Flawless Frost

Cohn in the home’s family room. “My hallmark is modern mixed with old English,” she says. Photographs by Beth Singer

Celebrated architect Wallace Frost designed approximately 40 homes in Birmingham after opening an office there in 1926. In some areas, a neighborhood stroll can seem more like taking an architectural tour. Charming residences dot streets named Pilgrim, Chestnut, and Bonnie Brier, beckoning admirers with a mix of English country and French Normandy details.

Pennsylvania-born, Frost moved to the area to serve as architect Albert Kahn’s personal assistant. From 1919 until 1925, he reportedly collaborated on some of Kahn’s best-known works, including the Fisher Building in Detroit and the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores. After heading out on his own, he concentrated on residential projects, crafting small, detailed, light-filled homes with two-story living rooms, elegant woodwork, and a mix of Italian, French, and English influences, absorbed while he was serving in the Air Force during World War I. In the ’30s, he left for Florence, Italy and, eventually, California, where he developed a more modern, California style with Spanish Mission elements.

For Lois Cohn, however, the name “Wallace Frost” didn’t evoke the adulation of an architecture aficionado familiar with Frost’s ’20s-era output. When she first found her Birmingham home, it was the location — perched in the woods near a ravine within walking distance of her downtown gallery, ArtLoft — that sold her. “When you look outside, you’d never know that you’re in a city,” Cohn says. “It’s like being in Connecticut or up in northern Michigan.”

And although Cohn didn’t know it at first, she soon discovered that her house not only belonged to Frost but also was his oldest in Birmingham. “Wallace Frost homes have a particular stamp that makes you recognize them,” Cohn says. “And here is this beautifully bright place that’s actually very homey. It’s not a real high-tech, hard, modern place. It’s eclectic.”

Realizing that she’d stumbled upon a gem, Cohn quickly got to work fashioning plans for a historically sensitive addition — a move that was both structurally and aesthetically necessary. “We wanted to keep the spirit of the house intact, so we pushed the addition back,” she says. “Now, the outside is accessible to every room but the living room.”

Revamping the house became a two-year process and included work on the home’s small kitchen (a Frost hallmark), a breakfast nook, two home offices, and an outdoor patio and garden. Other updates included raising the original beams in the living room for support, adding a block wall for privacy off the front yard, and creating two private upstairs suites. Cohn is quick to point out that the improvements only add to its charm. “When we started working on the plans for this house, we wanted to keep the flavor of Frost’s work, while modernizing it,” she says.

And although the home’s architectural lineage was an unexpected surprise, for Cohn the real draw is enjoying everyday comforts in her historic house. “I wake up every morning, walk outside and see the hydrangea bushes,” she says. “This is my dream house.”

Clockwise from top left: A typical 1920s-era Wallace Frost design included the use of numerous windows, varied roof lines, and white painted block. Here, Cohn left most of the exterior the same, adding a privacy wall and an enlarged walkway. The wood trim is original to the home. Architect Wallace Frost.
Frost believed his large, airy living rooms should be lived in and enjoyed. Here, original beams were raised to better support the room and a new marble-surround was added to the fireplace.
Outdoor entertaining takes place at this teak table bought years ago at Costco. When designing the patio, concrete blocks were used instead of limestone to keep costs down.