Modern Designers

Alden B. Dow

Design Profession: Architect

Building Types: Civic, Commercial, Cultural, Educational, Industrial, Religious, Residential

Alden B. Dow was born in Midland, Michigan, a son of Herbert Henry Dow, the chemical industrialist and founder of the Dow Chemical Company. Although Alden Dow expressed an interest in buildings as a child—designing floor plans out of leaves in the yard, and telling friends that he wanted to be an architect—his path towards this profession began late. In preparation to enter his father’s company, as was commonly expected of sons at the time, he first attended the University of Michigan to study engineering; however, after three years there he transferred to Columbia University in New York City, where he became a student of architecture and graduated in 1931. Also in 1931, Dow married Vada Bennett, a daughter of Dow Chemical Company executive Earl Bennett.

Upon graduation from architecture school, Dow began working for the architectural firm of Frantz and Spence in Saginaw, Michigan. After a year and a half with that firm, Dow and his wife relocated to Spring Green, Wisconsin, where he worked as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright in the Taliesin studio. Dow returned to Midland, Michigan, in 1934 and opened his own architectural practice, which grew until the firm was incorporated as Alden B. Dow, Inc., in November 1941. During these years Dow designed over 60 residences in Midland, in addition to civic, commercial, ecclesiastical, and educational buildings. He designed many new buildings and remodeled existing interior spaces for the Dow Chemical Company; he also designed many smaller commercial buildings, including a flower shop and a filling station with car wash. Dow designed several buildings for college and university campuses in Michigan over the course of his career, including Alma College, Delta College, Hillsdale College, the Interlochen Academy of the Arts, Wayne State University, and the University of Michigan.

Between 1934 and 1941 Dow built his own home and studio in Midland on a sprawling property of more than 23 acres had formerly been fruit orchards planted by Herbert Dow. Alden Dow built this house using molded masonry units of his own invention that he called Unit Blocks—six-sided blocks made from cinder ash reclaimed from the Dow Chemical Company furnaces. Alden Dow used these Unit Blocks to construct several other houses, and in 1937 his Unit Block House (the Whitman House) and his Alden B. Dow Studio building earned him the Diplome de Grand Prix at the Paris International Exposition.

Dow, like his mentor Wright, remained devoted to the principles of organic architecture throughout his career. According to architectural historian Dianne Maddex, who has written extensively on both architects, Dow’s buildings, like those of Wright, took many of their cues from the natural environment:

"From the outside [Dow’s] houses hewed to the earth with strongly horizontal lines, fit into—or seemed to grow from—sloping sites, used bold chimneys as vertical counterpoints, contrasted materials and textures, controlled sunshine with wide eaves, secluded entrances for mystery, and integrated the garage or carport with the house via a breezeway. Trellises and water features linked residences with nature…. Space was borrowed visually from adjacent areas to increase vistas…. Broad and tall windows brought the outside in, aided by clerestories and skylights…"

Dow was made a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1957, and he continued his practice from his studio in Midland as his firm grew in size. In 1963 the firm of Alden B. Dow, Inc., became Alden B. Dow Associates, Inc., and the larger practice completed numerous projects including the Fleming Administration Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which includes the offices of the university’s president. Also in 1963, the University of Michigan granted Dow the honorary degree of Doctor of Architecture.

In recognition of his esteemed 50-year career in architecture, the State of Michigan named Alden B. Dow as its Architect Laureate in 1983; no other architect has received this recognition since. Shortly after this honor, Alden B. Dow died on August 20, 1983, survived by his wife and their three children. The Alden B. Dow Home and Studio was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

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