Lakeside Retreat

Robert C. Metcalf designed a home along Crystal Lake’s white-sand shore that’s as inviting and practical today as the day it was born // Photography by Jeff Garland
The Robert C. Metcalf-designed home on Crystal Lake is intriguing from several perspectives.

The late architect Robert C. Metcalf’s Mid-century Modern designs are prized and esteemed around Ann Arbor, metro Detroit, and beyond. Over four decades, he designed more than 150 homes, churches, and other structures.

Only one of his homes can be found in northwest lower Michigan, and it’s on Crystal Lake near Beulah. The owner — social demographer and professor emerita at the University of  Michigan, Lois M. Verbrugge, and her late husband, U-M professor of aerospace engineering Elmer G. Gilbert — found the beautiful piece of land on Crystal Lake and convinced the celebrated architect to design a home for them.

The professors were colleagues of Metcalf, U-M dean of architecture and urban planning, and they already owned one of his homes in Ann Arbor, so they were drawn to the architect’s phenomenal attention to detail.

“Metcalf was a humble man,” Verbrugge remembers. “Elmer and Bob were very like-minded people. Both were engineers, detail people.”

For the Crystal Lake home, the couple wanted something simple, unpretentious, comfortable, informal, close to the lake, and with easy access to outdoor activities. The architect designed a three-bedroom, two-bath, 2,046-square-foot house, which was built between the fall of 1989 and the spring of 1990 on 180 feet of frontage along the north shore of the lake.

“Many people like the south side of Crystal Lake,” Verbrugge says, “but we liked the north side for the weather — it’s more dynamic in all seasons.”

The open-format main floor includes a great room with high wood beams and skylights, a wall of windows showcasing the sparkling lake, tile floors, red oak trim, pocket doors, wood lattices, and a wall of Metcalf’s signature glass blocks along the front of the house.

Built-in cabinetry and vibrant blue exterior doors are also a Metcalf touch. The master bedroom at the far end has sliding doors that lead out to the beach, while the upper floor features an open walkway that connects two office/study areas and a guest room. It’s the perfect layout for work, play, and guests. Even the detached garage with an attic was well-planned; it holds two cars, sports equipment, and garden tools.

Both professors were avid outdoors people who enjoyed all that Crystal Lake and the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offered. Gilbert died in 2019, and this past summer, Verbrugge decided it was time to simplify.

The architect made the most of water views in this home, in one of three bedrooms, along an upper walkway, in one of two bathrooms, and in a convenient study area.

After much research into finding the right Realtor, she put the two-story, open-plan house, complete with its lightly-used and lovely Mid-century Modern furnishings (mostly teak and oak, and Knoll and Herman Miller), artwork, and original appliances on the market.

Verbrugge knows the time is right, but her decision didn’t come lightly, and she hopes the next owner will appreciate the home, the lake, and the natural landscape as much as she and her husband did.

Blue exterior doors and block windows are quintessential Robert C. Metcalf. The clean, contemporary design allows the great outdoors to take center stage.

“This was Elmer’s soul place,” she says. “I will weep when I leave this house. It honors him. For me, it is irreplaceable beauty. I will never again in my lifetime have that experience — it will go with me for the rest of my life.”

The original plans and early photos of this house can be found online at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Metcalf Job 118-89.

Selling specs:


Lois Verbrugge

Bathroom, Main Floor
Rug – Contemporary Gabbeh

Bedroom, Main Floor
Dresser – Jesper Bedroom 20 Soft Top Series
Lamps – Scatchard GS200
Nightstands – Jesper Bedroom 20 Soft Top Series
Rug – Contemporary Design, India

Bedroom, Upstairs
Chair, Side – Tulip Armchair with Textile Seatpad, Eero Saarinen, Knoll
Chest – Jesper Bedroom 30 Soft Top Series
Lamps – Hand-thrown, Groundwork Lamps
Nightstands – Jesper Bedroom 30 Soft Top Series

Dining Room
Rug – Gabbeh, India

Rug, Rectangular – Custom, Finland
Rug, Runner – Custom, Finland

Door Knocker – Baldwin Brass Hardware, Satin Nickel Plated Finish, Cape Code Brass
House Numbers – Bronze with Flat Black Finish, Emtek

Garage Attic
Table – Everywhere Rectangular Table, Dan Grabowski, Herman Miller

China – Seaview, Mikasa
Cutlery – Metro, Mikasa
Knives – Wüsthof
Pots – All-Clad

Living Room
Chairs, Side – Reupholstered, Academy Blue, Atlas
Clock – Prisma Clock TL, ChronoArt
Lamp – JT Abernathy Pot (made into lamp)
Lamp, Floor – Generation G300
Rocker with Footstool – Antique
Rug – Gabbeh, India
Rug – Hand-knotted Wool, Eileen Fisher

Stairs and Landing
Carpet – Alexandria, Rosetta, Unique Carpets Ltd.

Upstairs Study, North
Chair – Setu Chair, Herman Miller

Upstairs Study, South
Chair, Desk – Reupholstered, Herman Miller

Photography by Jeff Garland