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Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers

 Collection
Identifier: 2017-10

Collection Scope

SERIES I: Biographical (1925-2005; n .d.) includes correspondence, vital records, life events, army records, and clippings. SERIES II: Professional (1951-1991; n.d.) Subseries 1: Cody High School contains materials related to Melvyn’s career as a teacher at the school.It contains guidebooks, news clippings, and photographs relating to the Comet Yearbook which was innovative for its time and won awards and press attention. It also contains administrative and instructional documents, as well as printed materials related to education and teaching English language and literature.

Subseries 2: Wayne State University documents Melvyn’s continued relationship with the university through the Alumni Association Board of Directors, Phi Delta Kappa membership, and the Smiths’ contribution to the Betsey Welling Memorial Court and the sculpture, as well as Sara’s involvement with the University Theatre. SERIES III: Community Organizations (1961-1994; n.d.)

Subseries 1: Arts Council Triangle was a collaborative organization including the cities of Troy, Bloomfield and Birmingham, which aimed to promote the arts in the community. This subseries contains meeting minutes, programming, and newsletters.

Subseries 2: General holds the same materials for numerous other ventures that do not have sufficient material to require a subseries.

Subseries 3: Theatre contains materials related to speech and diction, and many play scripts for performances that Sara Smith was involved in, primarily with the Popcorn Players Theater School at Birmingham Community House.

SERIES IV: Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House (1949-2017) reflect the phases in both the legal holding and the use of the house, first as the Smith family residence then its renovation and preservation as a historic house.

Subseries 1: Smith Residence contains materials related to the construction and additions to the property, including the garden room and lake, art objects for the house, and for the gazebo/tea house that was never built. It also contains thank you letters from participants of house tours, including Brookside School children, as well as materials reflecting the maintenance of the house under the Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Smith Foundation after its cessation as an active residence.

Subseries 2:Towbes Foundation contains materials relating to the renovation and maintenance of the house, correspondence regarding house tours, and materials related to the transition to Cranbrook staff leading house tours between 2013-2017. SERIES V: Printed Materials (1938-2017; n.d.) contains announcements and flyers, booklets, catalogs, news clippings, periodicals, and ephemera predominantly related to Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin, but also covering other architects, artists, education, and performing arts. The ephemera includes postcards, some featuring Frank Lloyd Wright designs; and postage stamps featuring Frank Lloyd Wright. SERIES VI: Guest Books (1951-2017) holds five guest books which cover the entire life of the house from 1951 through 2017 when it was donated to Cranbrook. SERIES VII: Photographic Materials (1932-1980; n.d.) contains many photograph albums collected by the Smiths, as well as loose photographic materials which were found with the printed materials. SERIES VIII: Oversize series (1908-2005) contains oversize printed, photographic, and graphic materials, a scrapbook, and books signed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Landscape Architect, Thomas Church.

SERIES IX: Architectural Drawings (1948-1949)

Dates

  • 1908 - 2017

Creator

Access

Access to the collection is unrestricted.

Use

Permission to use collection materials must be requested in writing.

History

Melvyn Maxwell Smith (1914-1984) was born on March 12, 1914, in Detroit, Michigan, into an orthodox Jewish family. Upon graduation from Northern High School in Detroit, he was accepted to the School of Architecture at the University of Michigan, where his brother, Marty, was already attending the School of Dentistry. Due to the economic depression of the 1930s, Melvyn’s family suggested he attend Wayne University College of Education for two years until they could afford to send him to the University of Michigan. By the end of his first semester, Melvyn had decided to become a teacher – a decision inspired by Miss Boyer, his English teacher, and an expert on transcendentalism, who demonstrated to Melvyn how a teacher could change a student’s values. He remained at Wayne University and in 1936, began work on his doctorate at the College of Education. While attending an art history class taught by Professor Jane Betsy Welling, he learned of Frank Lloyd Wright and resolved that he was going to have a home designed by the architect. Henceforth, Melvyn had an interest in Wright, gathering a vast collection of materials about Wright’s philosophy and architecture. After graduation, he became a teacher at Cody High School in Detroit where he remained for his entire career (38 years), and where he established and maintained the Comet yearbook. He also owned a joint venture called G.G. & S. Realty, which later became G.G. & W. Realty, with his sister, Jennie Goldberg. Sara Evelyn Stein (1907-2005) was born in 1907, in South Fork, Pennsylvania, one of six children. After a move to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the family settled in Detroit, Michigan. Although Sara dreamed of becoming a professional actress, she trained to be a kindergarten teacher. Her parents had both immigrated from Lithuania in the late 1880s and were deeply religious Orthodox Jews. Sara attended the B’nai Moshe Sunday School, where she met Melvyn in 1937. Melvyn and Sara were married on March 21, 1940. In 1941, they traveled to Lake Louise and Banff National Park, Alberta, via Wisconsin. On their journey through Wisconsin, they noticed a sign to Taliesin, which lead to them meeting Frank Lloyd Wright. Melvyn, inspired by Wright’s $5,000 design for a house for the journalist, Herbert Jacobs, asked the architect to do the same for him, and he later recalled that Wright advised him to find a piece of property that no one else wants with the idea that a less desirable piece of land would be more likely to have an interesting natural site for Wright to respond to. In February 1942, Melvyn joined the US Army and was sent initially to Wichita Falls, Texas. After he was transferred to Atlantic City, New Jersey, Sara joined him until a subsequent transfer to Gulfport, Mississippi. Sara, in her seventh month of pregnancy, returned to Detroit until she could join Melvyn again, now in Biloxi, Mississippi, this time bringing their son, Robert Nathaniel, “Bobby” (1944-2003). After one final transfer to Fort Worth, Texas, they returned to Detroit in 1946. After experiencing some difficulty in securing land for their home, Melvyn acquired the property on Ponvalley Road. Melvyn’s brother-in-law, Irving Goldberg, helped him to acquire Tidewater red cypress and hardware supplies for construction at little cost. A unique feature of the house is its radiant floor heat system in which hot water is carried in piping underneath concrete which is scored with a two by four feet indentation. Completed in 1950, the Smith House is an excellent example of Wright’s Usonian ideal, which aimed to build quality houses for the American middle class. On a visit to the house in 1951, Wright called it “My Little Gem.” In 1968, the house was modified to add a garden room and expanded terrace with the architectural project lead by Wright’s chief assistant and head of the Taliesin Associated Architects, William Wesley Peters, who also became Frank Lloyd Wright’s son-in-law. Peters also provided designs for a tea house/gazebo, but the project was not built. The Smiths welcomed countless visitors and guests to their house, giving many house tours to local community groups as well as architecture schools. The Smiths were involved in many community organizations and especially participated in promoting the arts in the local community, both being active members of the Arts Council Triangle, a tri-city organization of Bloomfield, Birmingham, and Troy. Melvyn was a board member of the Wayne State University Alumni Association and was instrumental in the creation of the Betsey Welling Memorial Court, for which he donated the sculpture, In Lieu, by Robert Schefman. Sara was active in the performing arts and contributed to the Cranbrook Summer Theatre programs, as well as teaching the Popcorn Players Theater group at Birmingham Community House. Their son, Robert (Bobby), married Anne Fuchs (b.1947) in 1972, and they had two children, Jennifer (b.1975) and Michael (b.1977). Sara retired from teaching in 1974, and Melvyn retired from teaching in the Detroit Public Schools in 1975. They both remained continually active in community activities. Melvyn passed away on July 30, 1984. Sara continued to live in the house until 1994, when health problems necessitated a permanent move to Santa Barbara to live with Robert, Anne, and their children. In 1997, the Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Smith Foundation was formed, and the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Robert Smith died in 2003 and Sara Smith died in 2005. Anne Smith later married Michael Towbes (1929-2017), in 2005, and the Towbes Foundation, now the owner of the house, funded a renovation project in 2012 under the supervision of Tim Jones, Vice President with the Farbman Group. Marvin Shwedel, Sara’s nephew, and his wife Dorie helped Sara take care of the house after Melvyn’s death. When Marvin died in 2014, Dorie continued the upkeep of the house. In 2013, Cranbrook was awarded a three-year grant with the Towbes Foundation to make an inventory of art objects and to create a researched script to transition house tours from being family-member led to Cranbrook staff led. In 2015, a second three-year grant was awarded to continue tours and conduct oral histories. After Michael Towbes died in 2017, the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House was donated to Cranbrook Educational Community by the Towbes Foundation.

Extent

23.8 Linear Feet (24 MS, 2 SB, 5 OS, 7 OS folders)

Language of Materials

English

Abstract

Melvyn Maxwell Smith (1914-1984) was born on March 12, 1914, in Detroit, Michigan, into an orthodox Jewish family. After graduating from Wayne State University’s College of Education. Smith took a teaching position at Detroit’s Cody High School where he also established the Comet yearbook. He was also part owner of G.G. & S. Realty, which later became G.G. & W. Sara Evelyn Stein (1907-2005), a kindergarten teacher was born in 1907, in South Fork, Pennsylvania into an orthodox Jewish family, who later settled in Detroit, Michigan. Melvyn and Sara met in 1937 and were later married in 1941. The Smith’s shared a passion for community outreach and were both active members of the Arts Council Triangle. Melvyn served on the board of the Wayne State University Alumni Association and was influential in the creation of the Betsey Welling Memorial Court. Sara was active in the performing arts-contributing to the Cranbrook Summer Theatre programs, in addition to teaching the Popcorn Players Theater group at Birmingham Community House. The Smiths who were also avid supporters of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, commissioned a home on Ponvalley Road in Bloomfield Township, which was completed in 1950. Their home would later be coined the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House. Wright later referred to the house as “My Little Gem” due to its representation of his Usonian ideal. While still in residence, the Smiths hosted many house tours to local community groups as well as architecture schools. In 1998, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. By 2012, the Towbes Foundation would obtain ownership of the house, and in 2017, the Foundation would donate Smith House to Cranbrook Educational Community. The bulk of this collection was created, collected, and maintained by Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith and reflects their individual and married lives. It includes biographical information about Melvyn, Sara, and Robert Smith; materials relating to Melvyn’s teaching career and alumni activities with Wayne State University; correspondence and publications related to their participation with community organizations; materials relating to the construction and use of the house as the Smiths’ residence, and its renovation under the Towbes Foundation, and includes information on house tours and visitors, and academic studies of the house. There is a large collection of printed materials collected by the Smiths related to Frank Lloyd Wright and his work, plus other interests such as art, architecture, and the performing arts.

Arrangement

The collection is divided into nine series based on subject or material format:

SERIES I: Biographical is divided into four subseries: 1) Melvyn M. Smith (Boxes 1-2 ) 2) Melvyn and Sara Smith (Box 2) 3) Robert N. Smith (Box 3) 4) Sara E. Smith (Box 3)

SERIES II: Professional is divided into two subseries: 1) Cody High School (Boxes 4-5) 2) Wayne State University (Boxes 5-6)

SERIES III: Community Organizations is divided into three subseries: 1) Arts Council Triangle (Boxes 6-7) 2) General (Boxes 7-8) 3) Theatre (Boxes 8-11)

SERIES IV: Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House is divided into two subseries: 1) Smith Residence 2) Towbes Foundation

SERIES V: Printed Materials

SERIES VI: Guest Books

SERIES VII: Photographic Materials

SERIES VIII: Oversize

SERIES IX: Architectural Drawings.

Additional Access

Architectural drawings are catalogued on Cranbrook's library catalog.

Acquisition

Gift of the Towbes Foundation, Anne Smith Towbes, Tim Jones, and Dorie Shwedel.

Related Material

There are additional pamphlets and periodicals relating to art, architecture, and travel remaining in the collection located at the Smith House. Printed material that pertains directly to the Smith House or Frank Lloyd Wright and his work was removed from the house and made a part of this collection at the time of the house’s acquisition by Cranbrook in order to make these materials more readily available.

A complete inventory of the books (many concerning Frank Lloyd Wright) and record albums within the Smith House library and collections is available from the Center for Collections and Research Registrar. These materials are available for use in the Archives Reading Room, by request.

Transfers

The architectural drawings are housed separately in flat storage.

Processing History

Initial processing by Gina Tecos. Final processing and finding aid updated by Laura MacNewman, 2020.
Title
Guide to the Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers
Status
Completed
Author
Original finding aid written by Gina Tecos.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Edition statement
Resource record created by Nichole L. Manlove.

Revision Statements

  • 2020: Collection reprocessed and finding aid revised by Laura MacNewman.

Repository Details

Part of the Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Repository

Contact:
39221 Woodward Ave.
P.O. Box 801
Bloomfield Hills MI 48303 US