This Lake House Is a Living Piece of Architecture History
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It took nine months before Michael McCarthy and Marcia Myers fully realized what they’d actually purchased in Harbor Springs, Michigan. “We saw this white house listed on the Internet with a lot of glass looking out at the lake,” says Myers, who, along with her husband, had searched for years for a waterfront property. They scouted lake houses and talked about beachfront property in New Jersey and Delaware. “But we kept going back to the Harbor Springs house,” she recalls. “The price kept going down when prices everywhere else were going up.” So they traveled to Lake Michigan to see it in person. 

They knew about the basics of architecture and modernism, but they were only vaguely aware of Richard Meier. All they really knew was how deeply they wanted the house. At 3,200 square feet, it was set among the trees on the steep side of a cliff, commanding views over a turquoise lake and 970 feet of private beach. The 1973 home had issues, but McCarthy, an engineer by training, cataloged them all and used the information to negotiate a lower price. The house had been renovated once before, in 1988, but it was structurally sound. Looking for yet more information before they bought the house, McCarthy decided to contact the three previous owners. That was when he began to discern the home’s pedigree. 

Friends started to rave about their purchase. Architects and professors began knocking on their door, requesting tours. “That’s when we realized that what we’d gotten was an American masterpiece,” Myers says. The structure, known as the Douglas House, was conceived in the late 1960s when Jim and Jean Douglas of Grand Rapids reached out to Meier after seeing his 1967 Smith House on a magazine cover. “I wanted a Bauhaus sort of a house, very open,” Jim Douglas recalls. “We didn’t put any parameters on him because architects do their best work when they do it the way they want.” 

Nestled into the hillside and largely concealed from view, the Douglas House is accessed via a footbridge that leads to the house’s uppermost level. Upon entering, the visitor descends to the lower floors via a winding staircase.

Nestled into the hillside and largely concealed from view, the Douglas House is accessed via a footbridge that leads to the house’s uppermost level. Upon entering, the visitor descends to the lower floors via a winding staircase.

The house was originally planned for a different site located in a development. But when they discussed exterior paint with a homeowners’ association, white was rejected as a color. That didn’t sit well with Meier, or with the Douglases. “[The homeowners’ association] wanted it to be beige,” Douglas recalls. “I got angry.” Client and architect decided against the site. Then the Douglases found a waterfront lot with three sides facing Lake Michigan. “It was very private and completely covered in trees—from the road you could see the lake. No one else could figure out how to build there,” Richard Meier recalls. “It took me quite a while to do it.”

He began by calling for a series of 16-inch round pilings, telephone poles really, to be pounded deep into sand and shale and fly in succession up the cliff to support the house. Where the entry to the Smith House had been at ground level, here it was via a bridge from road to rooftop. The Smith House is experienced as an ascent; Douglas is about a cascade down. It’s largely experienced inside, where the glass facade meets water views. “The parti is to close down the entry side and open up the water side,” Meier explains. “The whole experience is about opacity to transparency.” 

Michael McCarthy and Marcia Myers spent years rehabilitating the Douglas House. The double-height living room features a custom sofa and low table of Meier’s design, and an Edward Fields rug based on a sketch Le Corbusier created in 1956 for a Tokyo theater.

Michael McCarthy and Marcia Myers spent years rehabilitating the Douglas House. The double-height living room features a custom sofa and low table of Meier’s design, and an Edward Fields rug based on a sketch Le Corbusier created in 1956 for a Tokyo theater.

It’s a notion explored earlier by the modern masters. “In my generation, everyone was influenced by Aalto and Wright and Corbusier,” Meier says. “[The Douglas House] has a separation of skin and structure, and uses the rooftop as an entranceway, and those things are all Corbusier. I think our work on the Douglas House relates back to modernism—it’s not isolated, but it is part of the continuum. Our work is not created in a vacuum.” 

The Douglas House is a clear nod to Les Terrasses, a 1928 residence created by Le Corbusier in Garches, France. Shared elements include curved walls, spatial ambiguities, and the series of ladders and cantilevered staircases that join the levels and encourage a cascading architectural promenade.

The Douglas House is a clear nod to Les Terrasses, a 1928 residence created by Le Corbusier in Garches, France. Shared elements include curved walls, spatial ambiguities, and the series of ladders and cantilevered staircases that join the levels and encourage a cascading architectural promenade.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, to almost everyone at Princeton and Cornell [Meier’s alma mater], Le Corbusier was almost the Apostle Paul,” says North Carolina–based architect Frank Harmon, who worked in Meier’s office at the time the Douglas House was constructed. Tod Williams, who was Meier’s project architect for Douglas, agrees: “Richard saw himself as interpreting Le Corbusier. He was making his own mark by looking back at Le Corbusier’s work.” 

An original plan illustrates the extreme slope of the site.

An original plan illustrates the extreme slope of the site.

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“It’s about the way you walk in and what you see in a cinematic way,” says architect Henry Smith-Miller, a former Meier employee. “At one moment, it puts you out into the lake, cantilevered out via this great leap of faith. I think because of this that Douglas is probably Richard Meier’s best house.”

But when its newest owners visited it in 2007, they hardly shared Smith-Miller’s impression. “It was obvious that the property had been on the market for years,” McCarthy says. “There were dead bugs, a musty smell, a collapsing ceiling in the kitchen, fogged glass, and a sagging bridge. The steel windows were rusted; the floors had water damage and some buckling.” But the couple was undeterred.

Once they’d bought it, they called Meier’s office in New York. The architect suggested that if they intended to modify the building they might consider hiring his firm. “But he said if we were going to restore it, we’d be better off using local engineers,” says McCarthy, who did a bit of both by assembling a team to move forward while at the same time striking up an informal relationship with then Meier employee and Michigan native Michael Trudeau.

If the couple had questions, they’d call Trudeau, who’d get answers from Meier. “They’re impeccably cognizant of keeping the original design,” Trudeau  says. This went on for four years. The team removed the original steel awning windows, sandblasted and powder-coated each one, then reinstalled them with thermal glass and hardware from the original supplier. They replaced and painted the redwood siding its original “Meier White,” then added a steel backbone to the bridge. HVAC systems were replaced with energy-efficient equipment. They even reupholstered a Meier-designed sofa for the living room.

With the renovation now mostly complete, the couple has reached out to state and national preservation organizations about the home’s future. “We had no idea what we were getting into—but this is a keeper,” McCarthy says. “Our role is to restore it and maintain it for America.”

Forty years after its creation, the Douglas House has returned to its original intent—an architectural experience that moves the visitor through an exploration of inside and outside spaces. “The same is true in the Farnsworth House and Fallingwater,” says Meier. “The idea was there from the beginning—it’s about the making of space and how to articulate it.”

Located on the shore of Lake Michigan, the 1973 Douglas House was one of architect Richard Meier’s first residential commissions. Defined by its verticality, the house features an exterior stepped walkway that extends over the trees, connecting the levels.

Located on the shore of Lake Michigan, the 1973 Douglas House was one of architect Richard Meier’s first residential commissions. Defined by its verticality, the house features an exterior stepped walkway that extends over the trees, connecting the levels.

A view of the residence from the shore of Lake Michigan.

A view of the residence from the shore of Lake Michigan.

The view of Lake Michigan from the Douglas House.

The view of Lake Michigan from the Douglas House.

The outdoor furniture is from Richard Schultz.

The outdoor furniture is from Richard Schultz.

There are many avenues from which one can descend the Douglas House, including staircases and ladders.

There are many avenues from which one can descend the Douglas House, including staircases and ladders.

Michael McCarthy and Marcia Myers on the exterior promenade.

Michael McCarthy and Marcia Myers on the exterior promenade.

There are two walkways that extend over the sloping hillside. The top-most walkway is the intended entrance.

There are two walkways that extend over the sloping hillside. The top-most walkway is the intended entrance.

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An original sketch from Richard Meier's office.

An original sketch from Richard Meier's office.

The rear facade is a complex articulation of angles and walkways.

The rear facade is a complex articulation of angles and walkways.

The view from the driveway highlights the bright-blue entrance doorway.

The view from the driveway highlights the bright-blue entrance doorway.

The office, which overlooks the main living space, is situated as if it's the prow of a ship.

The office, which overlooks the main living space, is situated as if it's the prow of a ship.

A desk in the guest bedroom fits tidily next to the bed.

A desk in the guest bedroom fits tidily next to the bed.

The "Meier white" extends even to the kitchen, which has been updated with new appliances.

The "Meier white" extends even to the kitchen, which has been updated with new appliances.

The view overlooking the living room, which features the famous Le Corbusier rug by Edward Fields. The residents were also careful to save the sofa, which Meier himself designed for the space.

The view overlooking the living room, which features the famous Le Corbusier rug by Edward Fields. The residents were also careful to save the sofa, which Meier himself designed for the space.

The pair take in the expanse of Lake Michigan. The Douglas House's views are completely unencumbered.

The pair take in the expanse of Lake Michigan. The Douglas House's views are completely unencumbered.

The residents rehabilitated the original redwood decking.

The residents rehabilitated the original redwood decking.

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Project: The Douglas House
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