In 1908, Meyer May commissioned the famous American architect to design a home for him and his family. May was a wealthy businessman who owned a successful clothing store in Grand Rapids. The neighborhood, now known as the Heritage Hill district, was, and is, filled with Victorian style homes, and Wright’s prairie style design, completed in 1909, stood out like a sore thumb.
It has low horizontal lines and more than 100 windows, including art-glass skylights. Electricity was considered a probable fad at the time and homes were being constructed with gas jets alone or with both systems. Wright rejected this and installed electric lights only throughout the home (it wasn’t until the 1930s that 90% of urban homes had electricity). Ahead of his time in many ways, Wright also installed a central vacuum system. The overall feel of the home is warm and open. Interior walls appear only where they need to be for structural support.
It’s inviting once you are inside, but Wright made it difficult to locate the main entrance with the reasoning that if you did not know where the entrance was, you were not welcome.
Alas and alack, May’s family grew and he put on an addition not of Wright’s design, and the home was subsequently sold several times over the next decades. In the 1960s, it became a multi-unit rental, with carports and extra entrances added. The garden was paved over for parking. Disrepair ensued.
In 1985, the Steelcase Corporation purchased the structure. They took two years to painstakingly research and renovate the building back to the original Wright design. All additions were removed and the garden was restored. Some of the original furniture was retrieved and other accouterments were added as faithful reproductions or antiques from that era. It is now considered to be the most complete restoration of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in existence (or maybe that’s just a Grand Rapids claim :).
Wright not only designed the space, he also designed the furniture, chose the carpets and colors, and designated where pictures should be hung by posting two plugs in the wall. He never designed another home in Grand Rapids. Although he was commissioned for a home close to this one, he left the country in 1909 with his mistress, scandalously, and never worked in Michigan again. His life and other work fill volumes.
The kitchen is not open for touring and has been converted into a modern facility, suitable for hosting exclusive dinners by the Steelcase Corporation. Today the company would not be in a position for the purchase along with the unlimited-budget restoration. But in 1987, the home was opened to the public for tours and was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a beautiful combination of light, space, and lines, and is a delight to behold.