Historical Architecture of Grosse Pointe – Architect Leonard B. Willeke and his work in Grosse Pointe Park – Part 1.

One of the unsung hero’s of architecture in Grosse Pointe is Leonard B. Willeke Leonard B. Willeke was one of the most adaptable and prolific architects to work in the Detroit area. He was an extremely versatile designer, capable of creating a house, a piece of furniture, a car or a layout/plan for an entire community; he was an incredibly gifted individual. One might say, an unrecognized champion in his contribution in providing Grosse Pointe with some of its more uniquely designed homes.

Willeke was born in Cincinnati in 1889. He began his architectural career at the age of seventeen as an apprentice with a local firm. In 1905 Willeke moved to New York to work for the prestigious of Trowbridge and Livingston as a designer. His talent was quickly rewarded for in 1906 he was asked to relocate to San Francisco to work on a new contract that had just been awarded to the firm. When work on the new hotel was completed (in late 1907) Willeke stayed on the west coast and joined the California State Engineers office to design earthquake resistant buildings.

1908 saw Willeke move to Paris to continue his education at the famed Paris École des Beaux-Arts. During his two-year stay he traveled extensively through Europe, North Africa and England, making sketches and banking many ideas that he would use throughout his career.

On his return to the United States, Willeke went home to Cincinnati working for two years at a firm specializing in fine residential design. This was followed by a stint as chief architect for a firm specializing in large commercial buildings and expensive residential work in Ohio and concluding with a move to Detroit as an associate architect for Detroit firm Elmore R. Dunlap in 1914.

In 1916 Willeke became a one-man band. As a licensed Michigan architect, he established his own practice the following year and started to work with an array of prestigious clients – Henry and Edsel B. Ford, Oscar Webber, Charles E Sorensen and Ernest C. Kanzler to name but a few.

During some his early commissions Willeke not only designed the house but many of the interiors, the hardware, light fixtures, furniture and even plans for the landscaping. His style was fresh, bold and very different to the work of some of the other architects of that era. Willeke’s experiences in Europe and his craftsmanlike understanding of material led him to specialize in fine quality residential buildings, bringing him success in both custom and speculative building ventures around the Detroit area.

In 1922 Willeke began work on creating a new home for himself and his wife Leona at 1100 Berkshire, Grosse Pointe Park.

“Our New place is going to be a beauty, and is located in the finest residential suburb of Detroit, and is very unusual in appearance, done purposely, as it will attract every passerby even though it is very quiet and homelike in its quality, but the form color, and materials used are of the most unusual kind.” Willeke wrote to a fellow architect in July 1923.

Willeke called the style of his new home Modern English. The floor plan is U-shaped, compact and convenient in providing light and air circulation throughout the house. The main hall and living rooms have barrel-vaulted ceilings and were filled with walnut detail. Pewabic tile was used throughout the house, while floral and animal motifs were present in much of the paneling and wall trim.

It is said that Willeke incorporated many special features and artistic designs from the sketches he had compiled during his years of travel and study abroad. It was after all intended to be his final home.

His new home on Berkshire was the beginning of a long association with the couple and Grosse Pointe Park. Not only did he create many beautiful homes in the area but also the couple would reside in the community for over fifty years.

I will be continuing with part 2 of the Leonard B. Willeke story next week.

*Photos courtesy of the Higbie Maxon Agney archives unless stated.


Written by Katie Doelle
Copyright © 2015 Katie Doelle

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