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Call It A Comeback: Restoring Frank Lloyd Wright in Detroit

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After years of disrepair, the 4,300-square-foot home that Dorothy Turkel commissioned in 1955 is shiny, new, and begging for a Mad Men party. It's the only two-story Usonian automatic home that Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed and therefore attracts photo-snapping architecture enthusiasts to its lawn with a bit more regularity than its current residents, Norman Silk and Dale Morgan, would like. Curbed reporter Sarah F. Cox sat down with the couple, who are partners in life and a local floral business, to talk about what it's like to live behind all that glass.

Curbed National: When you saw this house for sale in a state of disrepair, what made you want to take that on?

Dale Morgan: We've lived in Palmer Woods [the Turkel House's neighborhood] for 25 years. Most of the houses aren't modern at all and we'd always lived in a traditional home; we had a beautiful Mediterranean villa. We wanted to do something contemporary because we had redone that house three times so we were looking around for options; at first we didn't even realize that that this was truly a Frank Lloyd Wright home.

Norman Silk: I was driving by one day and saw the "For Sale" sign in the yard and stopped. It was a really sunny day and the light was streaming in; the whole house was empty and everything we have now was here, but badly faded, like the benches and shelves. There was old white upholstery and water-stained wood and the color of everything was butter yellow. You could see the red floors, which are polished concrete, but they still had carpet glue on them and they were dirty. But I saw the bones of the house and I thought that is really an interesting, cool house.

CN: It's pretty amazing that you just stumbled upon a Frank Lloyd Wright home. How was its history so unknown?

NS: This house had been in decline for the 25 years we'd lived here; it had never been a vibrant house. It was unkempt and overgrown, no one had ever done much with it, and there wasn't much conversation in the neighborhood about it being truly a Frank Lloyd Wright. In our minds, we thought it was a student of Wright or just in the style of Wright; once we knew what it really was that piqued our interest.

DM: After we bought it everyone said, "Oh I was going to buy that house." It had been on the market a lot of times over the years and so a lot of people had looked at it.

CN: How did you bring your design aesthetic into the home?

NS: We wanted it to look like 1955. We didn't want to change anything. You could do many things with this if it was just a regular midcentury house but we wanted this to be like Mr. Wright intended it. Except for a new bathroom so that we could have some modern amenities.

CN: So the design really held up?

NS: I would say so. We have an original photograph of the music room being used when Ms. Turkel was here and we've had parties just like that.

DM: The house was very forward thinking. Wright was the man that understood that American lifestyle was going to be changing and that it was going to be moving into a much more casual way of living. There wasn't going to be help around and the lady of the house was going to be doing things herself and cocktail parties were becoming en vogue outdoor living was en vogue and he realized that would be a general trend.

DM: People say that they would not want to live here because it would feel like living in a fish bowl since there are no window treatments. But you can't see in!

NS: The view in is so distorted by the smaller windows.

DM: The views focus you. Each glass is like a film clip so that you really focus on each one of the openings like a series of vignettes, and that's what you see. We can look out but people cannot see in because the overhangs cast a shadow onto the glass and the glass really serves as a mirror to reflect what is outside, not show what is inside. The only way we can really see into this house is by going right up to the glass and putting your face in it. Like a squirrel.

(Curbed Editor's Note: at this time in the conversation there was, in fact, a squirrel on the glass.)

CN: When you came here from a more traditional house did you make an effort to furnish this home in a 1950s style? Did you start over or combine elements of the old home?

DM: We got rid of everything.

NS: The only thing we brought was some artwork and a few accessories. We did as much research as we could on what was here so we went to the archives and tried to find every picture that we could. We were able to contact one of the granddaughters [of Ms. Turkel] and she sent us pictures. On the blueprint it shows three coffee tables and 12 hassocks so we knew that was what he intended but we did not have a design, so through the photographs and the archives we were able to come up with the design.

DM: You know how Americans think they can do everything? They just think their own taste is exquisite. But we are in a style/taste business and we know that we don't know everything. Once you live in a house like this and experience it you realize there is some logic to it, there is flow, the repitition really does work, and you want it to be simple. This was spot on. So there is no need for me to make changes. My philosophy is that it is a world-renown architect: don't help.