Writers Note: Black and white photos are original from 1947-1948 and were provided by the owner. Color photos are from recent visits to the home. Devon Gables photo is from a postcard. The numbers in parentheses represent the referenced sources listed at the end of this posting. Text and color photos except postcard in this post are copyrighted 2014 West Michigan Modern. THIS STORY is about an extraordinary home currently for sale at 7510 Valhalla Drive on the Thornapple River, south of Grand Rapids, Michigan. To tell the story, we have to go back to the beginning. For original owner Edna Hargrave, the Usonian-style home designed by Harold Turner and built on a steep bank of the Thornapple River was more than a house–it was a way of living. L. F. Jessup, Building Editor, writing in the December 21,1947 issue of the Grand Rapids Herald clearly questions whether this type of modern house would be popular with most homeowners, but he is taken with its beauty stating that it was “the manifestation of ‘the brave new world’ that was promised after World War II.” (5) The home completed for Edna and Edward Hargrave in 1947 was designed in an “organic style of architecture advocated by Frank Lloyd Wright” according to Jessup. (6) In the mid-forties the building site must have been considered remote and very much follows Frank Lloyd Wright’s advice to homeowners to find a site that seems impossible to build on.(10) Before he designed the Valhalla House on the Hexagonal grid, Harold Turner, Danish-born cabinet maker built some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most complicated Usonian homes. Scholar John Sergeant in his book Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses writes that Turner built the Hanna House on Stanford University property, the Armstrong House in Ogden Dunes, Indiana, the Christie House in new Jersey, the Rebhuhn House in New York and the Goetsch-Winkler house in Okemos, the Wall house in Plymouth and the Affleck House in Bloomfield Hills (shown above), Michigan. (1) Turner’s first FLW house was the Hanna House built while he was living in San Jose, according to the 1940 Census. (11) Turner worked for a Stanford professor who recommended him to the the Hanna’s who later became well known for their educational research. At the urging of Paul Hanna and Wright’s invitation, Turner stayed at Taliesin for some weeks observing and working until okayed by Wright to proceed as contractor for the Hanna project.(10) Here Turner is shown surveying the Hannah property. In the years from 1938 through 1945, Turner lived where he worked constructing Wright homes. When Turner built his own home in Bloomfield Township on Lone Pine Road, he designed it as a small farm using the Taliesin principles of self-sustenance with facilities to grow and store the food on the site and according to Sergeant said he used Japanese prisoners of war at the time. (1) When Turner was working on the Thornapple House he lived part of the time with the Hargraves and part-time in a prefab building on the site. (6) Here the home is shown in process with insulation showing in the ceiling. The Grand Rapids Herald writer described Turner as a modest man in his early 40’s or 50’s. (6)) His connection to the Hargraves was a family one. Edna Hargrave was the sister of Turner’s wife Laura according to the current owners. Although from the suburban Detroit area, in 1945 Edna and Edward lived at 101 Prospect SE in Grand Rapids and were the owners of the “Mug and Muffin” located at 75 Division N. (2) The Hargraves decided to buy 11 acres with 600 feet on the Thornapple River to enjoy as they prepared for retirement. (5) Once retired they alternated weeks living in the Thornapple House with weeks spent in Bloomfield Hills with the Turners doing the bookkeeping for the Turner’s well-loved local restaurant Devon Gables. It is unknown how they decided on this Usonian style but the Grand Rapids Herald article described their contentment with all aspects of the house. “Now that they are occupying their dream house, the Hargraves feel as they could never live anywhere else and that they never really have been adequately housed before. They expressed regret that they will not have more years to live in their new home.” (5) Here Edna is photographed as she contemplates the view. Views from the south facing window wall are spectacular. According to Edna maintenance was minimal in the house. “It’s a joy to keep house here…” Mrs. Hargrave, exclaimed according to that early Herald article. “The contrasting textures of the wood, brick, glass and concrete are pleasing and restful. The need for redecorating is virtually eliminated and for a change of scenery we have the ever-changing panorama of the landscape always visible from every part of the living area.” (6) Along the south-facing glass wall, you find an inside garden. This provides the humidity in the dryer winter months. From the beginning the narrow garden had a practical purpose. Author John Sergeant writes that Turner talked of the use of cypress in Usonian houses stating that “he found cypress to be a moist board, requiring particular care in detailing and benefitting from the moisture of house plants or an internal flower garden.” (1) The original window wall was made up of many smaller glass panes. An early solar house, the glass south wall admits sun rays in winter to augment the radiant heating system. “I am susceptible to colds, “ said original owner Mrs. Hargrave. “but last year I didn’t have a cold and despite the large expanses of glass in the living area we were comfortably warm even when it was 28 below zero.” (6) Current owners Ashima Saigal and David Fridsma agree. Today the house features large panes of glass as opposed to small and the windows provide a dramatic view of the outside and the Thornapple River below. David said “It can be winter and 10 degrees out and if it’s sunny, we have to open the doors.” (7)
The Hargraves enjoyed their beautiful retreat for many years. Edward died in 1966 and Edna died February 22, 1980 both in the Bloomfield Hills area but chose to be buried closer to their beloved Thornapple River House and their gravestones can be seen in Grand Rapids at Woodlawn Cemetery.
The Thornapple River House on Valhalla Drive in Caledonia Township south of Grand Rapids, Michigan has changed very little since Edna and Edward Hargrave moved in just before Christmas, 1947. Writer’s note: at the suggestion of the owner, the four of us climbed up on the roof to see the sharp angles of the amazing roof and of course a view of the river. The hexagonal grid typical of many Usonan homes with its 60 and 120 degree angles makes it possible for this house to hug the cliff and take advantage of glorious exterior views from the glass interior. Turner’s incredible skill as a cabinet maker made him a Master Builder of FLW Usonians. He was one of few who could build Wright’s designs. And for his crew of workers, Turner said he preferred four days of work from older skilled craftsman (including cabinetmakers) than five from younger. (1)
Today nature is still king in this picturesque spot on the river. And the house fits on the land as though it were always there. The House has a large trapezoidal living area with three walls of glass on one side of a thick brick wall which intersects the house and emerges on the east end to anchor the house into its natural surroundings. The brick wall is a structural element and creates the strong horizontal line.
The walls are of brick, glass, wood and the ceiling is “random width cypress panels with warm mellow finish.” (6) The floor is of polished red concrete. The Usonian style is so apparent in this home. In the 1948 issue of Architectural Forum curated by Henry Russell Hitchcock, Wright discusses the important characteristics including concrete slab foundations over a bed of insulating stone/gravel with radiant heating, a strong relationship between the interior and the exterior, “big living rooms and commodious fireplaces, all eventually leading toward the great single room…the open plan…a great Usonian house is always hungry for ground, lives by it..becoming an integral feature of it.” (4) So now I realize the FLW must have “coined” the term we toss about liberally today “great room.” In the great room of this home, the ceiling is stunning! The light reflects off the ceiling of mitered cypress chevrons and is mirrored in the floor – glowing slabs of red polished concrete. Another characteristic of the Usonian homes found in here are the piano-hinged doors. Located on both the east and west sides of the house, they provide a very elegant entrance on the east into the home and egress on the west to the riverbank terrace. It is this feeling of transparency – bringing the outdoors in – that may influenced the current owner’s statement that “the house lives big.” (7) There is another way light is used in the home. Both the kitchen and the sleeping ends of the living area have lower ceilings at about 7 feet. Clerestory windows on both ends provide a view of trees and sky. One thing about this house that was stressed by Edna Hargrave and echoed by Ashima, is that atmosphere of the Thornapple River House is very peaceful and serene. In fact, since they moved to a new home, Ashima has returned to the Thornapple river House to meditate and has invited others to join her in the open space. In the open plan space, only movable partitions and screens separate the bedroom areas from the living room. There are no walls on this side of the brick wall.
The original bedroom was configured using the movable partitions. Today with the house empty of furniture, you spot the bedroom area on the east side of the living area by the built-in chest of drawers. There is also inset in the wall designed to serve as a built-in night stand which you can match to the older photo. The kitchen is located on the opposite end of the living area. Below is a photo of the original kitchen. According to the 1948 Grand Rapids Herald article, the finishes in the kitchen included a Monet metal sink and oil-treated plywood counter. Appliances were recessed into the brick wall and the ceiling light was a light socket in a triangular recess. Today the kitchen area has the same footprint and Ashima and David both feel that the galley kitchen will make a fun and creative remodel for new owners. The existing kitchen is the product of an earlier remodel. In fact Ashima and David had plans drawn for a sensitive renovation and expansion of the house before they decided that due to the needs of their own family, it was time to put it up for sale. Behind the kitchen and on the other side of the brick wall is the utility hall. The doors that lead to these functional areas of the house blend into the wood panelling.
The bathroom, laundry, dressing room are located here. There is lots of storage in the high shelves and cupboards of this area of the home. I noticed the unusual striated plywood (sometimes called combed) wall surface in the utility hall. I saw a similar style in another house – the Levy House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Parkwyn Village in Kalamazoo. Apparently this product/technique was used in Eichler homes as well. There are other things to see in this home. The Thornapple River House is a gem and deserves an appreciative owner who wants something rare and yet totally vital today in a setting that few homes can match. Prologue: There is much more to the Turner story. When Harold Turner had finished building homes for Frank Lloyd Wright by the end of WWII and finished building the Thornapple River House, he continued to design and build homes mostly in Bloomfield Township on and near many of the small picturesque lakes in the area and some as well in Southfield and Grand Blanc. One of the Bloomfield homes was written up in an article entitled “The Boomerang House” with text by Robin Cohen and photography by Beth Singer in Echoes Magazine of Classic Modern Style (no longer in publication). The photos of this home are impressive and I hope that I will be able to obtain permission to share them in a follow up article. I was able to get a copy of the article from TIm Sullivan of HomeLab who builds homes in Palm Springs and lives the rest of the time in Birmingham, Michigan. The article sums up the characteristics that described Turner’s style are “…low horizontal forms…wood and other natural materials …interior walls and ceilings of pecky cyprus…walls are raw exposed brick…built-in shelving and furniture….inside spaces “expand into outdoor spaces…butted glass windows at the corners.” It is clear that working for Frank Lloyd Wright made a great impression on Turner’s own designs. Turner and his wife Laura continued to run the Devon Gables restaurant until about 1967 when it was sold. He lived until 1974 and left a legacy of beautiful midcentury buildings of his own design to be lived in and enjoyed. I finally realized that if I waited to complete this posting about the Thornapple RIver House until I was finished researching Harold Turner, well it would be a long time before posting! So consider this “Part 1.” Look for “Part 2 – More of Harold Turner” sometime in the spring to learn more about Turner’s work and his own designs. I have included some windshield photos of other Turner homes in Bloomfield Hills below. CITATIONS: 1.Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses; Designs for Moderate Cost One-Family Homes by John Sergeant 2. Grand Rapids and BIrmingham City Directories. 3. “History,” Valhalla Rental House http://www.usonianhouse.com/home/history . 4. “In the Nature of Materials” by Henry Russell Hitchcock. Architectural Forum, January 1948. 5. “Modern Dream House on the Thornapple” Grand Rapids Herald, December 21,1947. 6. “Thornapple House is Way of Life,” by L.F. Jessup, Building Editor, September 19, 1948. 7. “A Space Craft” by Karin Orr, Grand Rapids Press, Date unknown. 8. U.S. Social Security Death Index for Edna Hargrave, Edward Hargrave, Harold Turner 9. Frank Lloyd Wright in Michigan by Dale Northup. Algonac, MI: Reference Publications 1991, 2nd Rev. Edition. 10. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hanna House: the Clients’ Report by Paul Robert Hannah. New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1981. 11. United States Census 1940.