by Thomas W. Brunk
Thomas W. Brunk, Ph.D. was a curator, archivist and instructor at several important Detroit institutions, including the College for Creative Studies, Detroit History Museum, Wayne State University and Pewabic Pottery. He received his education in Art History and Archival History at La Sorbonne, Paris, France, Norwich University and the Union Institute. In this article Dr. Brunk examines the domestic architecture created by and for the founding figures of Detroit’s Arts and Crafts era. It is a time that demands attention today because of the respect and emphasis placed on the design process in everyday life.
William Buck Stratton (1865-1938) received his early education at the Elmira Free Academy (New York) and graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. in architecture in 1888. Arriving in Detroit in 1889, he began his career as a “draughtsman” in the office of Mason and Rice, and the following year opened his own office. The most significant of Stratton’s partnerships was that with Frank Conger Baldwin which spanned the years 1894 to 1911, a period when the influence of L’Art Nouveau and to a much greater extent the English Arts and Crafts Movement were major forces in Detroit’s art and architecture. The work of William Stratton was marked during his long career by a strong sense for materials, clear cut forms, texture, and an unusually fine sense for space.
The East Grand Boulevard house which Stratton designed in 1923 for Mary Chase Perry, the founder of Pewabic Pottery, represents a unique collaboration of architect and artist. This highly personal residence, while strongly influenced by the Craftsman ideal, was not confined to the historicism of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but rather had much in common with the later work of Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook.
The simplicity of design, relative bareness of surface, and strong emphasis on texture and color of natural materials, coupled with Stratton’s consummate grasp of open interior planning clearly pointed toward a new era of design. Stratton skillfully used features such as the narrow, winding brick walk, the artificial hill upon which it appeared the house had been constructed, and the tiled front terrace with concealed entrance to create an intimate yet charming ambience.
This feeling was further enhanced by the strong horizontal lines of the unglazed, red tile roof with its wide caves, and the protruding decorative Pewabic tiled belt course that interrupted the wall surface just below the second story windows and formed the coping along the top of the first-floor wall. The eight-inch square decorative Pewabic tile, originally designed for the pavement of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, Detroit (1908-11), each depicts a religious theme and was glazed with varying shades of Pewabic’s famous blue iridescence. The second story was allowed to extend over only a portion of the first, leaving a sizable roof area for use as outdoor space. The exterior with its broad expanses of wall surface and asymmetrical placement of windows and doors not only indicate that this house was designed from the inside outward, but shows Stratton’s familiarity with leading contemporary European work.
The interior space was divided into three distinct areas: along the north side were the dining room, pantry, kitchen, basement stairs, and phone room; the central section contained the dining room entrance area and living room; and the section along the southern exposure was given to three bedrooms and a bath. While there was no physical separation between the living room and the dining room-entrance area, a sharp distinction was made between these rooms by the beamed ceiling, wood plank floor of the living room, the cove ceiling of the dining room and the unglazed brown Pewabic tile for the pavement of the entire dining room-entrance area. These six-inch square tiles were set parallel with the walls that further accentuated the horizontal lines created by the dining room window group, the Pewabic tiled radiator enclosure, and the large exposed wooden beams.
The living room fireplace was set into an alcove, creating an uninterrupted view from the dining room entrance area through the living room to the garden, as well as giving the feeling of a much wider expanse. The interior walls were of light brown cork and the wood was stained dark brown, while the spaces between the beams were simply the stained planking of the floor above. Handmade Pewabic tile was used on the windowsills, in the bathrooms, pantry floor, kitchen walls, on the two fireplaces, and even as drawer pulls on the built-in cabinets.
The second floor originally consisted of three bedrooms and a bath; however, “chamber F” was later enlarged to include a sitting room with a group of three windows arranged to take advantage of the light offered by the eastern and southern exposure. Mary Chase Perry and William Buck Stratton were married in 1918 and the residence at 138 East Grand Boulevard continued as their home for nearly a decade.
Pewabic Pottery received a commission for the tile decoration for the crypt area of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. and in March of 1924 the Strattons set out for Europe to study early Christian art as well as ancient mosaic and tile installations. This was the first European trip for Mrs. Stratton and the third for Mr. Stratton. Together they visited Paris, Lisbon, Rome, Ravenna, Sicily, and the Azores, but it was the Alhambra with its exquisite tile work and gardens that captivated the Strattons’ imagination. Mrs. Stratton wrote in her travel diary: “If I can only hang on to this edge of feeling until I get home.”
Everywhere they went the Strattons purchased furniture, architectural motifs, and tile fragments that were shipped to Detroit. Soon after their return, the Strattons began to plan a new home and in 1925 purchased a site on Three Mile Drive in Grosse Pointe Park. In 1927 they took up temporary quarters in a house on Jefferson at Iroquois while the Boulevard house was carefully dismantled and those portions that they wished to re-use were removed to the Three Mile Drive location. “When we decided to move from our East Grand Boulevard home in Detroit, it was quite evident that we would want to take with us many of the familiar features of the old house. So it was carefully taken down and the different parts were separated and moved to the new lot on Three Mile Drive in Grosse Pointe Park for future use.
“The old plan still seemed serviceable, since both lots lay in the same relation to the sun and the street, and besides, we were used to the arrangement”
“Using the old living room as a starting point, we enlarged in several directions and were going along gaily when the builder reminded us that our diagonal was growing too fast. Now I knew there must be some way of judging expansion, but I had never thought of the diagonal. The diagonal looks like a darning-needle fly with its wings spread … The longer it grows, the more the wings spread. We began to be sobered somewhat toward the idea of additions.”
The main thought was to let in as much sunshine as possible and at the same time to wall and plant off against the Jefferson Avenue traffic on the north.
“In the tying together of the house and garden as a unit for living, the basis for the effect is the middle terrace running back from the living room. This terrace has a low wall on the right leading down a couple of feet to the lawn, which is on the level. On the left, a similar low wall rises to a thickly wooded terrace. This terrace also rises toward the rear of the lot and is held in place by a wall of warm-toned carborundum blocks. The lower side of this wall makes a snug corner for flowers.
“The planting was brought from the old boulevard place in one operation.”
This central terrace lies beyond the rear porch and on an axis with it. It is connected to the porch by a short walk, with foliage beds on either side. There are broad steps leading down to a brick-paved square and at the farther end is a cross walk.
All of this, in connection with the porch, makes a summer living room space. A hemlock hedge on either side forms a dense enclosure and provides the feeling of connected space even in winter. A six-foot hill runs down from Jefferson Avenue. By taking this down midway for the front level, the house appears to be set at grade. The drive runs down on the lower side to the level of the south lawn, with turning space at the garage door. Over the garage, the bedroom floor lies halfway between the principal floor levels, which accounts for the short stair flights.
The stairway, of unglazed brown tile laid on a foundation of reinforced concrete, winds down from this landing to the first floor. The Stratton’s bedroom and bathroom are on the same level as this landing. The library ceiling is a concrete slab that was left with the finish of the forms into which it was cast. The kitchen, although located on the northern exposure, has a delightful view of the garden from the windows above the sink. The tile is ivory with an occasional blue flower tile included. The Pewabic tile belt course from the facade of the old house is used for color on the inside of the parapet, which is located off the “work room” balcony. The roof tiles were wire-cut from a block of clay, dipped in an oxide tinted slip glaze, and water-proofed before installation.
The garden elevation is similar to that of the old house and the second story addition. Here, however, the windows of the library and breakfast room each look down a long walk. These walks, with their plantings, frame the living room terrace. This central terrace can be covered, both top and sides, with screens to make an out door living room, which connects the library and breakfast room.
The Depression forced the Strattons to sell their home in order to keep the Pewabic Pottery in 1936/37. They then purchased a home at 134 East Grand Boulevard next to the vacant lot where Miss Perry’s first home had stood. William Stratton died suddenly, May 12, 1938, of an embolism.
The loss of her home and husband was great for Mrs. Stratton who was then seventy-one years old; however, she continued her work at Pewabic Pottery for nearly another quarter century until her death at age 94 in 1961. Pewabic Pottery was operated until 1966 under the able direction of Mrs. Ella Peters, who had been Mrs. Stratton’s assistant since 1938. The Pottery was then closed, and the buildings and contents were given to Michigan State University to be operated as an adult education center in ceramic art.