The Best-Laid Plans

One look at the intriguing online photos of a 1946 Wallace Frost-designed home in Birmingham, and Cindy Brinkley was just about sold.
She brought the outdoors to life once again. Gillette Brothers Pool & Spa renovated the pool, while Robert-Thomas Landscape Environments oversaw landscape elements. Photographs by Joe Vaughn

One look at the intriguing online photos of a 1946 Wallace Frost-designed home in Birmingham, and Cindy Brinkley was just about sold.

Living in Dallas at the time, Brinkley, a former AT&T corporate executive who accepted a job with GM in Detroit two years ago (she has since left the company), was checking the Internet for homes for sale in the region.

“I told my Realtor that I most definitely wanted to see it in person,” recalls Brinkley of the sprawling beauty along the Rouge River. Pulling up the driveway, she saw “tremendous potential.”

The river and backyard pool instantly attracted her. “I had never seen anything like the pool in any part of the country. The boulders really distinguish it from others — you feel like you are in a natural setting, not something man-made.” (This comes from one whose careers at AT&T and GM required her to live in several states.)

“I couldn’t see the river very well and the pool hadn’t been used in years,” Brinkley says, “but I could tell the place had style. I’ve always believed that good design is timeless, and this home  — without a doubt —  expressed that.”

“I’m not an antiques fan, so this table is one of just two antiques that I own,” says the homeowner of the table, from India, flanked by chairs she purchased in Arkansas. Pressed flowers from the late 1800s grace a dining room wall, while a vase of simple greenery ensures that outside views are the stars when it comes to Mother Nature’s bounty.

That was two years ago and, since then, the dwelling has gone from an ivy-covered house fraught with old paneling, shag carpeting, a red-brick fireplace surround, nonfunctional space, overgrown landscaping, and a deteriorating pool to a stunning four-bedroom, six and one-half-bath home whose attributes are as peaceful as the serene tributary that wends its way beyond the backyard.

Brinkley worked with Bloomfield Hills-based Force Building Co., Robert-Thomas Landscape Environments in Auburn Hills, Gillette Brothers Pool & Spa in Troy, Acorn Kitchen & Bath in Pontiac, and others to revamp the home, inside and out. The builder added about 2,000 square feet to the living space.

“I had a vision in terms of what I wanted it to be, but I relied on a great team to complete that,” she says. “They are all artists in their own right.”

As in many Wallace Frost homes — and, really, in many homes built decades ago — space constraints were an issue.

“We reconfigured the loft area and turned it into two bedrooms and two bathrooms,” Brinkley says, explaining that the builders had to raise the floor upstairs to increase the ceiling height in the kitchen.

“I cook and entertain constantly, and wanted a really spacious and easy-to-use kitchen,” she explains, following an evening of preparing a Chilean sea bass dinner for a visiting friend.

Artist James M. Smith of Missouri created the red painting for above the living room fireplace. // Brinkley’s prized orchids grow well in the master bath. // Her dining room chandelier “flows like a waterfall.” // Smith’s yellow works brighten the entryway. // A wall fountain adds to the home’s peaceful ambiance. // The homeowner has a penchant for boots — her renovation provides lots of much-needed closet space.

The redesign team also created a more open area on the first floor so that, when cooking, Brinkley can look out to the gathering room, fireplace, and great outdoors through huge windows that accentuate the entire back of the home. The stairway to the loft area was reconfigured, as well, and a new railing — similar to the original design — is a veritable work of art.

Although plenty of natural light floods the home, Brinkley also has a penchant for mood lighting of all kinds. She selected several unique fixtures from Michigan Chandelier. “We used LED lighting in many different places,” she says, from the bookshelves in the study and in the kitchen/bar area to behind the television and behind the bed in the master suite. “I even had them installed behind mirrors — something I saw in a hotel while traveling overseas. They provide an incredible softness.”

That softness mingles well with peaceful accents, many of which are water-themed. “Even my dining room chandelier evokes water,” Brinkley notes. “All those crystals appear to be flowing like a waterfall.”

She also installed a wall fountain with a tray full of pretty rocks. “I placed it strategically so I can see it while cooking, or guests can enjoy it during parties.”

Party attendees also enjoy viewing Brinkley’s art collection. “Many of my pieces have sentimental value,” she says. One of her all-time favorite expressive artists is James M. Smith of Missouri. “He’s versatile and uses a lot of texture,” she says, pointing out a series of bright-yellow pieces that adorn her entryway hall as well as a vibrant red work that pops from above the living room fireplace.

“It seems that no matter where you are in the home, it’s a great spot. Just about every place has a wonderful view, from the river to the pool to the gardens to the water feature out front.”

A stunning view from the master suite includes the gazebo, which now features new screens, electricity, and a seating area. // The kitchen is ideal for entertaining (stools are from Grandin Road). // A potpourri of verdant beauties leads to the newly painted original front door. // The circular fireplace is a conversation-starter (as is the marble table, from Michigan Design Center). Painters used Brick Anew to update the surround’s color. // White lilies are a favorite. // Wallace Frost Plaque.

Reverential Treatment

When David Force of Force Building Co. took on the Brinkley home renovation project, he did so with great reverence for the home’s original architect, Wallace Frost.

“My goal was to blend our work with Frost’s style, but make it more practical for today,” Force says. “We used the same materials on the outside and used window styles [similar to those in] the original home, and even added more curved walls.” (Curved walls are a signature Frost look.) Force and his team transformed an empty space in the loft area into bedrooms and bathrooms, and created spacious closets and dressing areas (including lots of room for the homeowner’s shoe and boot collection).

Frost (1892-1962), a renowned designer who grew up in Pennsylvania, was an architect for the Air Force in World War I. During his military service, he met architect Albert Kahn, who asked Frost to come work for him in Michigan. The men combined their talents on large projects such as the Detroit Public Library, the General Motors Building in Detroit, and the William L. Clements Library in Ann Arbor.

Frost built his first house (for himself, in Birmingham) in 1921, and left a legacy of some 40 uniquely designed Birmingham homes dating from the 1920s through the 1950s.
“If Wallace Frost walked into the Brinkley home today, we think he’d definitely approve,” Force says.