Dean Emeritus and Emil Lorch Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning Robert C. Metcalf (B. Arch., '50) Remembered

Dean Emeritus and Emil Lorch Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning Robert C. Metcalf (B. Arch., ’50) Remembered

University of Michigan Professor and Dean Emeritus of Architecture and Planning Robert C. Metcalf died at his home on January 3, 2017.

Born in 1923, in Nashville, Ohio, Bob enrolled to study architecture at the University of Michigan in September 1941. However, on December 8th, the day after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, he and his friends took the bus to Detroit to enlist in the Marine Corps. Despite his eagerness, he was turned away due to a punctured ear drum and flat feet. Returning to the university, Bob continued his studies until March 1943 when he was inducted into the United States Army. He completed his training on Memorial Day, graduated with the rank of Sergeant, and four days later married Bettie Jane Sponseller, a registered nurse from Canton, Ohio.

In August, Bob was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program, a unit designed to provide the Army with highly trained specialists. He was sent to Johns Hopkins University for an intensive civil engineering program in which students completed the regular one year course of study in six months. In February 1944, he was transferred to the 84th Infantry Division and in September was sent to Europe. He served forty-two months and was awarded the Silver Star medal and a field commission as a Lieutenant. After his discharge from service in 1946, he returned to the University of Michigan.

While enrolled in the Department of Architecture, Bob began an apprenticeship with the late George B. Brigham, a faculty member and practicing Ann Arbor architect. He was Brigham’s chief draftsman on approximately thirty residential projects in the region and worked for him from 1948 to 1952. Upon completion of his studies (B. Arch., 1950), he and Bettie decided to remain in Ann Arbor. Demand for post-war housing was strong, and Ann Arbor seemed the best place to begin a practice based on contemporary house design. To put down roots, Bob and Bettie found an available lot on the east side of Ann Arbor and decided to design and build their own home. Their rationale was that with luck, the construction would attract a client, but in the worst case, they assumed they could sell the house to recover costs and then build another.  The design of the house took one year and the construction approximately thirteen months. Bob and Bettie each worked on varying aspects of the construction after leaving their regular day jobs. Their home was featured in the Michigan Alumnus (1961) and Better Homes and Gardens (1965). In 2008, the Metcalfs received a Historic Preservation award from the City of Ann Arbor for their home.

Bob and Bettie Metcalf working on the construction of their home.

Metcalf’s completion of his home coincided with the launching of a successful private practice. Bettie Metcalf retired from nursing in the same year to become secretary and bookkeeper for this new architectural firm. From 1953 to 2008, the office completed over 150 projects in Michigan and Ohio. George Brigham’s influence was evident in Metcalf’s modernist residences and commercial works. His designs were also shaped by his esteem for architects Charles Sumner Greene, Henry Mather Greene, Bernard Maybeck, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Harwell Hamilton Harris.  The work is notable for emphasis on design analysis, a strength well reflected in his architectural drawings and sketches.

Metcalf designed houses and businesses for many of Detroit and Ann Arbor’s most prominent citizens. He designed homes for University of Michigan faculty, administrators and executives including Millard H. Pryor, Chairman of the Board of the Mollard-Barnes Manufacturing Company and Arjay Miller, President of the Ford Motor Company.

Tivadar Balogh, a fellow UM alumnus (class of 1952) 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.  He also had a longstanding relationship with architect and faculty colleague William Werner. Werner joined the Metcalf practice in 1955 and worked with Bob until the office was closed in 2008.

 Among the many honors he received for architecture are Honorable Mention in the Morton Arboretum Small House Competition (1954), an Honors Award from the Detroit Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for his own home (1955), an Award Citation from Progressive Architecture for designing the home of UM Professor David M. Dennison (1955), Honorable Mention with Tivadar Balogh in the Porcelain Enamel Design Competition for a youth center (1956), Third Award by the National Conference on Church Architecture for his work on the Church of the Good Shepherd (1958), the Homes for Better Living Honorable Mention from the American Institute of Architects, House & Home and Life magazines (1958), membership in the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects, and the President’s Award for lifetime achievement from the American Institute of Architects Michigan (1999).

In addition to his professional practice, Bob had a long teaching and administrative career at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He joined the Department of Architecture as a part-time visiting lecturer in 1950 and was later promoted to Assistant Professor (1958), Associate Professor (1963), and Professor (1968). In 1968, he was also appointed Chairman of the Department of Architecture. In 1974, he received the Sol King Award for Excellence in Teaching in Architecture.  He served as Dean of the College from 1974 until 1986. In 1989, the University of Michigan Board of Regents named him the Emil Lorch Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning. He retired from the university with emeritus status in 1991.

His spouse Bettie died in February 2008. In Bettie’s memory and in honor of their long association with the University of Michigan, Bob established the Robert and Bettie Metcalf Architecture Fellowship Endowment Fund to provide scholarships to talented, out-of-state graduate students.  He requested that memorial contributions be made to this fund.  Checks should be made payable to the University of Michigan and mailed to:  UM Taubman College, attention, Alexandra Kamer, 2000 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor, MI  48109-2069.  

Metcalf’s Work in Review

In the fall of 2014, Taubman College hosted an exhibition of Metcalf’s work. Curated by Greg Gregory Saldaña, the exhibition was made possible with support provided by The Guido A. Binda Lecture and Exhibition Fund. Primary source material used in the exhibit is from the Robert C. Metcalf collection housed at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.

To view more of Metcalf’s work:…