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21 First Drafts: Eero Saarinen's J.F. Spencer House

Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

Eero Saarinen
J.F. Spencer House in Huntington Woods, Michigan
Date completed: 1938

Getting the Gig:
Working in the same profession as your father can be difficult. For Eero Saarinen, it was inescapable. Consider his return to the United States in 1936 after a two-year exploration of Europe and Africa. The recent Yale grad, nicknamed "Second Medal Saarinen" by classmates due to his competitive streak and ability to do well in any contest, had left to see the world and explore the work of Modernists such as Mies and Corbu firsthand. But the trip was bookended by reminders of his father, Elliel. Before he left, he had entered a contest to design a Post Office in Helsinki that was next door to a station designed by his dad, and when he returned, it was to teach at the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit, an institution designed by his father (Eero had even designed furniture and fixtures for the institution when he was a teenager). During his time teaching at Cranbrook, the younger Saarinen would become fluent in the future of architecture and design, befriending some of the 20th century's most influential design thinkers such as Florence Knoll (a family friend and one-time love interest) as well as frequent collaborator Charles Eames. But he would also continue to work diligently for his father's firm, collaborating on projects and often sketching late into the night, conceptualizing designs for numerous competitions. Eero maintained a healthy balance of filial respect and a desire to stretch out on his own; when he was asked to create a cultural center for Flint, Michigan, in 1937, he devised two different concepts, one that complimented his father's style, and another that was more edgy and modern. In the midst of this busy period, he found time for his own side project.

Description and Reception:
Saarinen's first solo project, the J.F. Spencer House, a 2,000-square-foot, two-story brick building in suburban Detroit, didn't incorporate many of the more forward-thinking elements that had begun to show up in Saarinen's sketches at the time, such as the radical "Combined Living-Dining Room-Study, Designed for the Architectural Forum," which was as academic as the title suggested. Boasting a hipped tile roof and attached garage, it's straightforward, unassuming and a lesser-known project that's briefly mentioned in Saarinen's body of work, if at all. To be fair, Saarinen was building for the upper-class subdivision of Huntington Woods, then an area filled with business execs who appreciated the proximity to Detroit as well as the Rackham Golf Course, designed by famous Scottish-born course architect Donald Ross. Local building restrictions limited the ability to create flat roof homes, for instance, and the garages needed to be constructed from the same material as the main building.

Impact On His Career:
The J.F. Spencer House didn't have the impact of other projects made during the late '30s, such as his design for an art center at Wheaton College in Massachusetts that earned critical acclaim for the "unforced loveliness of its proportions." But perhaps it provided him with enough confidence to start leaning more towards his own aesthetic preferences during a string of speculative designs for new university buildings. Timed with the arrival of Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius to the States, this work placed the younger Saarinen firmly in the Modernist camp. Saarinen and Saarinen would soon work on a series of buildings, such as the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo and the Crow Island School, developed in concert with other firms, that helped make their reputation for forward-thinking work. While certain designs, such as a plan for an art gallery for the Smithsonian, was never funded (and led to criticisms that Modernists were being held back), other work, such as the First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, made sure the family name was well respected (and also connected Eero with a future patron, J. Irwin Miller).

Famous Future Works::
Miller House (Columbus: 1953),
Irwin Conference Center (Columbus: 1954)
General Motors Technical Center (Warren: 1956), Milwaukee County War Memorial (Milwaukee: 1957) ingalls Rink (New Haven: 1958), TWA Flight Center (New York: 1962), Dulles International Airport (Washington, D.C.: 1962), North Christian Church (Columbus: 1964), Gateway Arch (St. Louis: 1965),

Current Status:
In private hands, the home last sold in 2002 for $317,500, and is on the edge of the Hill Historic District, which was established in 2004. Other homes by famous architects, such as Albert Kahn and Minoru Yamasaki, are also protected within the district.

Here Is the $1B GM Plan to Spruce Up Saarinen's Landmark Warren Tech Center [Curbed]
Eero Saarinen's Love Letters to his Wife are Utterly Adorable [Curbed]
Eero Saarinen and His Father Built Some Fab Homes Together [Curbed]
Checking in on the Conversion of Saarinen's Bell Labs Complex [Curbed]