Modern Designers

Robert C. Metcalf

Design Profession: Architect

Building Types: Commercial, Religious, Residential

Robert Clarence Metcalf was born in Nashville, Ohio, on November 7, 1923.  His biological father, George Metcalf, left the family before Metcalf’s first birthday.  His mother, Helen (Drake), moved to nearby Canton, Ohio, where she found work as a maid and eventually married Arthur G. Hudkins.

As the Great Depression took its toll, his step-father lost his job with the Canton Car Company, and, shortly thereafter, the family was forced by necessity to move to North Industry, a short distance south of Canton, where housing was more affordable.  Shortly after moving, his mother’s brother visited the family.  When he noticed young Metcalf sitting on the floor, drawing on some paper, he said to him, “Boy, you ought to be an architect.”  Seven-year-old Metcalf, not knowing what an architect was, consulted his dictionary and “found out that they designed buildings.”  Upon reading the definition, he thought, “Gee whiz, I’d like to design homes,” and there set his mind then to becoming an architect.

While attending the North Industry School, Metcalf frequently spoke out in favor of allowing teenagers to dance, an activity which some people, at that time, considered a societal ill, but something he believed was merely a healthy form of exercise.  At one venue, an architect from Canton asked Metcalf where he intended to go to college.  Metcalf recalled that when he replied that he was unsure, the architect suggested that he “go to (the University of) Michigan.”  “Don’t go to Ohio State,” he continued, “it’s a lousy school.  Michigan is a great school for architecture.

So, after graduating from high school in 1940, he applied to the University of Michigan’s Department of Architecture, was accepted, and began his coursework in the fall of 1941.  His studies, however, were interrupted by the Second World War.  Initially rejected for service because of flat feet and a punctured ear drum, he was eventually inducted into the army in 

March 1943.  He was trained at North Camp Polk and Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, and was later selected to study civil engineering at Johns Hopkins University.  He was later transferred to the 333rd Infantry Regiment, 84th Infantry Division, before leaving for Europe in September 1944.  The division entered combat on November 18, 1944, by attacking German forces in the town of Geilenkirchen.  The division engaged in operations throughout the Roer Valley, and assisted in repelling German forces during the Battle of the Bulge.  On January 10, 1945, Metcalf lead a combat patrol that successfully killed and captured a German reconnaissance patrol operating in the area.  Then, on January 15, 1945, Metcalf served as the lead scout for a patrol whose mission was to gain information regarding German preparations for a coming attack.  After 1200 yards of difficult terrain, the patrol came under heavy German machine gun fire.  Displaying “initiative, cool courage and commendable conduct,” Metcalf moved his patrol into a safe position and “moved forward alone, capturing eleven Germans and completing his mission.”

In February 1945 Metcalf was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and in May he was graduated from officer candidate school in France having been commissioned a Second Lieutenant.  Throughout 1945 the division engaged in numerous fights as it pushed eastward toward the Elbe River.  After V-E Day, the 84th remained in Germany on occupation duty until December 1945. 

The division was demobilized upon its return to the United States in January 1946.  In addition to his promotion and officer’s commission, Metcalf was also awarded the Silver Star, given for conspicuous gallantry in action, in 1945, and three battle stars.

Upon returning to Ann Arbor, Metcalf resumed his studies, and, in addition to his course work, spent the next four years working for his mentor, UM professor George B. Brigham.  Brigham came to the UM from the California Institute of Technology, in 1930, when he accepted a teaching position at the university.  Trained in classical architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brigham reevaluated his ideas during the late 1920s and early 1930s.  After arriving in Ann Arbor, Brigham’s architecture took on a decidedly modern bent by combining modern materials with new construction techniques.  He is credited with what may be called Ann Arbor’s first modern house in 1936. The balance of Brigham’s career was devoted in large part to innovation, both in academia and in private practice, maintaining a particular focus on prefabrication and architectural research.

Prior to his induction into the Army, Metcalf became familiar with Brigham both as a professor and through dinners and other meetings Brigham’s wife, Ilma, arranged at the Brigham’s house.  These interactions must have left an impression upon Metcalf, for upon returning to the university after his discharge in 1946, Metcalf went to Brigham’s house to inquire about working for him. 

By the mid-1940s, Brigham’s modern designs had attracted numerous commissions that lay uncompleted, so he hired Metcalf to work with him as a draftsman.  Between 1946 and 1950 Metcalf contributed to some thirty, mostly residential, projects.

The year 1950 marked a significant point in Metcalf’s career.  He was graduated from the UM, he was eligible to receive an architectural license, he left Brigham’s practice to establish his own, and he began designing his own house.  He wrote in 1991 that Ann Arbor in the 1950s “seemed the best place to begin a practice based on contemporary house design,” and hoped that the construction of his house would attract clients.  Metcalf also observed that Brigham had “paved the way,” as it were, with his functional residential designs, and that the liberal-minded UM faculty would be a likely source of clients.  Also in his favor, he thought, was the “more forward-looking” Ann Arbor Federal Savings Bank, which provided financing that other banks would not.

In order to attract clients, and to provide a place for him and his wife to live, Metcalf decided to design and build his own house.  With some assistance, the Metcalfs began construction of their house in 1952 and moved in in 1953.  Shortly thereafter, his first client, UM physics professor Richard Crane and his wife, Florence, who wanted a house in which they could be separated from the noise and clutter of their teenage children,  came to call. 

Over the next few months four more clients came to the Metcalfs’ house.  The additional work necessitated hiring staff to assist with various facets of the design process.  Tivadar Balogh and William Werner, both UM graduates, were hired to assist Metcalf with the architectural work.  Balogh created drawings to give clients an idea of what their house would look like, and Werner produced working drawings.  This small operation initially convened at the Metcalfs’ home, then moved to the one-car garage, in 1965 to the first floor of an office building at 444 South Main Street, and ultimately to an office in 1967, designed by Metcalf, on Medford Road.  Bettie Metcalf eventually left her nursing position with the University of Michigan Health Service to manage the administrative affairs of the office.

Metcalf joined the UM Department of Architecture faculty as a visiting lecturer in 1955.  He was promoted to assistant professor in 1957, associate professor in 1963, and professor and chairman of the department of architecture in 1968. Early in his academic career he was instrumental in reintegrating design courses into the curriculum, which the department had previously removed.  Metcalf is also credited with developing new courses in materials and methods of construction.

Professionally, Metcalf was elected president of the Huron Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1967, and, in 1972, was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.

Metcalf became the first dean of the new College of Architecture and Urban Planning in 1974 when it was split off from the School of Design. He initiated the first doctoral program in architecture, made the school a center for research and doubled its enrollment.  He has held offices with the AIA of Michigan, and was given their President's Award for his commitment to training young architects.  That same year, he was awarded the Sol King Award for Excellent Teaching in America.  Metcalf was awarded the prize for the department’s high quality of education, and his “support of new programs, the effective administration of budgets, the counseling of students, [and] the concern for faculty effectiveness.”  It was noted that he was “truly a total educator who is profoundly effective and excellent in all endeavors.”

Again in 1974 Metcalf was named dean of the reorganized College of Architecture and Urban Planning.  The newly formed department was formed as a distinct unit from the previous College of Architecture and Design.  The Design section of the former department was reorganized as the College of Art.

Robert Metcalf received several professional and academic awards throughout his career.  In 1955 he received a Design Awards Citation from Progressive Architecture and an Award of Merit for the design of his house from the Detroit Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  The Progressive Architecture award is especially noteworthy since Metcalf was one of thirty-four winners from five hundred submissions.  The design he submitted with Tivadar Balogh for a youth center earned Honorable Mention in the 1956 Porcelain Enamel Design Competition sponsored by Architectural Forum magazine and the Ferro Corporation.  His scheme for the Patterson House won Honorable Mention in the small homes (under 1,600 square feet) category of the 1958 Homes for Better Living competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and Life and House and Home magazines.  Also in 1958 his design for the Church of the Good Shepherd in Ann Arbor received the Third Award from the Church Architecture Guild of America, and his plan for the Patterson House, Ann Arbor, received a Merit Award for the Homes for Better Living competition.  The college bestowed the Sol King Award for Excellence in Teaching upon him in 1974, and in 1999 the Michigan Chapter of the American Institute of Architects recognized Metcalf with the President’s Award for “his lifetime of dedication to training young architects.”  In 2008 Metcalf was presented with a Preservation Award from the City of Ann Arbor for his commitment to preserving the integrity of his home, as well as his commitment to the university and its students.

Robert C. Metcalf passed away at his home in Ann Arbor on January 3, 2017.  He was 93.

Adapted from the Robert C. and Bettie (Sponseller) Metcalf House National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.

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