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  • Writer's pictureTravis Fader

Alden B. Dow's "unit blocks" embody his design philosophy of honesty, humility and enthusiasm

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

Photography © Mid Mod Michigan LLC

The Ball House designed by Alden B. Dow FAIA is guaranteed to catch the eye of any architecture enthusiast because it embodies many of the characteristics that make this era of design so unique. Strong horizontal and vertical lines somehow feel organic, oversized windows and natural materials make the indoors feel like the outdoors, and thoughtful design that creates mystery around every corner- it’s classic Dow styling.

Photography © Mid Mod Michigan LLC

Alden B. Dow was the son of Herbert Dow, founder of The Dow Chemical Company. Though he initially studying engineering, Alden switched to architecture and graduated from Columbia University in 1931 and returned to his home town of Midland. After more than a year with the offices of architects Frantz and Spence in Saginaw, Michigan, Dow spent the summer of 1933 with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin East. He then returned to Midland opened Alden B. Dow, Inc. in 1934 which launched a lengthy career that would help transform his city into a mecca for Mid–Century Modern design.

Photography courtesy of Midland Daily News

Dow was fascinated by the concept of using “modules” or “blocks” as a fundamental element of building design. He liked the idea as blocks would be inexpensive to manufacture, structurally sound, and efficient to build with. Plus, “playing with blocks” just seemed to fit perfectly with Dow’s philosophy that design should be done with “honesty, humility and enthusiasm”.

In collaboration with his chief draftsmen Robert Goodall, Dow developed what came to be called the “Unit Block” which is essentially a beveled cinder block that looks square on its face, but is angled at 45 degrees behind. This rhomboid shape gives structural stability because each new course of blocks is set opposite in angle direction to the one before, making the joints offset. Dow noted that this patented design was “less disturbing to the eye” than the zigzagging joints of concrete blocks and bricks. In total, sixteen variations of the unit blocks were developed, including special units for corners, wall caps, and window and door openings.

Howard Ball of the sales department at Dow Chemical Company received a Unit Block house up the street from two other properties designed for the Hansons and the Heaths. Similar to these other homes, the Ball house is laid out on a four-foot unit system with its location on the lot carefully worked out.

Photography © Mid Mod Michigan LLC

Different from most homes, the front door is not easily visible from the street which leaves visitors drawn towards the hidden entrance by the striking living room windows. The prominent window panes vertically anchor the home and pull you up the drive to the covered entryway and to the main entry door.

Photography © Mid Mod Michigan LLC

Moving inside the home, Dow’s use of a concrete entry floor - similar to the concrete walkway - further blurs the distinction between indoors and out. Once through the door, you’re immediately drawn into the living room and rewarded with many of Dow’s hallmark design elements; custom trim details, shelving and storage, walls of windows that open the spaces to the beautiful outdoor areas… each space simply flows naturally into the next – both functionally and visually.

Photography © Mid Mod Michigan LLC

In 2016, a meticulous six year restoration of the Ball House began. This process revived many of the features that were original to Dow's initial design. Through the current owner's efforts, Alden B. Dow's original vision can once again be experienced.

Dow’s captivating design prompted architecture critic Talbot Hamlin to write in an issue of Pencil Points that the house "gives a new sense of the interrelation of rectangular forms--a kind of geometric poetry similar to that for which Dudek in Holland is so famous."

Photography © Mid Mod Michigan LLC

The Ball House did prove to be an exciting glimpse into the future as Alden B. Dow and his fellow Midland architects went on to create a city with hundreds of incredibly designed structures.

And it all began with a creative and ingenious mind “playing with blocks”.

Photography © Mid Mod Michigan LLC

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