The Dean of Mod
Robert Metcalf designed his mid-century homes down to the smallest detail
Photographs by Roy Ritchie
Robert Metcalf’s Ann Arbor home meets current LEED green building standards. What’s remarkable about that fact is that he designed and built the house in 1952, decades before the word “green” bore any environmental implication.
“I knew what I was doing,” Metcalf, 87, says, smiling.
In all, Metcalf personally designed 68 residential mid-century modern jewels (his firm did nearly 100 more) scattered throughout Ann Arbor and Detroit, many originally commissioned for University of Michigan faculty.
A common thread that connects his work is a utilitarian sensibility, like the one found in the Metcalf-designed home now occupied by Yuni Aaron and her family. “Unlike other homes, where things are just put together because you need the volume, this feels — from beginning to end — that he had intended everything,” Yuni says.
She, a former architect, and her husband, Richard, a cello professor at U-M and the Juilliard School, live with their two children in the home originally designed for Dr. and Mrs. Edmund S. Botch. “We feel the intent, and that’s what’s really amazing,” Yuni says.
In his application to study at U-M’s Department of Architecture in 1940, Metcalf wrote, “I would like to make a name for myself in architecture; rather, I am going to do that.” By 1968, he was the chairman of the department, and became the first dean of the college in 1974, before retiring with emeritus status in 1991.
Thanks to a tenacious commitment to detail, Metcalf designed every home as if it were his own — a trait he endeavored to pass on to his pupils. “I always told students: ‘While you’re trying to design something, you have to live in it,’ ” Metcalf recalls. “You have to be there and see what it’s like — know what it feels like.”
To make his designs feel lived-in, he incorporated furniture into his sketches. “I always showed furniture in every sketch I ever did in a house,” he says. And it was the furniture — like the kind crafted by Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Harry Bertoia — that drew him into mid-century style. His homes were designed as frames for the artwork created by those furniture pioneers.
“We also bought a lot of the furniture and re-sold it for the same price to the owner, because I could get 40-percent off on a Saarinen chair,” he says, and he wanted the owner to buy the chair because the space was designed specifically for it.
This explicit vision manifested itself in the Aarons’ home, too. The two were struggling to find the perfect seating arrangement for a spot beside a courtyard window. Then Richard saw the original renderings of the home, which included — bingo! — a Saarinen chair. “[Metcalf] designed down to every last detail, so you feel that he loved this home,” Yuni says. The courtyard-side spot is now Richard’s favorite place to read and listen to music.
When Metcalf is asked about his fondest memory of his own home, he points to a poster hanging on the wall of the assisted-living facility where he was (at press time) recuperating from a fall. “I’d have to say it’s that, essentially,” he says. The poster is an advertisement for an exhibit at U-M’s Taubman College that highlights his life’s work, featuring original notes, architectural sketches, and photographs of 18 projects undertaken by Robert C. Metcalf Architect between 1953 and 1976. The poster depicts an exterior view of his own home at dusk, which, thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass that runs across the back of the house, provides a view of the undisturbed living room as it appeared shortly after completion. A corner chair served as a favorite space. “You can sit there, and you can see out three different ways,” Metcalf says with a hint of the wistful in his voice.
Bettie, his wife of 65 years, died two years ago. Together, they built the original 1,080-square-foot house; the first addition, which added another 400 square feet; the 800-square-foot second addition; and the last, a 250-square-foot offshoot from the garage with a pyramidal glass roof. And although the house is now somewhere about 2,500 square feet, Metcalf bristles at the mention of recent expansive design trends.
“What was going on before the most recent crash was building huge houses [with] 30-foot ceilings. If you’ve got a cobweb up there, what do you do about it?” Metcalf asks. “The designs of many [of these] houses are so stupid, it’s incredible — in terms of maintenance. And then the response to the environment was just terrible!”
The Aarons originally planned to add on to their 3,000-square-foot home because, as Yuni explains, she didn’t feel it was enough space for a family of four. But the plans were soon scrapped, “because we realized the rooms became multi-use rooms,” she says. “Everything flows. We feel that every inch of the house is used.”
Luckily for the Aarons, the previous owner hadn’t made any major changes that compromised the original design. Instead, there were barely any updates at all. With that, the family set out to carefully update the home. They installed wood floors in the areas that had been carpeted while preserving most of the original tile, and eliminated some hanging panels. Their goal: Preserving Metcalf’s design integrity, while adding modern amenities.
“I just want to do it justice,” Yuni says. “These are his legacies.”