Northern Michigan Architecture: Alden Dow Remembered

Northern Michigan Architecture: Recently retired to his Benzie County summer home, William Gilmore, a former partner of famed architect Alden Dow, talks with Northern Home & Cottage about his years working with one of the greatest design minds of the 20th century.

In 1959, the world-renowned architect Alden Dow (and son of the chemical company founder Herbert Dow) hired William Gilmore, recently graduated from Michigan State University. Dow was already a giant in the architecture world. Early on in his career he’d apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright and later he won a prestigious Diplome de Grand Prix award for two designs (the Whitman House and his own office, both in Midland, Michigan) at the 1937 Paris International Exposition—an award that catapulted the young architect into the international limelight along with previous Grand Prix winners including William F. Lamb, designer of the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center’s Raymond Hood.

NHC: A job at Dow’s office must have been a quite a coup. How did you come to be hired?

WG: I was just out of college and working for an architectural firm in Lansing. One of the designers at the firm saw an ad for the job and told me about it, so I went and applied. A lot of people were after that job. It was quite an exciting thing for my wife and me. I ended up staying 40 years—I started out as designer, then went on to become design director, president and partner.

NHC: Tell us what Dow, the man, was like?

WG: He was probably one of the finest and fairest gentlemen that I have ever known—very self-effacing. He was also one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known. He was a mentor to me, and a great friend.

NHC:  Obviously he was a man of great integrity. How did that quality translate into his work?

WG: He approached every job with humility and a clear understanding of the client’s needs and then tried to do the best job possible. It was a way of doing business that permeated the whole office.

NHC: Apparently Dow was quite close with Frank Lloyd Wright—he even named his daughter Lloyd in honor of Wright. Can you expound?

WG: I expect they had a symbiotic relationship. Wright died in 1959, and I was hired in 1959. Wright used to call Dow occasionally during that year. One day he called and said to Dow, “Hello Boy!” After he got off the phone Mr. Dow said, “I feel great today." I asked him why and he said, “because I’m 55 years old and I just got called boy.” I think the two got on well. In the book Alden Dow Midwestern Modern, the author Diane Maddex cites how Alden Dow was the recipient of the Frank Lloyd Wright Creativity Award and it was presented to him by Mrs. Wright [Olgivanna in 1982]. Mrs. Wright said on that occasion, “Alden, you were my husband’s spiritual son.”

NHC: Apparently they once had a falling out— after Dow was awarded the commission for the Phoenix Civic Center (1942) over Wright:

WG: Yes, but later [as referenced in the book Midwestern Modern] Dow commented that Wright had called him to tell him what a great job he’d done on the building.

NHC: What design philosophy did the two architects share?

WG: I expect they shared the same approach to design: That site is the determiner of the project in many ways—as are client needs and budget; the idea that a design should be one with the environment; that architecture should be indigenous to the site using natural materials such as brick, wood and stone that meld with the site, so that the site and building become harmonious.

NHC: In your opinion, what were Dow’s greatest achievements?

WG: I would say one of his great influences was on church design. Our office was known throughout the country for innovative churches. Midland has wonderful churches. And Mr. Dow’s own office [the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio in Midland, Michigan, now an archive of Dow’s work] is often noted as one of the finest buildings ever. It’s been compared to Wright’s Fallingwater, as it fits so beautifully with the site—a perfect example of a structure being one with nature, ergo organic architecture meaning site and building blending as one.

NHC: Where in your opinion does Alden Dow stand among architects of the 20th century?

WG: I would say that Alden Dow stands right in the forefront. He worked so much in a small town [Midland] and perhaps his work didn’t get the recognition it should have had he built on a bigger stage—he’d have gotten so much more publicity. But he never sought honors or publicity.

NHC: You have a wonderful story that illustrates his kind and polite nature. Care to share?

WG: Yes, it was the first time we ever had him and his wife, Vada, over for dinner. My wife was quite excited as was I … she didn’t know what to serve. We bought a nice French wine that was difficult for us to pay for at the time. As the dinner progressed Mr. Dow asked for another portion of cannelloni and for another glass of wine. But the bottle was empty and all we had in the house was some Ripple—we told him that, and he said he’d love to have some Ripple. After he took a sip he said, “This is delightful … Vada, we have to get some of this.” It really showed my wife and me what kind of man he was.

Order the 2012 August issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine to learn about the home William Gilmore built for himself on Crystal Lake.

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