Cranbrook had its beginnings in 1904, when George Gough Booth, publisher of the Detroit News, and his wife, Ellen Warren Scripps Booth, bought a large farm in the rolling countryside of Bloomfield Hills and named it after the English village of Cranbrook, the Booth family ancestral home. Taking up residence in 1908, the Booths gradually transformed their farm estate into a remarkable cultural and educational complex consisting of their home, Cranbrook House ( OK4.2); The Meeting House, which was expanded into the elementary Brookside School ( OK4.3); Christ Church, Cranbrook ( OK4.4); Cranbrook School for boys ( OK4.5); Cranbrook Academy of Art ( OK4.6); Kingswood School for girls ( OK4.7); and Cranbrook Institute of Science ( OK4.8). A superb integration of architectural and landscape design elements, the Cranbrook complex represents a distinctive masterpiece in the history of American architecture. It embodies the belief shared by its founder, George G. Booth, and its principal architect, Eliel Saarinen, that art should permeate every aspect of life.
Founder of the Society of Arts and Crafts and the Cranbrook Press (modeled after William Morris's Kelmscott Press), Booth was driven by a lifelong interest and involvement in architecture and the crafts. Avidly pursuing his vision of Cranbrook as a total work of Arts and Crafts design, he helped to plan the new facilities and supervised the creation of an integral complex of buildings and gardens. Booth's conception of Cranbrook, inspired by the American Academy in Rome, projected an art academy where students would pursue independent study under the guidance of masters established in specific fields of art. He also envisioned Cranbrook as a workshop that would produce objects to embellish and improve the American environment and as a community where art would be integrated with daily life.
Work on creating the new art community began in 1907 with the building of Cranbrook House, the Booth family residence, by Detroit architect Kahn. Affirming his strong personal support for the Arts and Crafts movement, Booth commissioned the finest artisans to decorate the house and its grounds. The Meeting House, designed and built by George Booth in 1918 as the initial center for religious and instructional gatherings in the community, became the Bloomfield Hills School in 1922. Later it was named Brookside School. In 1925 the Booths commissioned Goodhue Associates to design Christ Church so that it might serve as a prominent religious center for the emerging Cranbrook institutions as well as for the surrounding community of Bloomfield Hills. Here, too, as at Cranbrook House, the work of renowned contemporary artists was harmoniously integrated with art treasures from Europe to embellish the graceful Late Gothic Revival stone building.
The educational buildings that followed were designed by Eliel Saarinen. Saarinen (1873–1950), who in 1922 had won second prize in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition, settled in the United States and was teaching at the University of Michigan. One of his students at Michigan was George Booth's son, Henry Scripps Booth, who introduced Saarinen to his father. The elder Booth subsequently commissioned the Finnish architect to help plan the academy and design its buildings.
As president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1932 until 1946, Eliel Saarinen shared Booth's vision of Cranbrook as a working place devoted more to the creation of art than to theoretical teachings. He transformed the school into an institution where all the design arts were integrated and taught together. Although his philosophy of design was informed by a profound Arts and Crafts sensibility, it fostered a breadth of stylistic possibilities. Indeed, the stylistic variety evident in the Cranbrook buildings and in the work of Cranbrook artists epitomizes Saarinen's sense of individuality.
Saarinen produced several master plans for the Cranbrook complex, but Booth thought them all too pretentious. Although his basic scheme is retained in the organization of Cranbrook School and the Academy of Art, Saarinen gradually modified the more elaborate aspects of his plan.
The first of the educational buildings was the Cranbrook School for boys, a preparatory school conceived to attract young men to sing in the choir of the just completed Christ Church. Booth at first intended that Saarinen convert the farm buildings designed in 1911–1912 by Marcus R. Burrowes (1874–1953) into the boys' school, but agreed to build a new complex when renovation proved more costly. On Mrs. Booth's insistence that Cranbrook also include a school for girls, Saarinen designed Kingswood School, which opened four years later.
During this active period, Saarinen also planned the Cranbrook Academy of Art as a complex of administrative offices, studios, and living quarters for faculty, artists, and students. Booth and Saarinen gathered a group of artists and craftsmen, many from Europe, to establish a series of studios within the academy. These included weaving studios under Saarinen's wife, Loja, and Marianne Stengell; a department of painting under Zoltan Sepeshy and Wallace Mitchell; and a ceramics department headed by Maija Grotell. A design shop was set up under Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, and a metalsmith department was established under Harry Bertoia. A department of sculpture was subsequently organized by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. Saarinen also founded a postgraduate department of architecture and city planning, over which he himself presided.
The remaining Cranbrook institution, the Institute of Science, was also established in the 1930s. Inspired by a rare gem collection purchased by the Booths, the institute was intended initially to enhance the scientific studies of Cranbrook students. Over the years, it has become an important science museum in the Detroit metropolitan area.
Several more buildings were added to Cranbrook in the periods immediately preceding and following World War II. They included a women's dormitory, studios for the department of painting, and additional housing for faculty and students at the Academy of Art. More recent additions have been the Wenger Gymnasium at Kingswood School, and the Gordon Hall of Science and the Ice Arena at Cranbrook School.
The sale of Cranbrook's interest in Booth Newspapers in the 1970s and in the Evening News Association in 1986, coupled with other financial strategies, realized funds to support huge restoration and construction work to celebrate the institution's centennial in 2004. Guided by The Cranbrook Vision: A Community Perspective, approved in 1986, the Cranbrook Educational Community during the presidency of Lillian Bauder undertook a massive effort to repair and restore Cranbrook and open a northern access to the campus off Woodward Avenue. The Cranbrook Architectural Advisory Council assisted on architectural aspects, and internationally recognized architects integrated their sensitive and compatible contemporary designs with the historic campus. The result is an extraordinary group of new buildings and additions to existing buildings that includes the Brookside School wing, the Williams Natatorium (see OK4.5), the studios addition at the art academy, and major renovation and expansion of the Institute of Science. Cranbrook continues the stewardship of its National Historic Landmark campus while making concrete its visionary role.