The Walter and May Reuther UAW Family Education Center is located along the shores of pristine Black Lake near the northern Michigan town of Onaway, at the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The remote, 1,000-plus acre site was developed as an educational retreat for United Auto Workers Union members and boasts a main lodge, a dining room with seating for up to 300, an educational building with classrooms and a library, an auditorium/gymnasium, an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, lecture hall, billiard room, children’s spaces, and a tavern.
In 1967, Walter Reuther, then UAW President, selected architect Oskar Stonorov to achieve his vision to create “a showplace of creative architecture conveying a sense of solidarity and permanence through high quality craftsmanship and materials.”
Reuther and Stonorov set out to develop a complex that would respond to and tread lightly upon the features of the natural landscape. Reuther took an active role in the design process, personally identifying trees on the densely wooded site that he sought to preserve, often resulting in modifications to the design. Topography, vegetation, specimen trees, and waterways all acted to inform the design. Individual buildings in the complex are connected by corridors with floor to ceiling walls of glass that hover above the earth’s natural grade on concrete piers. The connectors immerse the occupant in the surrounding landscape, turning the passageways into engaging, natural experiences without setting foot outdoors.
Similarly, building materials were carefully selected to integrate into the natural setting. Massive wood beams, natural stone, and fireplaces throughout the complex lend warmth and intimacy to the interiors, while the exteriors harmonize perfectly with the wilderness that surrounds.
Tragically, shortly after the project’s completion, on May 9, 1970, Walter Reuther, his wife May, architect Oskar Stonorov, and three others perished in a plane crash en route to the retreat center. A picturesque footbridge was added to connect the lodge to a serene grove of trees planted in Reuther’s memory, a fitting tribute to the man who cherished the trees.