Florence"Dannie" Ely Hunn
A Pier Cove Designer and ArchitectRe-discovered.
"Tuesdaysat Noon "talk at Museum, Ju/y 25, 2000, by JamesSchmiechen
Florence Ely Hunn (bornAug. 24, 1887, died March 24, 1984, age 98) described herself as "a plainmid-west gal" but in life she was far from plain and ordinary. In fact,she was a very unconventional woman who found the Saugatuck-Pier Cove area theperfect place for the expression of much of her personal and professional life.
She was born into a farm family in Des Moines, Iowain 1887. Her mother was Lucinda Bonine (died 1930).Her father was Ely Simonds Hunn(died 1927), making hero cousin to 0. C. Simonds, thewell-known Chicagolandscape designer and summer resident of Pier Cove. She was, through herfather, a tenth generation descendent of the Mayflower settler JonathanBrewster. Soon after 1940 her parents purchased a small cottage in Pier Cove,just to the east of the Simonds cousin's OrchardHouse. A photograph of her in her early twenties shows her on her horse"Bob" dressed in a cowboy outfit, with her proud father standingnearby.
At the age of 20, at her father's urging,she traveled west and became a horsewoman and a worker in mines and oildrilling fields. At 22 and 23 in 1909.1910 she attended school in Germany and Franceand traveled in Greece--havingstudied the Greek language in her Iowaschool. She graduated from the Universityof Chicago at 24 and then continuedher studies at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago. When America enteredWorld War I in 1917 she wanted to join the American cause overseas but insteadcontributed her services to Uncle Sam by managing one of her father's purebredstock farms for the production of food for the Army.
At the age of 28 she began designingbuilding exteriors -- a passion pursued for the next 60 years. When the war wasover she sought to fulfill her dream of the formal study of architecture butbecause architecture schools were not admitting women, she did what many otherwomen in the same predicament did, she became an interior designer. At firstshe became apprenticed with one of the best known interior decorators in Chicago, and then in 1925she opened her own shop.
Her Chicago studio and homewas at 101 East Oak. She later moved the studio to 920 N. Michigan Avenue. In March of 1934she and Frances Crumb opened a design store known as "Contemporary"at 49 Cedar Streetwhich featured avant-garde furniture and wall coverings.
The success of this store led to theopening of branches in New York and Philadelphia. She was afrequent lecturer on interior design at the Chicago Art Institute, wrotearticles for the Chicago Tribune andother magazines, and in the 1930s presided over a weekly interior design talkshow on Chicagoradio WMAQ. She was a founder of American Institute of Decorators -- of whichshe was vice-president in the 1930s. Her early interior design centered on 18thCentury English and American hand 1920s "Colonial Revival") periodwork. Most of her clients had large apartments on Chicago'sGold Coast and homes in the hunt country of nearby Barrington, Illinois.She did some East Coast work, including the Price-Waterhouse partners' houses,in Rye, New York.
By the 1930s Florence Hunn hadbecome one of the leading American designers. Her portrait by WellingtonReynolds of the Art Institute of Chicago, in theAmerican impressionist manner, hung at the Art Institute of Chicago for one year. It is now in thepossession of the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society.
What kind of work did she do and what makesan interior designer famous? With regard to interior design philosophy, herbread and butter, then, centered on creation of high class 18thcentury English and French interiors and hence she fit well into thetraditional side of her time. She worked for the moneyed class, which had longdictated that the only good interior design was that which copied the 18thcentury. Like a good designer she hated the 19th century (she oncesaid, "the 19th Century might readily be wiped fromour memory ...") and at first appears to have had little to do with the 20thCentury.
But things were changing, and Hunn took up the modernist cause in a city known in the1920s for its design conservatism. Although keeping with the traditional world ofconservative interiors was goad far her pocket book,she also went off in a different direction, advertising her work as "newdesigns in furniture in the modern spirit." Here we see her mimicking theantiestablishment and chic Art Deco and Art Moderne stylesof New York.The New York Sun described her as "bitten with the modern desire tocreate entire rooms with geometric designs" in white, and in glass andmirrors. One of her new furniture designs was that of futuristic looking diningtable with mirrored edges and white and gray painted chairs. One of herspecialties was modem wallpaper and furniture design, and she was a pioneer inintroducing Art Deco style glass molding (in green) and mirrors into roamdecoration, modernist tile, painted furniture, and, by the 1940s,California-inspired architecture.
Hunn's drift to themodern even showed up in Douglas in 1954, where she was commissioned to remodelthe old Tara Restaurant-giving it a new entrance, iron railings, and interiormurals (no record of the Tara images exists), as well as in the design of tworanch-style lakeshore cottages.
After WorldWar II, responding to new needs far new housing formats, Hunnwas one of the organizers and designers of the influential "At Home InAmerica" show in Chicago in 1954, a trade show that pioneered in theintroduction of modern house design in the United States (she used Bakerfurniture in the living room).
Like her professional life, Hunn's private life was far from ordinary, and she appearsto have been able to play to both the traditional social world and a morebohemian and non-conformist world at the same time. Most important, it appearsthat her beloved Pier Cove was important in providing a place for herrelationship with her life-long companion, Mabel (known as "Jims") Warren, a physical therapist at the Washington Schoolfor Crippled Children on Chestnut Street, Chicago.While much of her design work suggests that she might well be an ancestor ofthe famous Reverend Brewester of Massachusetts,photos from the time suggest that Dannie and Jims combined the elegance oftraditional 18th century interiors with what at-the-time must havebeen fairly eccentric and non-conformist behavior. Florence herself was knownas Dannie, and thus the two of them were known in Pier Cove as "TheGirls" - and were not accepted by some Pier Cove residents in early years.The original 1858 section of the house (she preserved the wonderful crookedfloor and the tilting interior doors) was the girls' smoking room, called the"Cardinal Puff Puff Room." Just beyond thiswas a tiny room with a large copper sink, and which served as the cottage barroom.
Jane Badamo recalls that when she was ten shefirst met Dannie who was wearing one green shoe and one red shoe. Jane was sentoff to the beach, but she recalls saying to herself "I gottaget to know this person." One photo of an outdoor dinner table shows Jimswith bobbed hair and Dannie, with a scarf around her head gypsy style and acigarette in her mouth, obviously the center of the conversation, and with twoblack servants in white uniforms standing behind the gathered table guests.
Costume and play-acting in a number of photographs from the 1920s and1930s suggest that the pair had a great sense of incorporating theater intodaily life. A frequent guest was Gladys Stempfel, andknown Saugatuck friends were Jim Dillon and Bob Schwartz, known as "theBoys" (they owned the Bayside Building in Saugatuck and had a shop therecalled "S&D Design") and Shirley Dorchnerand her companion Liz, of Holland, who had a cottage on the Douglas lakeshorejust to the north. The gang was well known for its drinking and golf (playinggolf into their 90s). The story goes that Schwartz's mother once asked him ifhe knew any nice girls. Vile can only surmise the answer.
Such non-conformist social expression amongthe wealthy artistic intelligentsia was not unusual for the age. It is welldocumented that certain women, such as the ex-patriot Americans Gertrude Steinand Alice B. Toklas in Paris and members of theBloomsbury circle in London,including writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vannesa Bell, provided notorious models for the nonconformistbohemian life. It would be interesting to know where Dannie went in hertwo-year stint in Europe, who she met and the ideasshe acquired. One of the best known interior designers of the age was EileenGray, an Irish expatriate living in Paris--- who also moved into design because she could not get into architecturalschool. From the social side, it was, after all, the "roaringTwenties" and Europe was the place thatroared the loudest. The picture of Dannie and Jims at Pier Cove suggests thatwhat was happening in Paris, London,and Berlindid not exist in geographic isolation. Pier Cove rocked.
While the rich and famous of Chicago and New York provided her with her interior design arena, itwas the Pier Cove-Saugatuck area which gave her the opportunity to practicearchitecture and landscaping. It is unfortunate, however, that the record ofmuch of her architectural work has been lost. She carried out a majorrestoration of one Saugatuck's most historic and architecturally significanthouses, and designed four new houses. But the centerpiece of her architecturalworld was her own cottage. In about 1917 "Dannie" and Jims acquired asmall and derelict old Pier Cove worker's house of 1858 for earlier), which,because of its size and simple charm, was known as the "Doll House.Beginning about 1915 and for nearly 70 years following, they built, re-built,added on, and re-invented a marvelous lakeshore home and garden. Outdoors, theyplanted dwarf apple trees, transformed nearby tennis courts and the hillyterrain surrounding their home into a series of English garden rooms, withflagstone walks, open areas for outdoor croquet and luncheon parties, and grandvistas of Lake Michigan.
The house itself was an expression of her traditional style with anumber of radical twists. The original worker-cottage portion of the housealready had an addition. Over the years it was wrapped on other sides withporches, and then in 1937 it received a large American farm and Arts andCrafts-like addition designed by Hunn. This additionwas placed so that as the visitor approached the house, the old 1858 section,with its door framed by lovely old benches and covered by an arbor, stood outlike a chapter in an old story. By attaching the new to the old Hunn preserved one of the few remaining structures from the"olden days" when Pier Cove was a lumber and fruit exporting village.For materials, she replicated the old local tulip wood clapboard for the sidingand found local craftsmen to produce hand-made nails. The interior felt like amix of American farmhouse primitive (with slanting floors in places) andEnglish cottage complete with wonderful 18th Century furniture from Hunn's collection. A very fine American Prairie Stylestudio-garage was erected about 1928. The board and batten walls of the old andthe new structures fit in well alongside the ancient orchard that surroundedthe house. Her friend Mary Miller carefully preserved her Pier Cove estate andgardens until Miller's death in 1999. Unfortunately, new owners destroyed theoriginal (1858) portion of the house in the spring of 2000, and the additionswere moved away. The gardens have been replaced.
In her other architectural work Dannie alsocombined the traditional and classical with contemporary and sometimes radicalforms and materials. The fine Italianate Martel house (345 Grand Street,Saugatuck), restored for a Chicago industrialist, was returned to its originalglory, but with the rear of the house expanded and modernized to meet the needsof her client who wanted a place to paint.
In many of her works, interior andexterior, she made extensive use of various kinds of tiles. For example shedesigned the ceramic tile exterior walls for two of Chicago's most prominent southside skyscrapers of the time, the Naragansettand Powahattan buildings (circa 1925) along Chicago'sSouth Lakeshore Drive (1640 and 4950 Chicago Beach Drive). But her genius with the is best seen in her most accomplished building design,the Jordan-Porter "Tonawanda" cottage in Saugatuck, in 1927. This isprobably the most radically designed cottage of the age in this area. Usingdark brown glazed brick as structural blocks, this unusually tall cottage withgigantic windows, is perched high on a bluff overlooking the Kalamazoo Riverand Saugatuck's Lake Michigan harbor entrance.The structure is interesting because it merges a rather traditional Arts andCrafts cottage with a historic English Tudor style, but with a modernist use ofglazed bricks, over-sized divided-light iron casement windows, and an open planinterior. It has been described by its present owner as having a rathermonastic feel. Today it remains a seasonal structure because the owner does notwish to disturb the original scheme.
In conclusion we may say that Florence Dannie Hunn was truly an extraordinary woman. There is no doubtthat she was a remarkable interior designer as well as a very interesting architectin an age when men controlled both professions. Equally important, she managedto fashion an interesting and productive non-conformist private life forherself and Jims. Pier Cove was her sanctuary in a way not unlike it was for O.C. Simonds and other neighbors. Amidst all of thiswas a sort of wonderfully eccentric generosity and sense of humor. It is toldthat when she finished the Curtis Cottage in Pier Cove the Curtiseswere abroad, so she decorated it in the accessories she thought the Curtis'smight like but not able to afford. She priced them individually, then had an open house during which the guests wereencouraged to purchase them as house-warming gifts.
We all wouldhave like to have met the lady with one green shoe and one red shoe.
The Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Societyhas recently received a bequest of the papers and photographs of Florence Hunn. This collection includes a number of photoscrapbooks, professional photographs of design work, and writings, some ofwhich center on Hunn's life at her cherished PierCove cottage. Also included in the gift, is a large oil portrait of Hunn by the well-known Chicagoartist, J. WellingtonReynolds. The acquisition was initiated by members of the Society inconversation with Mary Miller who inherited the Hunncottage, and then by way of Ms. Miller's estate with help from Grace Walz. The Society is indebted to the family of Mary Millerfor their generosity.