Of Architecture, Philosophy and Individualism: The Alden B. Dow Story

Alden B. Dow at desk
Alden B. Dow

On April 10th the state of Michigan celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of her favorite sons, Dr. Alden B. Dow. Dow was born on the morning of April 10, 1904 to Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow in Midland, Mich. In 1897, Alden’s father had founded what would eventually become one of the world’s great multinational enterprises, the Dow Chemical Company.

Alden’s parents encouraged him to discover his own unique passions and his own way in life. In doing so, he would enhance human progress through a special blend of talent and vision.

Dow Discovers His Passion at an Early Age

Alden Dow received from his parents the third-generation privilege aptly described by John Adams in a letter to his wife in 1780. Adams noted, "I must study politics and war, that my sons have the liberty to study … commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music and architecture."

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Of course, father Herbert H. Dow didn’t just study commerce; he wrote his own chapter in the history of American enterprise, enabling his children to pursue their own passions. Alden made the most of his parents’ hard work and nurturing. He discovered his true calling at the early age of eight when he told a friend that he wanted to become an architect.

However, his father wanted him to study chemical engineering, which he did for three years at the University of Michigan. Finally, he convinced his dad of his true passion, and entered Columbia University’s School of Architecture. Upon graduation from Columbia, he continued his architectural studies under Frank Lloyd Wright in the first class of fellows at Taliesin, Wright's estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Dow would achieve national and international acclaim as an architect. He won the "Diplome de Grand Prix" for the best residential design in the world at the 1937 Paris International Exposition. He received the award of merit from the American Institute of Architecture in 1958. He won the gold medal from the Michigan Society of Architects in 1960. He was the first recipient of the Frank Lloyd Wright Creativity Award in 1982. And he was named the architect laureate of the state of Michigan in 1983.

Mr. Dow was one of the world’s truly talented and innovative architects. He was the founder and president of his own architectural firm, Alden B. Dow Associates, Inc., was a registered architect in seven states, and designed structures in nine states. He designed and supervised the construction of the entire original town of Lake Jackson, Texas, several buildings at the University of Michigan, and the campus and many of the buildings on the Midland campus of Northwood University. Mr. Dow also designed the corporate headquarters for the Dow Chemical Company, a sports arena, a center for performing arts, and many beautiful homes and churches.

Philosophy and Individualism

Alden Dow was a Renaissance man rooted in Midwestern values, whose philosophy and ideas went well beyond the world of architecture. This becomes obvious when reading his book, "Reflections" and "The Architecture of Alden B. Dow" by Sidney K. Robinson. Dow had a clear view as to how the world should function and the role of the individual in human progress. Dow’s philosophy of architecture was deeply rooted in his philosophy of life and vice versa. Recently, I found myself reflecting on the life and contributions of Mr. Dow and relating them to the world since his death in 1983.

Consider the following:

  1. Dow was an advocate of free enterprise and an optimist regarding American progress, largely because of his faith in both individual initiative and individual creativity. Mr. Dow strongly believed in the relationship between utility of place and utility of thought. In essence, he believed the mind works most productively when it is in a place and environment that encourages creative thought and action.

    He certainly would have been excited in 1989 to watch the Berlin Wall crumble. He probably would have invited talented and newly freed Central European students to Midland to study philosophy, architecture and individualism at his home and studio, or at the creativity center named in his honor at Northwood University.

    When Alden Dow asked a question, it was not just to get an answer; it was to allow you to think, to share ideas, and to grow. The important thing was never the answer, but rather the process you went through to reach that answer. He never wanted to stifle free thought; indeed his goal was always to promote critical thinking and creativity. Needless to say, the architecture and ambience in countries from Poland to Hungary would have been enhanced by his teachings.

  2. It is difficult to know what Mr. Dow’s position would have been regarding the U.S. "War on Terrorism," but I think it’s safe to say that he would have loved to participate in colloquiums with Middle Eastern architects on the "best way" to rebuild their war-torn homelands. They would most definitely have been drawn to his vision, intellect, honesty, warmth and humility. He would have been a wonderful ambassador for the values and traditions of American ingenuity and the spirit of voluntarism.

  3. Regarding today’s technology, Mr. Dow most definitely would have embraced it. He would have had his own Website and an Alden Dow chat room. He loved science and technology and was fond of taking pictures and making films. Mr. Dow almost certainly would have a cell phone with a built-in camera to take pictures of a unique building or a beautiful meadow. He would then download and e-mail the photos to a student on the opposite side of the world for a discussion later that day. The notion that ideas and information are now global and instantaneous would please him very much.

  4. Mr. Dow was a successful architect because he worked harmoniously with his customers so that a project became the personal reflection of the client and notably a Dow creation. In today’s highly competitive global economy where quality, differentiation and customer satisfaction sell at a premium, Alden Dow would have been a sought-after consultant. His personal and business philosophy as outlined in his "Way of Life Cycle" would inspire excellence in all three areas for today’s leaders.

Peter Carras and his wife Barbara Carras (Mr. Dow’s daughter) recently told me in conversation that Alden Dow " … lived his life according to ‘HHE.’ HHE was his basic philosophy of life and it applied to everything from personal decision-making and family matters to business. HHE was simple: be Honest with yourself in all you do; be Humble, thus giving and taking gracefully; and finally be Enthusiastic and therefore not afraid to share your ideas. He was a modest, unassuming man who worked in a manner not to overwhelm his associates, but to blend with them. He pulled the best out of people, and they would often think they’d come up with these unique ideas all on their own."

Alden B. Dow died on Aug. 20, 1983, and the world is less vibrant as a result of his death. Let me suggest that all who are interested in beauty, creativity and human progress take the time to investigate the contributions of this great man.

If we do, those chat rooms, colloquiums, and consultations Mr. Dow would have been involved with will be developed under other names — but the result will be pure Alden Dow. Being a humble man, he was never focused on receiving credit for his ideas. But my guess is that he would look down at those of us still living and would almost certainly enjoy the results of his work … I mean our work.


Dr. Nash is the dean of the Richard DeVos Graduate School of Management at Northwood University in Midland, Mich.