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Alden B. Dow: Designer of the Midwest’s most modern town

Heir of an industrial icon, one architect made his hometown a showcase for organic architecture

The Alden B. Dow Home and Studio in Midland, Michigan.
Balthazar Korab/Courtesy of the Alden B . Dow Archives

On the surface, Midland, a quaint community situated near the crook of Michigan’s palm, doesn’t live up to its nickname, “City of Modern Explorers.” But once you look closely, as the work of favored son and hometown architect Alden Dow starts catching your eye, the title seems more relevant.

Known for his angular, organic architecture—"gardens never end, and buildings never begin" was a favorite maxim—Dow and his progressive designs would attract the attention of national critics. But they found their true home in Midland, where his father, Herbert Henry Dow, founded the chemical company and industrial powerhouse that bears the family name.

Dow completed more than 100 buildings there, including churches, schools, civic centers, and homes for local leaders and workaday citizens alike. A local paper said that his Midland Center for the Arts, which opened in 1969, had a “seat for everyone in Midland.”

After marrying his high school sweetheart, Vada Bennett, he had his wedding reception inside his first commission, the modernist Midland Country Club. If Columbus, Indiana, another Midwestern town blessed with modern design, exemplifies the vision of a single patron, J. Irwin Miller, offering architects free rein, Midland shows the impact of a local genius deeply invested in designing a new future for his hometown.

“His work is woven throughout Midland,” said Craig McDonald, director of the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio. “Your house, or your neighbor’s [house], was designed by him. He did the churches, the community buildings, the nature center. If you go to school here, from grade school to middle school to high school, one, two, or even all three might be designed by Dow.”

Exterior of the Ashmun House.
Henrick Blessing/Courtesy of the Alden B . Dow Archives

Biography

Born in 1904, less than a decade after his father formed the Dow Chemical Corporation, Alden initially seemed poised to follow his father’s footsteps, entering the University of Michigan in 1923 to study chemical and mechanical engineering.

But he soon changed course, deciding to pursue a passion for architecture and enroll at Columbia University in New York City in 1927. After experiencing Gotham’s skyscrapers, taking a grand European tour to see “new architecture” across the continent, and drawing upon recollections from a childhood trip to Japan—where he saw Wright’s Imperial Hotel—Dow became enamored of new possibilities.

He’d open shop as Alden B. Dow, Architect, in late 1933, but not before seeking postgraduate guidance. After returning home in 1931 to see his country-club design take shape, Dow worked with the local firm of Frantz and Spence, and in ’33 he spent a summer as a Taliesin apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin.

While opportunities for architects had dried up across the country during the Depression, Midland, still prosperous due to Dow Chemical’s success, was still in the market for homes. Dow designed dozens of homes during the ’30s, from upscale residences for the city’s elite to his own home and studio to a series of affordable homes utilizing a new textile-block construction method.

Dow’s Unit Block system—formed from recycled cinder ash that piled up outside his family’s factory—became the Minecraft-esque material behind some of his most famous designs, including his 1934 John Whitman Residence, built for just over $14,000 (the homeowner also owned the construction company that fabricated Dow’s blocks). The home would later win the Grand Prix for residential design at the 1937 Paris Exhibition, the same year the Empire State Building won for industrial design.

Dow’s career took off. His work in Midland made the pages of Life magazine, and he started contributing to the family business, designing offices for Dow Chemical. In 1943, he’d even move to Texas to oversee the creation of an entire company town, Lake Jackson.

While he would continue to design homes throughout the postwar period—1951’s Ashmun House, a glass-encased A-frame nicknamed “the Timber Teepee,” stands out—he began focusing more on civic structures, creating quiet masterpieces such as the Midland Center for the Arts and the octagonal St. John’s Lutheran Church.

Increasingly celebrated as a local leader and lauded by other architects, he handed control of the firm over to his associate Jim Howell in 1974, which, after his passing in 1983, was renamed Dow, Howell & Gilmore Associates Inc. It closed roughly 10 years ago.

Studio reception area at the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio.
Courtesy of the Alden B. Dow Archives

Buildings to know

Dow’s most famous structure is his own home and studio in Midland, now a museum and national landmark, which he built in four stages during the ’30s. Built on land that once made way for his father’s plum and apple orchards, the home epitomizes Dow’s style and grace—with its streamlined, slanted copper roofs and white Unit Block spires—that blends into the surrounding landscape. (It includes a floating conference room, built below the waterline, that seems to sink into the man-made pond.)

It’s easy to tour dozens of Dow works during a visit, his 10 religious structures included.

Legacy and reputation today

Dow’s handiwork can be seen all over Midland, and occasionally, one of his homes hits the market. While he was a national figure during his heyday, having a career so clustered in one city and region has kept Dow from becoming a more national figure (he felt being a Dow family member in Midland was more than enough notoriety, according to McDonald).

But as far as practitioners of organic architecture goes, Dow already received the greatest possible recognition: The year before his death, Olgivanna Wright handed him the first Frank Lloyd Wright Creativity Award, telling him he was her husband’s “spiritual son.”

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