Dr. Thomas W. Brunk
In Memory of Thomas W. Brunk, Ph.D.
November 25, 1949 - November 25, 2018
Freer House Scholar, Founding Board Member and Friend
Dr. Thomas W. Brunk poses in the former Peacock Room in front of a selection of items that were owned by Charles Lang Freer. These objects, which are a part of Dr. Brunk's collection of Freer objects, were brought to the Freer House and on display for Princess Akiko of Japan during her visit to the Freer House. (June 2018)
Dr. Brunk generously volunteered his time and efforts to research and document the Charles Lang Freer legacy in Detroit and the significance of the Freer House. Dr. Brunk was an active Freer House board member who dedicated his life to the preservation of Detroit history and architecture. His work and his own legacy will not be forgotten as the impact he had on fostering Detroit's revitalization for future generations was one of his greatest accomplishments.
The following text is from Dr. Brunk's Lifetime Achievement Award from the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, presented to Dr. Brunk at the Freer House Detroit, October 2017.
Dr. Brunk's Lifetime Achievement Award Summary
The Lifetime Achievement Award is presented by consensus of the Network's senior leadership. Recipients have worked throughout their careers to promote historic preservation in the State of Michigan. This evening, the MHPN presents a Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Thomas W. Brunk, of Detroit. Dr. Brunk is a recognized expert on Detroit's cultural history with an unparalleled breadth and depth of expertise on the city's history, architecture, art, crafts, and social and intellectual life. Through forty years of meticulous research and a steady outpouring of books, articles, essays, and exhibition catalogues, he has demonstrated his role as Detroit's foremost chronicler of subjects such as Pewabic Pottery, the Scarab Club, and the Masonic Temple, among others. Dr. Brunk's most significant contribution, however, has been to raise awareness of the Charles Lang Freer House and guide its preservation since the 1970s. He is the Freer Scholar and, with Phebe Goldstein, a founding member of the Freer House Board of Directors. Dr. Brunk authored The Charles L. Freer Residence: The Original Freer Gallery of Art, published in 1999 and still the only text written on this key Detroit figure. His years of research have been seminal in assuring greater appreciation for the Freer House and its preservation.
Thomas W. Brunk, Ph.D. is a recognized expert on Detroit's cultural history with an unparalleled breadth and depth to his expertise on Detroit's history, architecture, art, crafts, and social and intellectual life. Through forty years of meticulous research and a steady outpouring of books, articles, essays, and exhibition catalogues, he has demonstrated his role as Detroit's foremost chronicler. Best of all, he has shared everything with all of us along the way through his animated teaching and lecturing, his establishment of friends groups for resources needing continual care, and his skillful arrangements to have important records archived and made available to the public.
For many of us, we first come in contact with Thom as the leading authority on Charles Lang Freer. Freer, who lived from 1854-1919, moved to Detroit in 1880 where, with his neighbor and business partner, Col. Frank J. Hecker, he established the Michigan Peninsular Car Company that eventually merged 13 railroad car companies into American Car and Foundry. Both became wealthy men. Beginning in 1887, Freer began amassing a spectacular collection of Asian art as well as contemporary American art with a particular emphasis on works by James McNeill Whistler. Thom also became the leading authority on Freer's home,
a significant example of Shingle Style architecture now owned by Wayne State University. Designed by noted Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre and built in 1892 to accommodate Freer's art collections, the home features Whistler's famous Peacock Room originally commissioned by a London patron in 1876. Freer's art collections, as well as the Peacock Room, were bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institution where he had underwritten construction of the Freer Gallery of Art on the National Mall.
Thom earned his doctorate from The Union Institute in 1997, authoring a seven-volume dissertation on Freer's ceramic collecting, reflecting scholarship fine-tuned through his 1975 MA in Art History from Norwich University that followed his graduation in1970 from La Sorbonne, University of Paris. To assure that others came to know Freer, Thom authored The Charles L. Freer Residence: The Original Freer Gallery of Art, published in 1999 and still the only text written on the residence built by this key Detroit figure. With Phebe Goldstein, Thom co-founded the Friends of Freer House and its associated Board of Directors; he served as president, and, from the 1970s onward, was pivotal to its mission of raising awareness of this significant house, as well as money for its maintenance and restoration. It must also be noted that while coming to know Freer in this definitive way, Thom became the authority on Hecker's close business and personal relationship with Freer and the construction of his own home.
For others of us, we come to know Thom as the recognized scholar on the history of Pewabic Pottery. The pottery was founded in 1903 by the artist Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Horace James Caulkins, a high-heat kiln specialist. Their blend of art and technology gave their pottery its distinctive iridescence that became Detroit's contribution to the International Arts and Crafts movement. Thom was curator and archivist of Michigan State University's Pewabic Pottery from 1974-1981, intervening to save its archives. In characteristic style, he helped safeguard the Pottery's future by helping found The Pewabic Society Inc. in 1979, serving as its president in 1988-1989. He worked with the Detroit Historical Museum in 1979 to mount the exhibit "Pewabic in Architecture," writing the exhibition catalogue that introduced many to Pewabic. Exhibitions he curated at MSU, the DIA, UM Museum of Art, Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in Saginaw, and Pewabic Pottery itself helped ensure that people recognize the pottery's influence. Most significantly, Thom has completed the research and writing for what will be an 800-page book on the history of Pewabic Pottery; it awaits completion.
Beyond Thom's commitments to the legacy of Charles Lang Freer and Mary Chase Perry Stratton, there is much more to his guarantee that Detroit's early cultural life will not go unrecognized.
For example, Thom was the principal historian for the Scarab Club for many years and served as its President. The Scarab Club was founded in 1907 by a group of artists who enjoyed meeting to discuss art and socialize. Intertwined with the birth of the automobile industry, the club also attracted business people involved in automobile design who also loved the arts and had the wealth to be patrons. Thom's involvement has helped ensure that the club continues to be a driving force in the artistic community by championing artistic diversity, hosting events open to the public, and maintaining an artists' gallery and studio.
Thom lives in Indian Village. True to everything he does, he is not content to simply occupy a home in this National Register district. Historically, Indian Village was an affluent neighborhood located on Detroit's east side. Many of its early 20th century homes were built by prominent architects such as Albert Kahn, Louis Kamper, and William Stratton for many of the area's most prominent citizens. Thom, as founder of the extraordinarily rich Indian Village Archives, has helped provide the intellectual framework for owners who want to research their homes, establish an informed basis for their restoration work, and make their annual Village Tours an educational experience.
Thom is the official historian for the Detroit Masonic Temple, leading the efforts of its Temple Library and Museum for which he has served as president. By the turn of the 20th century, interest in Masonic fraternities had reached a fevered pitch. This was the case in Detroit where membership skyrocketed and, by 1908, warranted the Masonic Temple Association of Detroit to construct its current building. The services of Detroit-based architect George D. Mason were secured with his firm designing the entire 1,037-room, Neo-Gothic-styled complex between 1920 and 1926. Today, it is recognized as the world's largest Masonic Temple, its records catalogued and made accessible by Thom who also has served as President of the Detroit Masonic Temple Foundation.
Prismatic and Witenagmote Club and University of Detroit
From the largest of groups, such as the Masons, Thom has often turned his attention to some of Detroit's smaller cultural organizations. For example, Samuel R. Bartlett founded the Prismatic Club in 1867, making it Detroit's oldest literary society. As historian for the club, Thom safeguards collections that are breathtaking. For example, the club began commissioning portraits of its presidents in 1877 and therefore has one of the best collections of the images of Detroit's community, social, artistic, literary, and academic leaders. The weekly member presentations, beginning with handwritten papers starting in 1867, have survived. Without these collections, which are housed in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library and in the Walter P. Reuther Library of Wayne State University, present day scholars would not have this irreplaceable trove of material on Detroit history, medicine, gastronomy, engineering, sociology, genealogy, art, and literature. Similarly, Thom has been the historian for the Witenagamote Club, another nineteenth-century Detroit organization, this one fashioned after the councils appointed by Anglo-Saxon kings. The club gave community leaders a means by which to gather and discuss local, state, and national affairs and their papers survive. At the University of Detroit, a small Roman Catholic university founded in 1877, Thom has used his position as board member, archivist, and architectural historian, to safeguard its records.
Sometime Thom's efforts have been marshaled to avoid an immense loss, such as his successful effort to save the architectural records of Leonard B. Willeke. A Cincinnati native born in 1884, Willeke worked in Cincinnati, New York City, and, after the earthquake of 1906, in San Francisco. He moved to Detroit around 1910 and grew a large residential practice among Detroit's elite, constructing almost 30 homes in the Grosse Pointe area and elsewhere around Detroit. When Willeke died in 1970, Thom saw that the importance of his records could easily go unrecognized and arranged to have them donated to UM in the early 1980s. True to form, Thom used this opportunity to guarantee that Willeke's legacy was
understood by writing the 1986 book, Leonard B. Willeke: Excellence in Architecture and Design. To promote a popular understanding of Willeke, he wrote "The Unassuming Architect," an article in the April-May, 1987, issue of Heritage: A Journal of Grosse Pointe Life.
Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts
Yet others of us have come to know Thom as the leading authority on the history of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. William Morris founded the Arts & Crafts Movement in the late 19th-century to protect England's medieval arts and the skills of craft workers. The Movement spread to the United States by 1897, with the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts founded in 1906 by George Booth, Albert Kahn, William Stratton, and others. Detroit's Society captured national media attention in 1933 when it recognized the automobile as an art form. Unlike other Arts and Crafts societies to which assembly-line production was antithetical, Detroit unapologetically teamed handcraft with modern construction materials and methods. Thom began making his scholarship available when, in 1976, he contributed to a publication from the DIA titled Arts and Crafts in Detroit 1906-1976: The Movement, The Society, The School; a decade later, he joined forces with James E. Conway to write the 1986 monograph, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Michigan, 1886-1906. To ensure that generations of students know about Detroit's architectural and art history, Thom serves as an adjunct professor at Wayne State University and at the College of Creative Studies that grew out of the Detroit Society's school of art and design.
Saarinen Chapter of the SAH
Finally, after considering Thom's activities in Southeast Michigan, we close by taking note of his efforts on the statewide level through his collaboration with others to found the Saarinen (Michigan) Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians in 1979. Because of Thom's awareness of the global significance of Detroit, it was natural that he endorsed this alignment with an international society focused, since 1940, on architecture, design, landscapes, and urbanism. In the early years, chapter members gathered two-or-three times a year to visit significant historic places around the state or to have members present their own research. It is no surprise that as soon as the young organization got on its feet, Thom – rotating through all the chapter's leadership roles from Treasurer to President – was instrumental in founding its newsletter so that its activities would be shared with others and documented for posterity.
This list of accomplishments could actually go on, noting other avenues of research, other organizations Thom has helped to recognize their importance to Detroit's cultural past, other articles and bulletins and exhibition catalogues he has written, other collections he has saved and archived, other lectures and classes he has presented. We are deeply honored to be able to recognize Thom for his commanding understanding of Detroit's history, architecture, and arts. We thank him for being a definitive recipient of the MHPN's highest honor, our Lifetime Achievement Award.
Text excerpted from Michigan Historic Preservation Network Award Nomination, 2017 for Thomas W. Brunk, Ph.D. by Janet L. Kreger, Founding Member, Past President, and current Executive Committee Member.