Credit the intractable architectural guidelines of one residential community for provoking architect Richard Meier into the daring, liberating engineering and design feat that resulted in the internationally acclaimed Douglas House.
Built for Jim and Jean Douglas in 1973, the home clings to a dizzyingly steep slope above Lake Michigan near Harbor Springs instead of being set on a lovely, if less dramatic, lot in the resort community of L’Arbre Croche, where the Douglases had originally intended it. As history has it, when the Douglases and Meier presented their idea to the L’Arbre Croche developers for a Modernist structure featuring a glass-and-white exterior, they were told only earth-toned exteriors were permitted in the subdivision. “They said it’s all fine but it couldn’t be white,” Meier recalls with a soft laugh.
By the 1970’s Richard Meier, who would go on to design some of the 20th century’s most famous buildings, including the Getty Center in Los Angeles, was already making his reputation as a master of international Modernist structures sculpted with the absence of any color but white. The white and glass exterior on Meier’s Smith House, built in Darien, Connecticut, in 1967, had helped elevate his reputation as a gifted disciple of Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect considered a father of Modernist architecture. The Douglas House would further cement that reputation—and go on to earn the architect lasting international acclaim for his ability to push the limits of Modernism in previously unimagined directions.
The Douglases, owners of a trucking company who lived in a Midwest Victorian home in Grand Rapids with their three children, seemed unlikely candidates for a Meier-style adventure in architecture. But the couple had been enamored enough of pictures they’d seen of the Smith House to contact Meier requesting that he build another “Smith House,” in Northern Michigan. And in the face of the L’Arbre Croche rejection, they stood by their choice of architect.
Months of property hunting later, the Douglases asked Meier to fly back to Northern Michigan again—this time to see a piece of property that local opinion considered unbuildable. The steep site would prove fortuitous as it forced the original design Meier had planned for the Douglas Home to new brilliance.
Meier recalls standing on the precipice of the cedar, birch and spruce covered slope that winds down to aquamarine shallows of Lake Michigan and thinking, Wow, this is great. “It seemed to me that we could build on it if, instead of entering at the bottom we entered from the top,” the architect recalls with exquisite understatement.
When the home was finished in 1973, Meier’s genius, manifested in glass and white-lacquered wood, spilled four stories down the slope from its deceivingly low one-story entrance at the bluff’s precipice. Floor-to-ceiling views of lake, sky and trees commandeered the interior.
“It’s a great spatial feeling that relates to the landscape and allows you to appreciate the changes of color during the day and the seasons,” says Meier, who recalls a visit to the site in the autumn that was “just gorgeous.”
The effortless grace of the structure belied a major, three-year construction project whose complications were compounded by the rural location. The Douglases hired a construction company from Grand Rapids, and logistics included transporting a pile-driver rig, driven at a crawl the 200 miles north to the building site. Garon Gopigian, who has summered across the street from the home since it was built, remembers the summer of 1971 when the 40-foot piles that the home would sit on were being driven deep into the clay slope. “It was relentless pounding all summer long,” he says.
Meier is still proud of the fact that so few trees were removed in construction. “The house was built almost like we dropped it from a helicopter,” he says. “We left a tree on the lake side that was actually only a foot from the house.”
The architect outfitted the home with furnishings that included Le Corbusier chairs in the living room and Mies van der Rohe dining room chairs. Meier designed the built-in desks and beds in the children’s efficient ship cabin-like bedrooms, as well as the burled maple dining table and a matching white wood lacquered coffee table and couch in the living room. He went on to think through every detail, right down to the stainless steel paper towel holder built into the kitchen wall near the sink. When the home was finished, it needed almost no adornment—the all-encompassing view with its infinite permutations of the interaction of sun, clouds and water was all the decoration it needed.
Renown for the Douglas House came quickly. In 1974, the architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in The New York Times: “The recently completed James Douglas House in Harbor Springs, Mich., is the best example yet of Meier’s evolving style—and it is perhaps one of the most skillfully wrought pieces of American housing in years … In his reinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s forms, Richard Meier has done far more than createa house which echoes now-classic modern designs. He has made a building which stands strongly on its own.”
That same year, the magazine Global Architecture devoted an entire issue to the home, including 40 stunning photographs by Japanese photographer and the founder and editor of Global Architecture, Yukio Futagawa. Goldberger wrote the text. In 1976 the Douglas House was given one of six Honor Awards by the American Institute of Architects—the only single family residence to win that year.
Even as the house gathered fame, it was, as Meier had very much intended it to be, a fabulous year-round home to the Douglas family. Gopigian, who was friends with the Douglas children, has wonderful memories of playing in and around the house—scaling the white metal climbers Meier designed into the home’s exterior and playing Monopoly on the Meier-designed burl oak table.
At the end of the 1970’s the Douglases sold the home and moved from Harbor Springs. By the time the third owners—J. Paul Beitler and his wife, Penny Powers Beitler—purchased the Douglas House in 1983, a full restoration was required. The home’s second owners had added carpeting, foil wallpapers, heavy drapes, and early American furniture. The Meier-designed coffee table was gone, and the Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe furniture was in need of repair or in some cases replacement, and the house, closed during winters, had substantially deteriorated due to thermal and water intrusion.
At the time, Beitler was just beginning his career as a commercial real estate developer in Chicago. Eventually, his firm Miglin-Beitler would become one of the most prestigious real estate development companies in Chicago. Over the course of his career, Beitler says he received the equivalent of an architectural degree working with the world’s greatest architects. Beitler understood Modernism, knew Meier’s reputation, and he knew the importance of the Douglas House.
The Beitlers launched their restoration by contacting Richard Meier for the original drawings, then went on to have the Le Corbusier chairs reupholstered, the Mies van der Rohe dining table chairs re-caned and commissioning an exact replica of the missing Meier coffee table. The glass walls needed repairing, so the Beitlers hired a specialist who’d worked on Chicago’s Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building.
In fact, the only change the Beitlers made to Meier’s original design was the addition of a custom rug for the living room seating area where Meier had placed a gray shag rug, designed to replicate a tapestry done by Le Corbusier for a Japanese theater. Beyond its Le Corbusier design, the rug is also important, Beitler explains, because as you descend into the living room your gaze is directed downward, not to the walls. “So the art is on the floor” he says.
The Beitlers’ efforts were rewarded with a 1988 article in Architectural Digest with foreward by Richard Meier recounting the return of the Douglas house as an iconic masterpiece. The home’s fame made it a mecca for architecture aficionados, occasionally creating privacy issues, such as the time a group of students simply walked in the front door. The Beitlers politely toured them around—then had a security system installed.
Beitler says the payoffs of living in the Douglas House were worth the drawbacks. “It is a sculpture,” he says. “You are living in a piece of architecture that is perfectly matched to nature—there were times when you could literally reach out and touch the face of God. No one who has ever been in this home has walked away untouched.”
In 2007, the same year the American Institute of Architects named the Douglas House as one of 150 buildings on their America’s Favorite Architecture List, the Beitlers passed their stewardship of Meier’s masterpiece to Michael McCarthy and his wife, Marcia Myers. Retired executives of Procter & Gamble, the couple had worked their way up through the company over the course of their 30-year careers—one day hoping to have a home on Lake Michigan.
When Myers, an Art History major at the University of Michigan in the 1970’s, discovered the real estate listing for the Douglas Home on the Internet, she knew she’d found both their dream home and a work of art. The couple has stepped into the role of stewards of the 40-yearold house where the Beitlers left off. We are building on his “mission to engage with architects and master builders to ensure the living breathing Meier creation is kept technically and artistically as originally designed,” says McCarthy.
Restoration projects in the past two years, overseen by McCarthy, an engineer, include installing redwood framing on the signature curtain wall on the lakeside, a new, high-efficiency heating system, repointing the brick chimneys, re-roofing the upper deck, and rebuilding the awning windows with argon filled panels. Petoskey architect Nicholas White helped with a historically correct restoration of the home’s signature entry bridge.
Famous as it is, the Douglas House is still very much a home. McCarthy and Myers spend their days in it much as Meier must have imagined people would, moving from spot to spot with a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a book, following the sun to the home’s myriad niches. Myers says their friends don’t understand why they stay home so much until they visit. Then they say, “Got it,” she says.
From Meier’s ethereal interplay of space and structure, man and nature, the couple watches thunderstorms roll over the lake, snowstorms white-out their view, and ice caves form, cold wave by cold wave. A family of bald eagles flies past the home at least once a day. Circling and migrating hawks are a constant. The couple sees fish schooling or fanning their beds down in the shallows of Lake Michigan from their house.
“It’s spiritual,” Myers says.
Richard Meier on the Douglas House
Did you realize at the time that your design would become an architectural icon?
No. I just designed it for the Douglases.
What are some of the aspects of the design that you were most passionate about?
There’s not one part of it. Everything is part of the whole. From the moment you approach the house on the bridge and you look over the lake it’s a surprise. Outside to outside it’s a surprise. The house is unique in many ways to traditionally modern architecture. There is a transparency and openness, which is something that you don’t see in a lot of modern architecture. There is not any one influence in terms of this house. It goes beyond the things that happened in the past.
Almost 40 years later, would you change anything about the design?
I might have thought about an elevator … but exercise is good for you.
Care to expound on the state of residential design in this country four decades after your work on the Douglas House?
There is not a lot to talk about residential architecture right now. There are a lot of good young architects in the country who could do wonderful things if given the chance to do private houses. I teach and I see wonderful things, but I don’t see it on the landscape of America. It’s very rare.
More Renown for the Douglas House
• In 2009 Thames and Hudson published The Iconic House, Architectural Masterworks, 100 of the most important and influential architectdesigned houses in the world.
• Also in 2009, Global Architecture produced a major article in its periodical revisiting Richard Meier’s Smith and Douglas houses with new pictures showing them in “as new” condition.
• Planned for 2010, GA is producing a new series, Residential Masterpieces, which will include the home.
• The Douglas House will be minted “Michigan Modern” by the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office.
• Garon Gopigian, who credits the Douglas House with fostering his lifelong passion for historic preservation and architectural design, is preparing documents for nominating the Douglas House to the National Register when it turns 50.