Blog: Norm Silk



Norman Silk, together with his partner Dale Morgan, own BLOSSOMS, a full service florist in Birmingham now celebrating 30 years of bringing extraordinary flowers to Detroiters.

With more than 45 years of experience in the flower business, it's clear that flowers have always been Norm's passion.  He grew up in the family floral business and by age 16 had an impressive following.  After living briefly in San Francisco, he and Dale founded Silk and Morgan, a special event floral company.  Several years later they established BLOSSOMS as one of the first lifestyle stores selling fresh flowers and garden style arrangements.  In addition to their Millender Center location, the partners opened stores in Grosse Pointe Farms and Birmingham.

Equally passionate about Detroit and its historic architecture, Norm has lived in three of Detroit's historic neighborhoods over the last three decades.  He has purchased and renovated distressed properties in Boston-Edison, a West Canfield Street Victorian in Midtown, and a Mediterranean mansion in Palmer Woods. Four years ago, Norm and Dale, his partner of 35 years, impulsively purchased and meticulously "refreshed" their current residence, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed 1955 Dorothy Turkel house. He is also a member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago.

Norm currently serves on the board of Woodward Avenue Action Association, where he is working on an initiative to improve the commercial strip of Woodward Avenue between Six and Eight Mile – dubbed "The Park District".  Norm and Dale are also active in Palmer Woods Association activities such as hosting numerous holiday walks and concerts for the Music in Homes program benefiting neighborhood projects.


Norm Silk - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: A Vision for a Sustainable, Livable Corridor

The 6-8 Mile/ Park District Revitalization Effort

•    Inspiring Change, Building Capacity, Creating Physical Improvements, Enhancing Economic Development, Promoting Transportation, Encouraging Efficient Land Use, Creating a Safe, Healthy and Walkable Community, Adopting Green Initiatives, Promoting Diversity, and Defining a Sense of Place…

The area between Six and Eight Mile Roads along Woodward is an eclectic blend of stability and blight. Led in Part by the Woodward Avenue Action Association (WA3), a collective revitalization plan among residents, businesses, elected officials and stakeholders is emerging and re-energizing this underserved, but asset-rich "gateway" to the City of Detroit.

Changing city
Look out!  Detroit is getting ready to boom again.  The energy is contagious, creative ideas are flowing like our sparkling river.  Glorious old buildings are finding new purpose and our land will become productive again. Change is coming to Woodward Avenue between 6 and 8 Mile Road. Woodward Avenue Action Association recognizes that it's time to move forward and be part of the change we want to see.

History

Imagine Woodward Avenue 70 years ago in its heyday.  The commercial strip south of the State Fairgrounds boasted at least three fine florists, a gourmet market that delivered orders to the surrounding neighborhoods, one of Detroit's finest candy makers, professional services, popular restaurants and much more.  As the suburbs grew, the neighborhood lost businesses.  The florists were replaced with a lawn mower repair shop, an adult video store, and the last was torn down. The candy shop closed; the gourmet market became a liquor store. 

You get the picture.  Residents of the surrounding lovely historic neighborhoods were forced to shop in the suburbs.  They came to accept the idea that most of the shops and services left.  Detroiters started to accept neglect as part of living in Detroit.  Vacant and run down buildings unoccupied for years became invisible to residents as they went about their daily lives.  Lack of code enforcement allowed landlords to hold derelict property with little consequence.  It was time for a change.

Call to action
In 2008, Woodward Avenue Action Association, a long-established champion for the entire 27 miles of Woodward Avenue, was approached by a small group of businesses in the 6-8 mile commercial district seeking assistance and support for the district.  Although there were many established businesses, the lack of an organized association, crime, and poor city services were genuine concerns.  WA3 was asked to work with them to facilitate change.

ACTION is part of our name:  Woodward Avenue Action Association accepted the challenge.  Forming a committee of interested board members, our team consists of an outstanding architect and others with an eye to design and style supported by hardworking staff with backgrounds in urban planning.  We engaged stakeholders in the area and held regular monthly meetings attended by both business owners and interested residents.  We engaged city departments and law enforcement officials to resolve problems. Click here for our mission statement.

Accomplishments
After more than one year visioning and problem solving, we applied for and received a grant from the ONCR Refresh District to create a plan for the area.  Working with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at U of D Mercy Architecture School, and more than 20 stakeholders and visionaries, priorities were identified for the neighborhood now branded as "THE PARK DISTRICT" which is dominated by the large urban park – opposite Palmer Park. The entire vision will be unveiled by early summer and at least two new facades will be executed in the district this spring.

As the PARK DISTRICT plan unfolded, we gained valuable support.  The city of Detroit has indicated it will adopt and plan into its master plan.  Property owners in Palmer Park have given their support.  Palmer Woods' neighborhood association has granted funds to plant flowers in the area this summer. There is talk of sunflower gardens as well!

Goals
Woodward Avenue Action Association will continue working with businesses and residents in the area.  Vacant building owners will be offered the opportunity to join the effort, take advantage of refresh grants, or perhaps find new owners.  Building codes will be enforced to protect property values.

Other partners
Since the start of the Woodward Avenue initiative, other groups have emerged.  An exciting plan for a new urban neighborhood called GROWTOWN has been proposed east of Woodward Avenue in the same district. The GROWTOWN plan would attract  gardeners and artists to a community of creative new homes with community gardens, parks, markets, and new services. Another urban garden project known as Fireweed Universe City is just one of the groups working in the area gaining support and expanding urban garden projects south of 7 Mile.

Good things are happening in Detroit. It's time for our residents to speak up to media and others who talk down the city. We LOVE Detroit and aren't afraid to say it.

Join us, and be part of the change. Make Detroit the city you want to live in.


Post 2: A Walk Through the Turkel House

In 2006, my partner and I purchased the Dorothy Turkel home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

After living six blocks from this house for 25 years and even being in the house when student friends lived there many years ago, I never thought that I might own it someday. In fact, I never wanted to, until one day nearly four years ago. Strangely drawn like a moth to a flame, I stopped one sunny day as I was driving by after noticing a For Sale sign in the unkempt lawn. The house was clearly empty.  Pressing my face against the window I was amazed at what I saw. A large spacious two-story room with a dark red floor, an interesting gallery with eight glass doors opening to a large terrace, enough windows to defy counting, and interesting details everywhere. I couldn't wait to get home.

As I remember, we both went back that day for another look then called our realtor friend to arrange a look. It needed "a new furnace", the kitchen was a horrible remodel, and everything was worn but original. With just a few updates like paint and stain and new cushions we would have a beautiful significant new home. Boy, was I naïve. Within two weeks we had made an offer. I remember the call as we were driving back from our condo in Chicago. The offer was accepted. What had we done?

We hired Lawrence Brink, an architect from Ann Arbor specializing in Wright properties. He was even a former Wright apprentice and knew Mr. and Mrs. Wright. His first action was to shore up the carport. It had a structural problem that had existed for more than 10 years when he studied it for another owner. It could fall down anytime, he said. We brought in steel supports immediately.

We established our budget and started planning. After many consultations and numerous architectural drawings, we were ready to begin:

This is what we HAVE done:
•    New roof
•    New thermal pane windows
•    Complete new heating system
•    Updated plumbing and electrical
•    Repaired block exterior
•    Cast 55 new blocks to replace damaged blocks
•    New kitchen
•    New master bath
•    Restored all original Philippine mahogany to original color and finish
•    Restored all original furniture
•    Reproduced all original missing music room furniture – three coffee tables and 12 hassocks

We DID NOT remove any walls or change floor plan or make any significant changes to the original design.

Our intent was to return the house to its 1955 appearance while making it comfortable for modern living. We are close to accomplishing this, within three years and at three times the original budget.

As we settle in we continue to marvel at the astounding modern design. The Usonian Automatic design is one of seven houses designed by Wright in this organic style; this is the largest and only two-story in existence. The house is constructed entirely of custom made concrete blocks – over 36 patterns woven together with steel rebar. The interior finish is a combination of concrete block and Philippine mahogany. The geometry is precise, the building module based on a two-foot square is repeated throughout the house, floor grid, window size, ceiling blocks – even two-foot door openings. Repetition makes strong sight lines. Rows of cabinets between doors on both the first and second floors lead from the open airy two-story music room to small intimate private sleeping chambers. Wright provided large public areas but made bedrooms smaller. Each of the three bedrooms has built-in dressers, night stands, closets, and a desk. Each has its own bath. Ribbons of windows line every room. Natural light streams from the east in the morning, making geometric patterns on the polished red concrete floors. As the light keeps changing throughout the day, the shapes cast by the open blocks change and evolve. At night the moon casts the same shadows. Mr. Wright was 88 years old when he designed the house for Mrs. Turkel.
 
As he did in some of his houses, Mr. Wright did not design the original landscape. Working with a landscape architect last fall, we installed some landscaping and this spring will place additional plantings and perennial gardens. All are sensitive to Wright's ideas of natural plantings and will be a complement to the house. Wright's philosophy was to blend the house with nature, making the inside and outside blur. The low 6.8 ceilings are a method he used to force you to look out, not up. It works. One is very drawn to the outside while in the house; your eye cannot help but look outside.

You should understand we are not life long Wright fans; it was not our goal to own this house, however it has turned into an extraordinary experience. Every day we see people slow down to catch a glimpse now that the house has come back to life. Others gaze from the sidewalk. When all the lights are on it looks like a lantern in the woods. It slows traffic, in fact. We have been contacted by enthusiasts and architects from all over the world and have shared the house with architectural students and community groups whenever possible.

This newfound interest caused me to extensively research Mr. Wright's work and long career, and I have found it fascinating. The experience of owning a Wright house has made me realize we are really only the caretakers of this great house. Only about 400 of his roughly 532 built buildings remain. Many are in danger of destruction. The organization Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy works to protect Wright buildings. Learn more at www.savewright.org.

Wright has been called the Greatest American Architect. During his long career, his ideas pushed the limits of modern design and construction. He accomplished his dream of creating a unique style of American architecture.

I am pleased to be the caretaker of this house.


Editor's Note: Other Frank Lloyd Wright homes built in the Detroit area between 1940 and 1953 can be found in Bloomfield Hills and Plymouth. Click here. And check out Wetmore Tire (originally the Wetmore Auto Service Station) in Ferndale.

 

Post 1: 45 Years in the Floral Business. WOW!

In the early 60's when I started in the family flower business, things were quite different. Every florist had the same basic selection of flowers: carnations, chrysanthemums, red roses, and maybe a few specialty flowers grown in their own greenhouses. Now flowers arrive like produce from growers all over the world within days of being harvested, offering an astounding selection of colors and varieties.  

30 years ago, when we opened a flower shop we wanted to set ourselves apart from what we considered to be a "traditional" florist. Most shops had flowers stored in coolers and arrangements were stiff, structured, pointed triangles. We changed that. Our first BLOSSOMS store in the atrium of the newly opened Millender Center had vases of fresh flowers openly displayed on glass tables and available for purchase by the stem or the bunch; glass vases with simply arranged flowers as if they were just picked from the garden became our signature.  Purchases were packaged with style in clear paper with ribbons. Buying flowers became fun and customers were pleased to bring flowers into their everyday life.

To put the time in perspective, Martha Stewart was new on the scene. Martha's fresh new approach to flowers, food, and entertaining helped create demand for flowers by offering new styles and introducing us to new varieties. The BLOSSOMS look was widely accepted by customers looking for style-driven products. Sometimes new customers who simply heard some buzz about BLOSSOMS would be horrified to receive flowers that "looked like they had been just stuck in a mayonnaise jar". Thankfully, over time those calls have diminished.

When was the last time you received flowers? If you think back, it will be clear why people buy flowers. Flowers make you feel good, conveying feelings that are often hard to express in words.  Saying, 'I love you, I'm thinking of you, Get Well, Thank you, or I share your sorrow'. When I make a delivery to an office or hospital, people in the elevators and hallways always say "Are they for me?" Flowers are so valued, even after their intended use at a wedding or funeral they are carried home to enjoy longer.

In 1963, I made flower arrangements in ceramic booties for new babies, tea cups for Mother's Day, mum plants with big satin bows in hat baskets, and sympathy arrangements that were triangular flat arrangements of gladiolas, carnations and mums. It's sad to say that if you drive just a few miles in any direction from our shop in Birmingham you can still find these designs in flower shops. But many consumers are slow to change. Think of Aunt Shirley still wearing that 30-year-old hair style and polyester. Our customers have sophisticated taste and want updated modern designs. We still offer arrangements in clear glass vases like we did in the '80s, but the styles have evolved. Current flower trends include "hedged" flowers in square vases, grouping of flowers into masses, and designs with all one kind of flower. The preferred flower arrangements at BLOSSOMS are compact, with colorful flowers grouped en masse.

A unique part of our business is creating special event flowers. This is how our company started. Simply known as Silk and Morgan, we created countless weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and corporate events for several years before our customers convinced us to open a retail store. Even though I grew up in the family flower business, I was unaware of this huge specialty market until I worked in a large shop in San Francisco in the mid '70s. Suddenly I was one of 80 employees in a huge prestigious flower shop. 30 designers created parties and décor for local celebrities like Bing Crosby, William Hearst, Shirley Temple Black, and the like. The scope of these parties was amazing.

Upon returning to Michigan, I came to know Tom and Diane Schoenith of Detroit's famous Roostertail. They were the preeminent party givers of the '70s and '80s in Detroit and enlisted our creative help with décor. Without limitation we were free to express ourselves and we created dozens of events with Tom and Diane. Later we were "discovered" by Dolly, Charlotte, and Marsha, a trio of prominent party planners. The rest is history. Over the years we have created hundreds of events including the first wedding ever at the DIA and the recent Red Tie Ball at Joe Louis Arena. Our wedding bouquets were recently featured in both Hour and Ambassador magazines. BLOSSOMS showroom walls are lined with events we have designed both large and small, creating memories of a lifetime.  Parties in the '80s were over the top, each one a tribute to the customer's successful place in life. Each customer seemed to want to outdo the next. What else can we do?.. was the buzzword. Today's parties have a sense of simple understated style. Venues are often upscale hotels and clubs or restaurants. Beautiful tables are important. Lovely linens and tasteful flowers set the mood.

One of the biggest changes in the business is the availability of flowers from all over the world. Local commercial flower growers in Michigan have nearly vanished. In the mid-'60s, one of the largest rose crops came from Mt. Clemens.  With high labor and fuel costs, they are all gone now. Many small family greenhouses grew carnations, snapdragons, chrysanthemums and other specialty crops, sadly these too are gone. Today we have one supplier of field-grown summer gladiola and a few seasonal plant growers. A handful of small growers offer summer crops of "garden flowers".

Most commercial flowers today come from Holland, South and Central America, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia.  California and Florida are the only domestic markets still in this country. Some boutique rose growers have emerged in California over the last few years. All European-grown flowers are sold through the huge Dutch market in Alsmeer, Holland, including flowers from Israel, France, and many Dutch-grown flowers. The best roses come from the mountains of Ecuador. Tropical varieties arrive from South America, Costa Rica, and Hawaii. Dendrobium orchid production shifted over the years from Singapore to Thailand, and now many are coming from Malaysia.  Most large florists purchase through brokers several days in advance. Brokers handle the buying, transportation, customs, and finally, local delivery.

Most flowers are shipped by air and arrive carefully dry packed in boxes. Upon arrival they must be carefully conditioned according to high standards to insure longevity. Extreme cold in winter and hot summer days are a florist's nightmare, sometimes resulting in frozen or "cooked" flowers. An occupational hazard, I suppose.

World conditions now affect flowers. Recently the volcano in Iceland prevented shipments of flowers arriving from Europe, forcing us to find substitutes for special orders intended for bridal flowers. When the Thai airport was taken over by rebels, orchid shipments stopped for a week. World weather affects us in other ways. A spring freeze in Ecuador affected flower production, and cool weather slows growth and affects flower color and size. Insects found in tropical orchids during agricultural inspection often result in the entire shipment being seized and destroyed. Explain that to a bride who had 500 purple orchids on order for her wedding in a few days.  

Flower selection continues to expand with the development of new varieties. Flowers are grown in conjunction with today's design and fashion trends. Currently popular colors are red, orange, and yellow. Green flowers are popular and unusual, with blues also gaining popularity. Nature provides a huge choice of natural colors but sometimes customers insist on "matching" colors, primarily for bridal work. If requested, we may alter the color gently with special floral dye or spray tints. The world wide availability of flowers has expanded the season for availability, but I prefer to offer them in their intended season. Somehow tulips in July or sunflowers in December simply don't have appeal, and often the quality out of season is not good.  

We never know what a day will bring. Customer needs are immediate and time sensitive. We can't expect someone to accept their birthday or anniversary flowers the next day; however, in recent years we have seen a trend away from advance ordering to an overnight way of thinking. This makes designing and delivery a challenge sometimes. Our drivers carry cell phones to facilitate communication. We strive to provide excellent customer service by using Google maps to zoom in on a location that might be difficult to find.

Any successful business must change and evolve to stay relevant. We have certainly seen many changes in our 30 years in business and even more in my 45 years in the flower business. The biggest changes:

•    Technology: everything is computerized now
•    Websites: Many people refer to our website on the phone or order online
•    Convenience: Fewer people shop in person for custom arrangements, preferring to order by phone
•    More choices: Greatly expanded floral varieties
•    Unrealistic expectations: Thinking every flower in every color will always be in stock or you can get it on a moment's notice
•    More non-florist outlets to purchase flowers

As Detroit moves into urban farming, perhaps we can return to some local production of flowers and plants. Fresh, locally grown flowers could become a new modern family business.

Tomorrow: A Walk Through the Turkel House

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