Rescuing a Landmark

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Norm Silk and Dale Morgan make a living creating centerpieces and designing social spectacles.

But their decision to buy and restore a famous-pedigree house in Detroit brought a role reversal of sorts: Suddenly, they were in the spotlight.

“It’s not unusual, if you’re out in the yard, that people stop,” Silk says. “I came home one day, and there was somebody on the sidewalk looking. He was from out of state on a tour of Wright houses. Another day, a woman and her adult son came from out of state.”

Camera-carrying sidewalk sightseers are commonplace. Others devise creative ways to gain entry. “A musician from the St. Louis Philharmonic gave us a private concert in exchange for a house tour,” Silk says. “He did a violin piece for us.”

Morgan and Silk’s house is an FLW, which sounds like an airport code — appropriate given that the Seven Mile Road address is a travel destination for devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright — the world’s most famous architect.

Silk and Morgan’s home, known as the Turkel house (they’re always named for their first owner, Morgan says), is an example of Wright’s Usonian designs. Specifically, it’s a Usonian Automatic.

Usonian, which Wright said was short for United States of North America, was a style the architect hoped would reflect the American spirit. Usonian Automatics were conceived as inexpensive homes for middle-class homeowners. The Turkel house is the only two-story Usonian Automatic ever built.

The rare residence has become more than a dwelling for the men, it’s almost a calling. They attend conferences, including one this month in Cincinnati, and created a website: turkelhouse.com.

Despite its architectural and cultural significance, the Turkel home languished and nearly fell into total disrepair before the pair bought it in 2006. When the systems stop working, a house dies, Silk says. By that standard, the home was almost beyond resuscitation. “The furnace didn’t work, the plumbing had failed, and the electrical sparked; you couldn’t safely turn on the lights,” Silk says. “The roof leaked. The carport had a sag.” Given that condition, it’s not surprising that Silk and Morgan are nearing $1 million in restoration costs.

It all began innocently enough. The couple were living in Palmer Woods in a 1923 Mediterranean-style home with a red-clay tile roof and arched windows. Like other homes they had owned — from Detroit’s Canfield’s historic district to Chicago Boulevard — it had been run down and in need of repair.

“That has to be some of the attraction,” Silk says. “We see what could be.” As co-owners of a floral business (Blossoms Birmingham), they’re accustomed to seeing things bloom.

The men say they had talked abstractly about moving to a smaller house, maybe something modern. But they liked their Palmer Woods neighborhood. One day, Silk drove by and spotted a for-sale sign. When they decided to buy, people called them crazy. They viewed the move as simply wanting to improve the house so they could enjoy living in a “cool place.” Along the way, it became their legacy.

Restoration Team

Architect: Lawrence R. Brink Associates, Ann Arbor.
General contractor: Bob Barrientez, Barrientez Home Improvement, Fraser.
Concrete restoration/repair: Tom Davis Custom Masons, Southfield.
Electrical: Linda Bjarnesen, Great Lakes Electric Supply Co., Auburn Hills.
LED Lighting/custom replacement fixtures: The Kirlin Co., Detroit.
Custom kitchen: Rice and Werthman, Detroit.
Custom furniture: Alan Kaniarz, A.K. Services, Detroit.
Plumbing fixtures: James Kronk, Universal Plumbing Supply, Oak Park.
Custom rug for music room: Amir Pouya, Direct Rug Import, Chicago.
Terrace/balcony resurfacing and coloring: Jason Leonard, Livonia Decorative Concrete Products, Livonia.
Landscape architect: Stewart Hass and Associates, Eastpointe.
Landscape/terrace/water feature installation: Steve Tuzinowski, Tuzinowski Landscape Co., Fair Haven.
Custom cushions: Home Beautiful Upholstery, Oak Park.
Custom stainless countertops: MCM Stainless Fabricating, Inc., Hazel Park.

“We’ve come to look at it like we’re caretakers of some important architectural piece, and it will keep going after we’re done with it,” Silk says.

This fall, the restoration should be essentially complete. As that long-awaited milestone neared, Silk and Morgan gave a tour of the 4,300-square-foot home. Morgan poured champagne in their kitchen, making the unfinished space feel more genteel, and then spoke of sticker shock, 400 bare windows, and the roots of Frank Lloyd Wright’s linear mindset (Froebel blocks in childhood).

“Having it take four years was a blessing,” Morgan says, “because nothing was done in haste.” They joined the FLW conservancy because that put them in contact with FLW experts. They also consulted original blueprints and have received Turkel family photos, which provided clues to original décor.

The story of the home begins in 1955, when Dorothy Turkel, the daughter of a man who made his money in parking lots when cars were just becoming common, and her husband, Henry, were living in the Grinnell house in the Boston-Edison district. Dorothy, who reportedly was fond of contemporary style, asked Frank Lloyd Wright to design a home for her.

Sometime between then and 1958, when she moved into the home with their four children, the couple divorced. Henry, a physician, never lived in the Seven Mile house. “He wasn’t happy that she was building the house,” Silk says. “He didn’t like it.”

Dorothy remained in the home until 1978, when it was purchased by Loretta Benbow, who had the home placed on the state and local historic register. The house changed hands several more times and was owned for a while by pizza millionaire (and former Detroit Tigers owner) Tom Monaghan. He never lived in the house.

Monaghan is a noted FLW fan and bought the house for that reason.

Silk and Morgan bought the house because they wanted a home in a neighborhood they already loved. Perhaps that’s what made the overdue restoration finally become reality. As Morgan says, “It’s not a museum.”

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