Robert C. Metcalf Papers

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Robert C. Metcalf papers

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger Robert C. Metcalf record group held by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the collection's online finding aid.

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

Noted Michigan-based modern architect and former Professor and later Dean of the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Metcalf's work includes over 150 buildings in Michigan and Ohio. The material in this collection spans the years 1942 to 2017, and includes architectural drawings, presentation boards, client files, photographs and slides, correspondence, newspaper clippings, journals, articles, and teaching material.

Robert C. Metcalf was born November 7, 1923, in Nashville, Ohio. In 1940, Metcalf applied to the University of Michigan's Department of Architecture, writing in his application, "I would like to make a name for myself in architecture; rather, I am going to do that."[1] Metcalf entered the University of Michigan in the fall of 1941. However, on December 8th, the day after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Metcalf and his friends took the bus to Detroit to enlist in the Marine Corps. Despite his eagerness to enlist, Metcalf was turned away from the Marines due to a punctured ear drum and flat feet.

Returning to the university, Metcalf continued his studies until March 15, 1943 when he was inducted into the United States Army. He was assigned to a self-propelled artillery unit for basic training. Metcalf completed his training on Memorial Day 1943, graduating with the rank of Sergeant, and four days later, on May 28, 1943, he married Bettie Jane Sponseller. Robert, a star basketball player, and Bettie, a cheerleader, were high school sweethearts.

Bettie was born in Canton, Ohio, on August 14, 1921. She was the eldest daughter of Mary and Russell Sponseller and was noted for her musical abilities as a child. Bettie was a registered nurse at Aultman Hospital, in Canton.

In August 1943, Metcalf was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), a unit designed to provide the Army with highly trained technicians and specialists. Metcalf was sent to Johns Hopkins University for an intensive civil engineering program in which students completed the regular one year course of study in six months. In February 1944, the Army terminated ASTP and transferred its students to combat units. Metcalf joined the 84th Infantry Division and in September 1944 was sent to Europe. He served forty-two month in the Army with the 84th Infantry and was awarded the Silver Star medal and a field commission as a Lieutenant. After his discharge from the service in 1946, Metcalf returned to his studies at the University of Michigan.

While enrolled in the Department of Architecture, Metcalf began an apprenticeship with professor George B. Brigham, a practicing Ann Arbor architect. Metcalf was Brigham's chief draftsman on approximately thirty residential projects in the Ann Arbor vicinity, and worked for Brigham from 1948 to1952. Upon completion of his studies (B.Arch., 1950), Metcalf and his wife decided to remain in Ann Arbor. Demand for post-war housing was strong and Ann Arbor "seemed the best place to begin a practice based on contemporary house design."[2] To put down their roots, the Metcalfs found an available lot on the east side of Ann Arbor and decided to design and build their own home. Metcalf's rationale was that "with luck, the construction would attract a client, but in the worst case, we assumed we could sell the house to recover costs and then build another."[3] The design of the house took one year and the construction approximately thirteen months. Robert and Bettie each worked on varying aspects of the construction after leaving their regular day jobs, having picnic dinners on-site every night for almost two years. The Metcalf home was featured in the Michigan Alumnus (1961) and Better Homes and Gardens (1965). In 2008, the Metcalfs received a Historic Preservation award from the City of Ann Arbor for their home.

Metcalf's completion of his home coincided with the launching of a successful private practice. Bettie Metcalf retired from nursing in the same year to become the secretary and bookkeeper for Metcalf's new architectural firm. From 1953 to 2008, Metcalf's office completed over 150 projects in Michigan and Ohio. George Brigham's influence on the young architect was evident in Metcalf's modernist residences and commercial works. Metcalf's designs were also shaped by his esteem for architects Charles Sumner Greene, Henry Mather Greene, Bernard Maybeck, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Harwell Hamilton Harris.[4] Metcalf's work is notable for his emphasis on design analysis, a strength well reflected in his architectural drawings and sketches. As fellow architect and urban planer Gerald Crane observed, "Metcalf is the real thing. His work is totally honest and his construction drawings are absolutely meticulous."[5] Metcalf's houses reflect his beliefs in the importance of incorporating light, airiness, and nature into a home with the goal of creating "a serenity about a house."[6]

Metcalf designed houses and businesses for many of Detroit and Ann Arbor's most prominent citizens. Among the University of Michigan faculty and administration for whom Metcalf designed homes were physicist H. Richard Crane (1953), College of Architecture professor Catherine B. Heller (1953), chemistry professor Philip J. Elving (1954), physicist David M. Dennison (1954), anthropology professor Elman R. Service (1954), physics professors Lawrence W. Jones (1955) and Kent M. Terwilliger (1955), industrial management professor Franklin G. Moore (1955), internal medicine professor and Chief of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism Stefan S. Fajans (1957), professor of political science Everett S. Brown (1958), professor of surgery Dr. Reed O. Dingman (1959), engineering professor John Holland (1964) and professor of chemistry Lawrence S. Bartell (1988). In addition, Metcalf designed houses for Mr. Millard H. Pryor, Chairman of the Board of the Mollard-Barnes Manufacturing Company (1958), President of the Ford Motor Company Mr. Arjay Miller (1965), and Mr. George Huebner, a former Chrysler Director of Research, and his wife Trudy Huebner, a former University of Michigan Regent (1975).

Over the course of his career, Metcalf worked with other architects including Tivadar Balogh and William Werner. Tivadar Balogh, a fellow UM alumnus (class of 1952) and later instructor in Michigan's College of Architecture and Urban Planning, joined Metcalf's firm in 1954, working as one of his draftsmen until 1960, when he left to work as an architect and designer for the firms of Shreve, Walker, and Associates and W.B. Ford Design Associates, both of Detroit. Metcalf had a longstanding relationship with architect William Werner. Werner, some of whose work appears in this collection, joined Metcalf in professional practice in 1955. He received his bachelor's and master's of architecture from Michigan (class of '52 and '57, respectively), and taught structure courses in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, beginning as an instructor in 1956 and retiring as a full Professor in 1998.

Among the many honors Metcalf has received for architecture are Honorable Mention in the Morton Arboretum Small House Competition (1954), an Honors Award from the Detroit Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for his own home (1955), an Award Citation from Progressive Architecture for designing the home of UM Professor David M. Dennison (1955), Honorable Mention with Tivadar Balogh in the Porcelain Enamel Design Competition for a youth center (1956), Third Award by the National Conference on Church Architecture for his work on the Church of the Good Shepherd (1958), the Homes for Better Living Honorable Mention from the American Institute of Architects, House & Home and Life magazines (1958), membership in the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects, and the President's Award for lifetime achievement from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Michigan (1999). Metcalf also served as past president of the Huron Valley Chapter of the AIA.

Metcalf's work has been featured in numerous architectural journals including Progressive Architecture (January 1955), the Michigan Society of Architects' Monthly Bulletin (October 1955), Architectural Forum (March 1956), and the University of Michigan's College of Architecture and Urban Planning's Portico (1991). Metcalf has also received mention in other non-industry publications such as House and Home (1958), Ann Arbor Observer (1977), Ann Arbor Women's City Club Magazine (1982), Detroit Home (2004), Our House (2007), and Unwind Ann Arbor Business Review (2007). Stories on Metcalf and his work have also appeared repeatedly over the years in The Ann Arbor News, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit Free Press Roto Magazine, the Michigan Alumnus, the Michigan Daily, Lansing's State Journal, and The Canton Repository.

In addition to Metcalf's private architectural practice, he had a long teaching and administrative career in the University of Michigan's College of Architecture and Design. He joined the Department of Architecture as a part-time visiting lecturer in 1950 and was later promoted to Assistant Professor (1958), Associate Professor (1963), and Professor (1968). In 1968, Metcalf was also appointed Chairman of the Department of Architecture. In 1974, the same year in which Department became the College of Architecture, Metcalf was awarded the University of Michigan's Sol King Award for Excellence in Teaching in Architecture. Metcalf served as the first Dean of the College, a position he held from 1974 until 1986. Metcalf stepped down from the Dean position in 1986 to begin phased retirement from the College. In 1989, the University of Michigan Board of Regents named Metcalf the Emil Lorch Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning. Metcalf retired from the university with emeritus status in 1991. Throughout Metcalf’s University career, Bettie continued to work in support of her husband’s private practice and academic duties. Each semester she hosted his students for chili dinners, totaling approximately 2,500 students over three decades. Bettie J. Metcalf passed away in February 2008. Robert C. Metcalf died on January 3, 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.



[1] Robert C. Metcalf quoted in "Retirement Memoir," University of Michigan Regents' Proceedings (May 1991): 226.

[2] "Metcalf Remembers," Portico, The College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan (Summer 1991): 15.

[3] Robert C. Metcalf quoted in "Metcalf Remembers," Portico, The College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan (Summer 1991): 15.

[4] Nancy Ruth Bartlett, More Than a Handsome Box: Education in Architecture at the University of Michigan, 1876-1986, (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning, 1995), 107-108.

[5] Gerald Crane quoted in Ann Schriber, "Classy Styles: Well-known local architect's designs earn him admiration," The Ann Arbor News (30 May 1998): E1.

[6] Robert C. Metcalf quoted in "Metcalf built a rich mid-century design legacy," Ann Arbor Business Review (June 2007): 15.

Please note:

Copyright has been transferred to the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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