric and context; another places historically accurate vignettes throughout the house to inspire creative writing assignments from middle school students—exactly the kind of playful introspection that Alden B. Dow would have approved of.
Public tours run Monday through Saturday starting at 2 p.m., with additional 10 a.m. tours on Friday and Saturday. Click here to make a reservation through the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio calendar, or call 1-866-315-7678.