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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.
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