Taubman College

Exhibits

Constructing Modern | The Work of Robert C. Metcalf Architect

Exhibit Date: October 14-December 13, 2010

Robert C. Metcalf began his studies in architecture at the University of Michigan in 1941 only to be interrupted by the events of WWII. Following special training in civil engineering, he would also train soldiers to pilot the Sherman tank and faced combat as an infantryman. Bob returned to the University of Michigan to continue his studies in 1946. The year before graduation he began work as an employee in the office of Ann Arbor architect and University of Michigan professor George B. Brigham. Without any additional experience outside of formal schooling Metcalf would become the head draftsman and managed construction supervision for Brigham. He carried this experience into his own professional practice.

In 1952 Bob and his wife Bettie began constructing their own house on two lots in Ann Arbor at Arlington Boulevard. Both held day jobs and would meet at the job site in the afternoons. They worked along side each other in all aspects of construction including shoveling, mixing mortar, laying bricks and regularly having dinner on site. The construction of the house was a means for Metcalf to evaluate the process and determine how to best resolve issues he learned on the site. In the month of May after digging and preparing for pouring concrete footings for the garage he made an entry in his daily journal: "Moral – Forms are time consuming eliminate when possible". His journal also served as a record of labor hours to track time involved in laying brick suggesting he anticipated repeating the process. The Metcalf House was completed in 1954.

Metcalf became a registered architect in 1953 and his first commission was for Professor Richard H. Crane. Metcalf credits Crane and eventual client, David Dennison for developing the "proximity fuse" at a gravel pit in Dexter, Michigan. Crane was not an unusual client for Bob as many were prominent business, research scientists and academic leaders in the Ann Arbor and Detroit areas. Between 1953 and 1958 Metcalf was commissioned more than 40 architectural projects most of which were residential. This was due in part to the post war demand for housing and the reputation he and Bettie had created by designing and constructing their own house. Visitors would show up voluntarily to see what he and Bettie had built and inquire if Metcalf could design a house for them. In recent conversations with Bob he expressed residential work was something he wanted to do because he could manage it from "beginning to end".

The exhibition includes over 130 architectural drawings and prints of drawings, representing 18 projects produced by the office of Robert C. Metcalf Architect between the period of 1953 and 1976. The earliest project however, is Bob's student thesis project – A Dairy Farm. The level of detail seen in the cross sections indicates at the completion of his architectural studies Metcalf possessed a very high level of skill for design and detail, a trait later seen in all of his professional work. Characteristic of each project presented in the exhibition are the conventional architectural plan, section, elevation and details. "I developed a very good reputation with the builders over the years because we drew the details nobody wanted to do".

Various photographs and documents of the projects are also included, providing a glimpse into the carefully managed project files where we can learn of the specifics of each project including programming, heat loss calculations, design sketches, structural calculations and client correspondence. After living in his house for nearly 30 years, Millard Pryor writes to the architect, "It is hard to put this in writing, Bob, but you have added so greatly to our personal enjoyment by the many wonderful features that you designed for us."

Metcalf worked from his home before building his own office in 1967. Over the course of his career numerous University of Michigan alumnus worked for him. William Werner began working with Metcalf in 1955 and continued to work for him until very recently. Werner comments on how he worked very closely with Bob in the design process and recalls in the early years there were "three of us in his garage drafting together". Bill graduated with his bachelor's and master's of architecture from Michigan in 1952 and 1957. He taught structures in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning beginning as an instructor in 1956 and retiring as a full Professor in 1998. Tivadar Balogh, a fellow UM alumnus and later instructor in Michigan's College of Architecture and Urban Planning joined Metcalf's firm in 1954 working as one of his draftsmen until 1960. Many of the drawings included in the exhibition are attributed to Balogh and Werner and share the same level of precision and detail Metcalf required of all his projects.

Robert C. Metcalf became a member of the faculty at Michigan's College of Architecture and Urban Planning in 1955, later held the position of chairman between 1968 and 1974, and was dean between 1974 and 1986. Metcalf retired from the university with emeritus status in 1991. During his career Metcalf received numerous awards for his work. He was a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architect (AIA) and was honored with the President's Award for lifetime achievement from the AIA Michigan in 1999.

Special thanks for their support and contributions to the exhibit are given to the following: Fran Blouin, Director of the Bentley Historical Library, the staff at the Bentley Historical Library including Nancy Deromedi, Karen Jania, and Malgosia Myc. The students and staff at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning including Tom Affeldt, Branden Clements, Amber LaCroix, Liz Momblanco, Anca Trandafirescu, and Dean Ponce de Leon. And our friend, Bob Metcalf.

Generous support for this exhibit was provided by The Guido A. Binda Lecture and Exhibition Fund.

Gregory Saldaña, Curator

House for Mr. & Mrs. Robert C. Metcalf 1952
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Mr. & Mrs. H. Richard Crane 1953
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Professor & Mrs. David M. Dennison 1954
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Mr. & Mrs. Russell C. King 1955 (un-built)
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Professor & Mrs. Charles W. Phillips 1955
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Dr. E. W. Reynolds 1956
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth Patterson 1956
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Mr. & Mrs. William E. Riskey 1957 (un-built)
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Dr. & Mrs. Stefan S. Fajans 1957
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Dr. & Mrs. Edmund S. Botch 1957

House for Mr. & Mrs. Millard H. Pryor 1958
Barton Hills, MI

House for Dr. & Mrs. Graham Chen 1959
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Professor & Mrs. James Olds 1964
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Professor & Mrs. Keeve M. Siegel 1966
Ann Arbor, MI

House for Mr. & Mrs. George Huebner 1975
Barton Hills, MI


Source & Credits:

All images are of primary sources from the Robert C. Metcalf Papers located at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.