Sheldon & Mary H. Heath House

People: Alden B. Dow

Date: 1934

City: Midland

Sheldon & Mary H. Heath House, Alden B. Dow, 1934. Michigan State Historic Preservation Office File Photo.

Alden B. Dow designed this house in the spring of 1934 for Sheldon, a chemist with the Dow Chemical Company, and Mary Heath.  Dow’s design represents “a sharp conceptual and architectural departure from his previous work,” as he “moved in a direction strongly reminiscent of the International Style, with its strong geometric and sculptural planes.”

The Heath House was the first building to employ Dow’s “Unit Block” system of construction. Patented in 1936, the unit blocks were modular concrete units designed for flexibility and ease of construction. The unit block was also an inexpensive building material that provided an artistic, sculptural look. Dow’s system reflects a desire to express order through both structure and appearance, and would later prove to be one of his favorite design tools.

The Unit Block system, according to Dow, “offers many new features in construction and design and has so far been met with considerable enthusiasm.” However, as this was the first such home to be constructed, Dow was particularly concerned in the use of the unit plan; adding explanatory notes on the design, technique, and the building materials. Within the construction specifications he wrote:

“The elimination of many dimensions on these drawings has been accomplished by the adoption of a unit system. Units being indicated on plans by faint lines forming four-foot squares, and on elevations by vertical lines four feet apart. All dimensions are figured to these unit lines and all details refer to them. The virtue of the system lies in the elimination of arbitrary figured dimensions and the ease which work can be checked. Considerable expedition in building and freedom from mistakes will result from a grasp of its essentials.”

In the design of the Heath house, Dow used the modularity of the unit blocks to construct walls and create openings while providing textural interest. The patterns of Unit Block varied by panes of glass, the play of high and shallow volumes, color contrast, flat roof and strong horizontal elements of the Heath House all reveal Dow’s early compositional interests. The ideas and compositional elements introduced in the Heath House would be explored extensively by Dow for the next several years.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places on December 4, 1989, the Sheldon and Mary H. Heath House is included in the Residential Architecture of Alden B. Dow in Midland, Michigan, 1933-1938 multiple property nomination, which highlights thirteen of Dow’s substantially unaltered designs in Midland, Michigan.