The house that shook up Grosse Pointe.
Located along a tree-lined street in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, the William and Margot Kessler House is an artifact of the Jet Age- a distinctive glass house set amongst blocks of revivalist homes on green, grassy lots. Designed by architect William Kessler (named "the dean of Detroit's architectural community" by the Detroit Free Press) for his family in the late 1950s, the house is small, simple, but fundamentally modern, its glassy expanses and geometric forms adhering to the Miesian principles of modernity. Called "a lot of house for a low budget" by Architectural Record in 1961, the Kessler House embodies the hallmarks of its architect. It is a house that is purely Kessler, a translation of Modern principles into something much more dynamic.
One of Michigan's most influential modernists, Kessler spent a long, productive career creating technologically innovative and formally expressive modern buildings. After studying at Chicago’s Institute of Design and learning the ways of the Bauhaus under Walter Gropius at Harvard, Kessler relocated to Michigan during the early 1950s following an offer from Minoru Yamasaki to work in his growing Detroit firm. Though Kessler initially only intended to stay in the state for a few years, the young architect, impressed with the region's remarkable ability to fuel creativity and innovation, eventually established his own firm in Grosse Pointe and remained in Michigan for the rest of his career. Kessler and his wife, Margot, would also stay in their Grosse Pointe Park house- affectionately known as the "the chateau on Cadieux" (as in Cadieux Road)- until the end of their lives.
A small home that offers much in terms of spaciousness and style, the Kessler House (completed in 1959) is a simple one-story structure with a light steel frame and an almost square plan (39x42 feet). From the street, a solid brick wall screens the transparent house from view (you would be forgiven if you failed to notice the low-slung structure). Beyond the textured buff-colored wall, a garden court leads to the front facade- an impressive expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows crowned by a three-bay accordion roof. The windows and the unusual roofline are perhaps, the most identifiable features of an otherwise straightforward home. In a thoughtful display of structure and materials, the windows extend from the ground to the zigzagging gables for a rather dramatic effect. The folded-plate roof (made of a 4-inch thick structural decking that eliminated the need for an exposed truss system) cantilevers over the window walls, providing shade and shelter from the elements. Identical to the front facade, the rear of the house is also a fully glazed curtain wall, while the two side elevations are blank planes of brick.
Kessler designed the interior of house with some separation of public and private space in mind. The open, free flowing plan of the public spaces (family room and dining room) surrounds a central (and economical) utility core consisting of the kitchen, baths, and storage. The bedrooms occupy more private locations- the kids' bedrooms in the back of the house and the parents' room along the front behind the garden wall. Always the artist, Kessler accented the light and airy space with pops of bright color (like a purple front door) and striated cedar plank ceilings. The architect also designed some of the home's furniture like a long credenza that divides the dining and family rooms. Kessler's efficient use of space and decorative ingenuity translated into surprising affordability, with the house (and lot) costing a total of $30,000 (about $255,000 today).
Designed early in the architect's career, the Kessler House highlights the architect's extraordinary ability to create something completely innovative (not to mention aesthetically pleasing) with even the most modest of budgets. The success of the house is truly a testament to the architect's human-driven design approach and penchant for bold and expressive forms. In 2013, the National Park Service listed the house on the National Register of Historic Places, and today, it remains a private residence.
You can read more about William Kessler here and here.
Image at top:
William H. Kessler, architect and Balthazar Korab, photographer. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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