Alden B. Dow: The Mastermind of Midwestern Modernism

Alden B. Dow: The Mastermind of Midwestern Modernism

By Jenny Xie
The Alden B Dow Home & Studio in Central Michigan showcases the extraordinary vision, imagination, and craftsmanship of the architect whose contributions to midcentury modernism put Midland on the map.

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.

Alden B. Dow works at his drafting table in 1937, the year he wins the Diplome de Grand Prix for residential architecture at the Paris International Exposition. The fifth of Herbert and Grace Dow's seven children, Alden graduated from Midland High School and studied chemical and mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan before leaving for the Columbia University School of Architecture. In 1933, he spent a summer as a Taliesin Fellow under the tutelage of Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom he struck up a lifelong friendship.

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.

One of the most stunning moments in the studio is the conference room, otherwise known as the Submarine Room, which is embedded 18 inches below the surface of the pond. Here, Dow met with his clients, immersing them in the idea that nature and architecture are intimately connected. Says Craig McDonald, director of the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio, "With reflective light shining around the room, the space is relaxing and dynamic. Dow created an environment for his clients to define what a home was." 

"Learning about Alden Dow becomes learning about yourself and your ideas about buildings." - Craig McDonald

In the first drafting room, a row of windows on the northern facade provides illumination for the drafting tables below. The chairs are original, while the desks are reproductions of the flat tabletops that allowed Dow to offer suggestions as he walked down the aisle.

Completed in 1941 along with the house, Dow's office is the transition point between the studio and the residence he shared with his wife Vada and their three children. Nestled down a short flight of steps, the room is an energetic and idiosyncratic study of contrasts, from the round lines of the George Nelson Saucer Pendant and the strung gourds to the sharp geometric planes of the layered ceiling. All throughout the studio and home, Dow makes use of his patented Unit Blocks, created from recycled cinder ash residue from the Dow Chemical Company coal furnaces. Here, the white rectilinear forms balance graphic colors.

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."

The cathedral ceiling of the living room diffuses light throughout the open space. Between the edge-grain fir ribs, strips of Dow Chemical's Ethocel plastic hide fluorescent tubes and—thanks to phosphorescence in the basket-weave—originally glowed at night. Since then, the panels have had to be replaced. Dow's collection of American and Scandinavian pottery is artfully arranged around the room.

A red-orange carpet sets the stage for the dining area. Here, Dow taught his children lessons about honesty, humility, and enthusiasm—three values integral to all structures. Honesty refers to the straightforward use of materials to meet a need, while humility encourages a balance between buildings and their surrounding environment. Enthusiasm is "the real life-giving property...the quality that makes buildings more than a box," expressed Dow.

"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."

Bird Chairs, Diamond Chairs, and Dining Chairs by Harry Bertoia provide ample seating on this cantilevered porch, which is screened in by a delicate copper mesh and provides views of the expansive Dow Gardens—connected to the studio by an Asian-inspired footbridge.

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.


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