Inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s Palmer Woods masterpiece

world-class city has world-class architecture, and Detroit is no exception. Masters worked here: Kahn, Saarinen, Yamasaki, van der Rohe. And so did Frank Lloyd Wright, the man who created a lifestyle brand long before anyone had heard of Oprah or Martha Stewart.

Yet there is only one example of Wright’s brilliant architecture in Detroit.

The Turkel house, like many of the city’s best buildings, underwent a revival that matches its grace and elegance. At a massive 4,300 square feet, the two-story home and its lush landscape is an example of Detroit’s great mansions and a tribute to the architects who invested their talents in the city.

But this isn’t just another love story to the Turkel house. Rather, it is a realistic look at how difficult it is to save a dying piece of an architectural legend, and how, despite all of the financial and personal struggles that come along with it, living in such a masterpiece makes it all worthwhile.

At least it is worth it to Norm Silk and Dale Morgan, the two caretakers and residents of the Turkel house in Palmer Woods. Where, hidden behind its manicured landscape, the home creates what its owners call “an oasis in the city.” The couple has owned the home since 2006, and have poured over one million dollars into its renovation and restoration.

The home is much like the couple who owns it — calm, refined, wholly Detroit. Wright agreed in 1955 to build a home for Dorothy Turkel, a parking-lot heiress and doctor’s wife. Turkel had lived in the Boston-Edison district and wanted a more contemporary design, something befitting the changing nature of the city itself.

“People always note how it seems like an oasis in the city,” says Silk, comfortably positioned on one of the built-in couches within the home’s grand music room. “It’s quiet and tranquil. The house is anchored in nature, and you’re always aware of it.”

 

Morgan nods in agreement. “It’s just so simple and honest. There’s the materials, like the cement blocks that make up the walls and the concrete floors, which are just as plain as can be. Nothing is overbearing. It’s just beautifully balanced.”

But with the many people who come to see the house — some invited, some uninvited — you need an oasis to get through the endless encounters. When the Wright enthusiasts show up, they don’t often do so with much warning. Yet Silk and Morgan, two gracious hosts if there ever were any, roll with it. They open their doors, they provide tours, they get through it, because at the end of the night, the home is all theirs.

“People tend to judge you on your house, so you have homes that are built in a way to make people think you’re rich. It’s all about self-imaging,” Silk says. “Here, they drive by and look at it as a curiosity. But the way Wright designed it doesn’t allow for pretentiousness… People respond to this house. They find themselves relaxing, opening up, asking questions, having an experience. It gives you time to shut down and become exceedingly human.”

That’s the house Silk and Morgan enjoy today. But when they bought it, the exterior was covered with overgrown and tangled brush. The interior systems were largely dead, rusted or gone altogether. Water damage had eroded much of the interior. Support poles had to hold up the second floor. Because of the home’s historical designations, Silk and Morgan had to bring in specialty contractors to help restore Wright’s vision — something made possible through the procurement of pictures and blueprints from the Turkel family itself.

This process proved among the most emotionally wrenching for Silk and Morgan. They were used to doing it themselves — after all, they had previously restored three homes within the city. Each home was grander, larger, more elaborate. Their largest challenge has been the Turkel house.

Granted, the couple say they love working with their hands, crafting each detail, enjoying the process of bringing wood floors, ornate plaster, and trim back to life. Touching every part of the home was part of the joy of ownership. But this house was more fickle.

“With this house, all we could do was clean up after the contractors,” Silk says with a laugh.

The courtship between the home and its current owners spanned decades, slowly bringing together the longtime home renovators with the city’s only Wright-designed building. Wright created four other homes within the metro area — the Goddard and Wall houses in Plymouth, the Smith house in Bloomfield Township, and the Affleck house in Bloomfield Hills.

The first time they saw the home was largely accidental — Silk and Morgan remember visiting the iconic residence they would someday own when a ramshackle group of college-age architects lived there. The carpeting was a biological disaster. There was ancient drapery on the walls. The whole structure smelled of mildew and too many keggers.

They would continue to hear about the house from time to time, engaging in the usual banter about how such an architectural rarity could be hidden in plain sight. At the same time, Silk and Morgan continued to renovate their Victorians and traditional homes around Detroit. But a kind of curiosity was overcoming them — about what it might be like to own something sleek. Something modern. Something built with ego, elegance and legacy.

Silk remembers the day in 2006, when he drove the opposite way from his normal work commute and passed the “For Sale” sign in the yard of the Turkel house. The two-story beauty seemed to call to him, and this time, he answered. He peeked inside and saw a stripped-down version of the home — it was totally empty. No carpet. No heavy furniture. Only raw beauty and endless potential.

They soon found out it was a Usonian Automatic. The term may sound like something describing an automotive transmission, but it refers to the style of home Wright created as a more cost-conscious design, eliminating attics, basements and any flourishes. The Automatic concept used concrete blocks — inexpensive, efficient and easy to source. The Turkel house is the only built example of a two-story Usonian Automatic.

Weeks later, Silk and Morgan became owners of the Wright masterpiece. It would prove the most challenging, yet rewarding, decision of their lives as homeowners. There would be moments of extreme angst as the roof would spring yet another leak, another contractor bill would show up, or another stranger would knock on the door to ask for an impromptu tour.

But the moments of pleasure over the past decade of ownership are almost too exquisite to put into words. The eloquent couple, longtime Detroiters and owners of Birmingham’s floral business, Blossoms, have a kinship to the home that has an almost spiritual sense to it. They have joined Wright organizations, go on Wright tours, and attend any event that is associated with a Wright convention. They met with other homeowners, exchanging the highs and lows of owning such beauty, yet weeping over the delays in construction or cost overruns.

Silk and Morgan always saw their home as an investment; now, they see it more as an investment in themselves as the house has profoundly affected them as much as anyone else.

What makes the Turkel house stand out from any others designed in this time period in part is how the garden is incorporated into the living spaces. Back then, the home was primary and the outdoor space a secondary thought. However, Wright drew deep inspiration from the environment and made how the trees and plants supplemented the home his priority. The architect purposely situated the home on its lot in such a way that it felt like it was tucked into a corner, creating an enormous lawn and long vistas. To Morgan, it feels as if the seasons shift around the home, offering perfect views of dappled summer light, gently falling autumn leaves or pristine winter snow.

“There are all these different layers of sensation that come into play — that make it a delicious place to exist,” Morgan says. “There’s the crunching sound you hear when you’re walking across the gravel pathways. Then you cross onto the concrete and you hear heels clicking. There’s the sight of the fountain, so calming and tranquil. Everywhere you look evokes an emotional response.”

Silk and Morgan worked with landscape architect Richard Hass to create an outdoor garden that enhances the home’s unique L-shape and sizable lawn. Although the Turkel house is large, it seems precisely placed on the property and among the trees, plants and sculptures throughout the lot. Every path, it seems, leads to the home and then back outside again.

“There is a need in humans to create — we need projects,” Morgan says. “We used to go out to dinner a lot. Now we entertain a lot at home. People come to us; we don’t necessarily go out to them. People are extremely comfortable here — almost too comfortable. Sometimes, you want to ask them to leave already. But they feel at ease in this house… It is like living in an art piece, but there are no invisible ropes anywhere.”