Just a few miles outside of Detroit sits Cranbrook, a National Historical Landmark that critics have called “the most enchanting architectural setting in the United States.”
The 319-acre campus is open for visitors, but it is often overlooked by travelers whose itineraries are filled with the city’s many other offerings. And quite possibly they’ve never even heard of it.
The complex came into being when George Booth and his wife, Ellen Scripps Booth, owners of several newspapers, bought a run-down farm in what is now the upscale suburb of Bloomfield Hills just a half-hour away from downtown.
They named their getaway estate after the English town in Kent from which George’s family had come and planned to create a place of education, spirituality and beauty, with an academy for art like those in Rome, a practical place where artists worked alongside their mentors to create art rather than just study it.
But what is this place exactly? A school, a university, a museum, a library, a residence? The answer is yes.
“Booth had a vision but no plan,” said Gregory M. Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.
That being the case, the community grew organically — eventually coming to include a church, a day/boarding school for children pre-K through grade 12, the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Cranbrook Institute of Science.
In 1908 the Booths engaged architect Albert Kahn to design the Tudor Revival mansion that would become their home.
Then in 1925 Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen arrived to become the first president of the art academy and design several other buildings — including a home for his own family.
The art deco home has been maintained exactly as it was when they lived there and is open for tours, as are the Booths’ home and the Smith House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in his Usonian style for a couple who were teachers and on a tight budget.
Each of the homes evokes a different era and a different architectural style, but the centerpiece is Saarinen’s home.
His wife, Loja, was head of the textile department at the art academy, and his son, Eero, would become the architect who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
True to the Cranbrook ideal of total design with no detail left to chance, Eliel designed the furniture, Loja the textiles and Eero such items as the vanity set in the master bedroom.
The color scheme is made up of understated earth tones that flow from one room to another with attention paid to every corner.
The leather bindings on the books in the library all match, for example, even though opening them reveals the occasional paperback inside.
“When it comes to a total work of art it doesn’t get any better than this,” Wittkopp said.
Other notable architects and designers taught, studied or lived here, such as Ray and Charles Eames, Florence Knoll and Harry Weese, and this led to the academy’s also being labeled the cradle of American modernism, the juncture between the Arts and Crafts movement and industrialism, and a place that respects the past while it encourages looking ahead to the future.
Today the Academy of Art graduate program offers master’s degrees in areas that include design, architecture, fiber, painting, photography and sculpture.
And just as George Booth and Eliel Saarinen envisioned, students work under the guidance of artists in residence who design individual curricula for them rather than in traditional classrooms.
Besides the children who come here to school, others take part in camps and enrichment programs every summer.
“The Orpheus Fountain” by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles welcomes visitors from all over the world who come to browse the art museum with its rotating exhibits and do research in the library, tour the homes and see the 40 acres of colorful, innovative gardens.
It sets the stage for an immersion in beauty and design they will not soon forget.