Southfield’s mid-century cul-de-sac architecture recognized for historic value

Homes that bear plaques with the word “historic” often bring to mind sprawling Civil War-era plantations, colonials from the Revolution, and 19th-century farmhouses.


But what about the 1965 tri-levels with rumpus room and attached garage? How could a mid-century ranch--perhaps identical to the one you grew up in--possibly be considered historic?


In Southfield (and increasingly across the nation), it is.


Southfield, a first-ring Detroit suburb that grew exponentially during the post-WWII era, is in the process of listing two separate neighborhoods in the National Register of Historic Places precisely for their distinctive collections of homes that adhere to iconic mid-century modern residential design.

Mid-century modern homes in Southfield. Photo by David Lewinski.


Those involved say the designation is about more than just the architectural styles of the homes. It’s also a way to capture and preserve Southfield’s history and the role the city played as a runway for the prosperity of post-war America during a housing boom that coincided with a remarkable movement in automotive, furnishings, workplace, and commercial design.


It’s a way to highlight the racially-integrated neighborhoods that welcomed the middle class and influencers of the Motown era.


And perhaps most importantly for Southfield, it’s a way to build and sustain property values for every home in the historic district and to create a reputation as a city that shaped the modern way of life for millions of suburban Detroiters.


Councilmember with vision


It started with one councilmember’s desire to promote the city’s assets. Kenson Siver, mayor of Southfield since 2015, was a Southfield resident when he recognized his own city in “The Crucial Decade: America 1945-55,” a book by Eric Goldman, as well as its update which extends to 1960.


“Goldman writes about the profound changes in American life following WWII. It was very striking,” says Siver.

Ken Siver. Photo by David Lewinski.


He reflected upon Southfield, a city built on freeways, all-electric homes, TV stations, and several bowling alleys--all significant indicators of growth and prosperity. “I said to myself, this is Southfield.”


At city council, Siver’s emphatic appreciation for Southfield’s substantial inventory of mid-century homes fell flat; city officials simply didn’t recognize the value in such what they perceived as unremarkable houses.


But across the state, at the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in Lansing, experts marveled at the rich landscape of mid-century modern design in Southfield and across Michigan.


“We started with the intention to [catalog] neighborhoods, but when we got into Michigan’s role in Modernism, we knew we had a tiger by the tail,” says Amy Arnold, preservation planner with SHPO. High-level designs by Eero Saarinen, Herman Miller, Ruth Adler Schnee, Minoru Yamasaki, and many others captured their attention, but they wanted communities to start recognizing their own resources, too.

Mid-century modern homes in Southfield. Photo by David Lewinski.


Fortunately, Siver’s interest was known to SHPO. When a $45,000 grant to study mid-century homes became available, Siver applied for and received the grant. In 2017, following an RFP, SHPO selected Ann Arbor-based Quinn Evans Architects, and Ruth Mills, the firm’s senior architectural historian, got to work.


“Michigan was at the heart of mid-century modern design for different reasons. A lot of it had to do with having the automotive companies, and the furniture industry here, as well as Cranbrook which educated a lot of the people who later became important in mid-century design,” says Mills. Experts in the mid-century movement, Quinn Evans restored reflecting pools in the Yamasaki-designed McGregor Memorial at Wayne State University and did restoration work at Mies Van Der Rohe-designed Lafayette Park, both listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


Many Southfield neighborhoods have homes from the mid-century period, including Cranbrook Village, Magnolia, Washington Heights, and Ravines, but due to limited grant resources, Ruth Mills and Quinn Evans selected just two, Northland Gardens and Plumbrooke Estates, for their “high degree of integrity,” according to the project’s summaries of findings.


Two distinct--and distinctive--neighborhoods


As J. L. Hudson was expanding beyond its 25-story department store on Woodward Avenue to develop Northland Center--considered the nation’s first automotive-centric shopping center--its real estate division, Hudson-Webber Realty Company, also purchased commercial spaces along Eight Mile Road, as well as 47.8-acres north of Eight Mile between the Lodge Freeway and Southfield Road. This space was platted in 1956 and dubbed Northland Gardens. Plots were sold to individuals who brought in their own architects and builders. Today, there are 117 homes in Northland Gardens, a majority in the mid-century modern Ranch style, with Colonial Revival and Contemporary variations.


Hudson’s was, in essence, building a community where its suburban-seeking customers could live, and the aesthetic was upscale.


“They didn’t build bungalows, but state-of-the-art ranch houses in the mid-century modern design,” says Siver, who appreciates what he calls the California Modern, the design darling of the mid-century modern movement with sloping roofs and a two-car garage. “They had huge living rooms, fireplaces, and, for the day, modern kitchens and bathrooms.”


Northland Gardens homes had common areas where families could entertain guests, some with dividers to shut off the more private living areas, according to Mills. This was, after all, the era of Cheez Whiz and cocktail weenies.


This neighborhood is significant, too, for its concentration of resident Motown celebrities, says Mills. Smokey Robinson and his wife, Claudette Rogers and her bandmate from The Miracles Ronald White; Bobby Smith of The Spinners; and producer and vocalist Eddie Holland, Jr. all had homes in Northland Gardens. The Temptations artist Otis Williams’ home in Northland Gardens even had a studio.


Plumbrooke Estates, the second historically significant neighborhood, is north of Nine Mile Road and west of Evergreen Road. Platted in 1960, its 27.5 acres hold 95 homes, the majority of which were developed by three builders, and, according to the summary of findings, “were of high quality in terms of both design and materials, and have remained remarkably intact since the period of construction,” the last of which was built in 1974.


Solidly middle-class ranches designed for comfortable modern family living, the homes matched the design of the neighborhood, which, like Northland Gardens, veered from the once-standard grid style, says Mills. Plumbrooke Estates, in particular, has a unique street design with just three neighborhood entrances and homes either facing Plumbrooke Drive or surrounding seven distinct culs-de-sac.


“The Federal Housing Authority was backing mortgages and wanted to make sure what was being built was successful, so they issued guidelines for laying out these developments,” Mills says. “There were curving streets, lots of a certain size, and limited access…. The homes were placed in the middle of the lot rather than toward the front, as you’d see in a traditional house. There were big backyards and openness to the outside.” Floor-to-ceiling windows in the back of the home was also a common design element.


Shaping the Detroit suburbs


The neighborhoods also tell a story of population change before and after racially restrictive covenants were abolished in 1968, Mills says.


“A lot of the people who bought these early houses were Jewish, and it’s part of a migration story that extends to the early 20th century when Jewish people started to move from Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit,” she says. As the Jewish population moved north and west, African Americans followed.


“[Southfield] was one of the places in the suburbs that they could move, and there is evidence that there was active steering of certain populations into certain areas by real estate agents,” says Mills, who learned from longtime residents that diversity was an important neighborhood value, and neighbors fought together against any attempts to resegregate.

Mid-century modern homes in Southfield. Photo by David Lewinski.


“This goes back to the history of ethnic and racial integration in Southfield,” Mills says. “[The Motown artists] had houses in near-northwest Dexter-Linwood, and when they moved out [of Detroit] for the first time, they moved to Southfield. That’s an interesting story.”


Two thick, spiral-bound reports detailing the history, design, and renovation specifics for each home in the two neighborhoods were completed and submitted for review by the National Park Service in January 2019. Now, it’s a matter of waiting until they are processed. Meanwhile, Siver says he’s mulling over what type of signage would best honor the neighborhoods.


For homeowners, the historic designation means their homes will retain their value more readily and recover any lost value more quickly in the event of a recession, says Siver. Taking care of a historic home will be more affordable if efforts to revive Michigan’s 25 percent historic preservation tax credit, eliminated in 2011 under former Gov. Rick Snyder, are successful, says Arnold. “This tax credit is an excellent way for people to understand the importance of preserving their homes,” rather than tear them down in favor of new construction, she says.


Arnold hopes that by recognizing Southfield’s mid-century modern home designs, local community members will recognize other similar designs as locally and nationally important and begin their own campaigns to lift these points of pride. She offers Southfield’s Cranbrook Village as another prime example of mid-century design ideals.


“This neighborhood had show homes designed by Cranbrook students and quite a mix of designs,” says Arnold. “It also tells a story about the developers of the time, and what they were trying to achieve. It was a sense of idealism, and not just for commercial value. They were really trying to create something new and better for the everyday person.”

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Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Fascination drives Claire Charlton to write features and profiles. Always interested in people and their stories, Claire is dedicated to the art of interviewing. A freelancer for a dozen years, Claire writes about health, fitness, business and fun. When she’s not writing, drinking coffee or hanging with her family, Claire runs endurance events, practices yoga, and volunteers with lots of nonprofits.