The home that Frank Lloyd Wright built for Meyer May and his wife, Sophie in 1908-9 was truly revolutionary for this area of Michigan. The Meyer May house was Wright’s first commission in Michigan. It is very difficult to understand just how revolutionary the home is until you compare it with those in the neighborhood at the time it was built. The next three photographs illustrate my point.
Large Victorian House down the street from Meyer May house. May, 2003
Another Large Victorian down the street from Meyer May.
Beautifully restored Queen Anne House near Meyer May House. May, 2003
The homes shown in the photos above are typical of the homes in the neighborhood at the time that the Meyer May house was built. It is important to see these and understand that they were the norm for this part of the country at this time. These are what people with money were building and living in at the turn of the century.
Fish-eye view of the Meyer May house.
Where-as the other homes in the neighborhood are overwhelmingly vertical, The Meyer May house, like most of Wright’s Prairie homes, emphasizes the horizontal line. The long, overhanging eaves give shade from the summer sun and draw the eyes outward rather than upward. The bands of windows around the house give no indication of how many rooms there are inside, nor what their use is.
Dining Room and Bedroom wing with side Veranda.
Why would someone build such a house in this neighborhood? Why would they build something that was so revolutionary that it really stood apart from the rest of the homes? To understand that, you need to learn a little about Meyer May and his background.
Rear Entrance of the Meyer May house.
Abraham May (Meyer’s Father) was a clothier in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He ran a very successful clothing store that was always on the cutting edge of fashion. They were also on the cutting edge of technology because they were the first store of its kind to use clothes hangers to display their wares.
Garden Wall and back of Meyer May house.
Abraham died suddenly while his son, Meyer, was still in college. Meyer dropped out of school and took over the family business. He was a very successful business man and soon he was quite wealthy.
Meyer May house from the Garden.
The home is a beautiful statement on the corner lot where it resides. There is plenty of room on the lot, yet Wright moves the back of the house and driveway right up against the lot line. This gives a much greater sense of space around the house.
Garden side of the Meyer May house
Meyer May and his wife Sophie commissioned the house to be built in early 1908. The home was completed in 1909, yet some of the interior details were left to George Niedecken, a man that Wright had worked with in the past because Wright had left for Europe with Mamah Cheney in 1910. The Mays had 2 children while they were living in the home, but Sophie May died in 1917, leaving Meyer May to raise the children. May remarried in 1921 and his new wife, Rae, moved into the house with her two children. Additions were added to the home in a way that maintained a coherent style in order to accommodate the newly enlarged family.
The Mays were divorced in the late 1920s and Meyer May eventually died in 1936. The house was abandoned for about 6 years after his death. Having a home like this empty for years, going through many heating and freezing cycles without climate control is very hard on a house. It also didn’t help that later owners in the ’40s rented some of the rooms out as apartments. Many modifications were made to the house over the next 40 years.
“Front” door to the Meyer May house.
Then along came Steelcase. They are the company that had built the furniture for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax company. They purchased the home in 1985 and began the restoration. The 1922 addition was carefully removed, preserving all of the art glass windows that are still in storage. The roof was shored up with steel and new tiles of the same kind as the originals were installed on the roof. Amazingly enough, the company that made the original tiles is still in business and is still making roofing tiles of the same shape. Steelcase opens the house to the public in 1987. The restoration of the Meyer May house is almost perfect. The only noticeable difference is in the kitchen. Since Steelcase uses the home for catered functions, the kitchen must be very modern and also isn’t included in the tour of the house.
Entry to the Meyer May house.
Wright designed many of his Prairie homes to have a hidden entrance. This was really the second of them to use this design (after the Beachy house in Oak Park). This is a design element that is easily seen in other homes like Robie and Allen-Lambe. The idea is that if you have not been invited to the house, you won’t feel particularly welcome just walking up and knocking on the door. This enhances privacy.
Doorway and Main Entry to the Meyer May House
Original art glass has been restored in places, but generally remains intact.
Living Room Wing of Meyer May House.
Skylights and Windows in Meyer May House
The great thing about this tour was that I got to photograph inside the house. Nan, my tour guide was fantastic. Since I arrived early, we had the whole place to ourselves. Nan spent so much time showing me through that she was running way behind for her next tour. I felt a little bad that she was held up, but I truly enjoyed the tour.
Living Room, Fish-eye style.
The living room of the Meyer May House is amazing. The art glass windows and skylights are spectacular. They also are difficult to photograph.
Living Room: The fireplace mortar is guilt with 18k gold.
Closer shot of Fireplace
Skylights and Furniture
Book Shelves and Reading Nook.
The mural by George Niedecken had been painted over. It had to be uncovered and and restored. This was an amazing and painstaking process.
Living Room Windows from Outside.
Eaves and Walls from Side Veranda
View from Front Door to Veranda Doors
Butler Pantry Sink
Windows on Stairway Landing
Windows on Stairway Landing
Original Closets and Coat Hangers
Mrs. May’s Dressing Room
Dressing Room from other side
Looking out the art glass at Garden
Another Children’s Bedroom
More Servant’s Space
Living Room from Stairway Landing.
Meyer May house from Corner
Meyer May house from Garden
Fish eye view from Street
Garden Wall from behind house
Close-up of art glass from outside
Rear Art Glass Door
Drip Pad and Dining Room windows
Front Windows from Driveway
*** Unless otherwise noted, the information found on this page is from personal observation or was provided during a tour of the Meyer May house and from the video at the beginning of the tour.