This Michigan Couple Found Out They Own the Last Standing Home by Alexander Girard
Rob and Mary Lubera sensed something special from the listing for the single-story, post-and-beam structure in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, but they weren’t sure what. It was 2009, and Rob, an estate planning attorney, and Mary, a CPA, had spent more than two years looking for a new home in the affluent Detroit suburb. On a whim, they asked their realtor to add the property to their list, consisting otherwise of historic-style houses.
Get carefully curated content filled with inspiring homes from around the world, innovative new products, and the best in modern design
The distressed condition of the exterior suggested that it had been vacant for some time. As the realtor opened the door, he said confidently, "This will only take a few minutes." But the Luberas were captivated by what they saw: an open layout, exposed steel joists, a giant hearth, Japanese-style doors, boldly colored glazed-brick walls, and, most striking of all, windows that stretched from floor to ceiling.
"The natural light was incredible," Rob recalls. After the tour, the realtor asked the couple what they thought. To his surprise, they replied in unison, "I love it."
Even before they closed, the Luberas started looking into the home’s history. The blueprints revealed that it had been built in 1950 for banking magnate John McLucas and his wife, Kathleen, and designed by one Alexander Girard. The name meant nothing to the couple, until they looked it up on Google.
Hundreds of hits suddenly plunged them into the world of one of America’s most prolific interior, furniture, and textile designers. Girard, they discovered, was the New York–born, Italy-raised multihyphenate who had been recruited by Charles Eames to head Herman Miller’s textile division from 1952 to 1973, leading the firm away from the dour fabrics of wartime toward the lively colors and patterns of the Space Age.
Having moved to Detroit in 1937 after a five-year stint with his first practice in New York, Girard made a name for himself in Michigan and beyond when he curated the landmark "An Exhibition for Modern Living" at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1949. Across 10 weeks, nearly 150,000 visitors were exposed to radical new designs by Florence Knoll, Jens Risom, the Eameses, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
The Luberas also learned that Girard had studied architecture in London and, between 1947 and 1951, had designed several houses, including for himself, near Detroit, all of which were later torn down. Bit by bit they realized that the McLucas House was the last surviving residence anywhere that was designed entirely by Girard.
Bit by bit they realized that the McLucas House was the last surviving residence anywhere that was designed entirely by Girard.
Yet hardly anyone knew of it—not the Detroit Institute of Arts, not the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, not even Girard’s family. As Rob puts it: "The people who knew Girard was the architect didn’t know who he was, and the people who knew about Girard didn’t know he was the architect."
The couple were stunned. "We had no experience with modern design," Rob says. But their immersion led to appreciation, and they committed to returning the house to its original state. They were aided in their quest by a larger resurgence in interest in Girard, including a 2011 monograph by designer Todd Oldham and a 2013 "Michigan Modern" symposium at the Cranbrook Art Museum.
Shop the Look
As word of the home’s existence got out, famed Knoll textile designer and former Girard collaborator Ruth Adler Schnee, then in her early 90s, came onboard as the Luberas’ consultant, using McLucas family photos, original drawings found in the Vitra Design Museum, and her years of experience as her guide. Rob remembers thinking, "Who better to restore a Girard residence than someone who worked with him?"
Luckily, major reconstruction wasn’t necessary. But the facade, made up of rectangular bays of plywood and glass framed in wood, had seen better days. "All of the nearly eighty posts had been painted black," Rob recalls. "Each one had to be sanded by hand to reveal the cedar finish."
A floating wood-screen wall leads to a fuchsia front door and appears to punch through the envelope, continuing for several feet into the vestibule. The living room is flanked by an L-shaped hearth on one side and the dining room on the other. Here, the feeling of openness is overpowering, with a ceiling that rises toward a wall of windows facing an open-air atrium.
"The people who knew Girard was the architect didn’t know who he was, and the people who knew about Girard didn’t know he was the architect." Rob Lubera, resident
Mary describes the atrium as an "interior landscape, an oasis from the sights and sounds of the outside world." It’s also the only place where the home’s red, yellow, and blue brick accent walls converge. The type of glazed-ceramic masonry Girard used was developed specifically for Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center and made by Claycraft, and in 1950, it was not yet commercially available. The owners theorize that he got early access to the material through his role as color consultant on the project, then being built.
Across the atrium, in the master suite, another piece of history was uncovered when Schnee had the carpet torn up and found a floor of pink-and-white harlequin-patterned tiles. The discovery—another illustration of Girard’s gift for color and detail—was a high point of the project, which included replacing counters and appliances and recently came to a close.
But the wider mission of sharing and safeguarding Girard’s legacy never ends. The McLucas House has become a beacon for midcentury experts, from the head of the Vitra Design Museum to the scions of the Eames family, many of whom have attended the Luberas’ annual black-tie art party to run their hands along the uneven bricks or inhale the scent of the freshly sanded cedar.
As Rob says: "On most days we feel like curators, not owners. No one person can own something like this."
Deborah Lubera Kawsky is the author of Alexander Girard Architect (A Painted Turtle Book, 2018).
To see another incredible midcentury renovation, check out the prefabricated Frost House in Michigan City, Indiana.