Detroit’s early auto barons lived in high style. Their lavish mansions, representing the finest in early 20th-century craftsmanship, are paneled in rich woods and furnished with antiques, handcrafted chandeliers and tapestries.
Two of the showiest mansions deck their halls in grand fashion for the holidays and are open year-round for public tours and events. A third, the Henry Ford estate – Fair lane, marking its 100th anniversary this year, is closed while undergoing restorations. But its grounds, designed by acclaimed landscape architect Jens Jensen, remain open to visitors.
For a glimpse into the gracious lifestyles of “Detroit’s royalty,” follow us through the wrought-iron gates and under the carved stone arches that recall the Golden age of the automobile.
MEADOW BROOK HALL
Replete with 39 uniquely sculptured brick chimneys, 24 fireplaces and countless gold-plated faucets, Meadow Brook Hall has been called an American castle. It was designated a national Historic landmark in 2012 and is the nation’s fourth largest historic house museum.
Started in 1926 and built for $4 million over a three-year period, the palatial, 110-room English Tudor revival mansion, 40 miles north of Detroit, was the home of Matilda Dodge Wilson and her second husband, Alfred Gaston Wilson, a Wisconsin lumber magnate.
But the 88,000-square-foot manse, set on 1,500 rolling acres on what are now the grounds of Oakland University in Rochester, sprang from the fortunes of Mrs. Wilson’s first husband, auto pioneer John F. Dodge, who bought the land as a country retreat for his family. His untimely death in 1920 left her, at age 36, the nation’s wealthiest widow. Originally Dodge’s secretary, she went on to become respected in banking circles and was appointed to serve as Michigan’s first female lieutenant governor for six weeks in 1940.
Though Meadow Brook is modeled after England’s great manor homes, Wilson took pride in the fact that nearly all the furnishings and materials in the sprawling mansion were American-made.
The detail work is impressive: Mother Goose tiles around the nursery, carved caricatures of Charlie Chaplin and a medieval court jester on a stone fireplace in the ballroom, and carvings of favorite writers, artists, musicians and philosophers on the library walls.
In addition to 23 bedrooms, 24 bathrooms, five staircases, four kitchens, two elevators and central heating, the mansion had special rooms for everything, from a flower prep room and gift-wrapping closet to a theater projection room.
Meadow Brook remains a treasure house of Tiffany art glass, stickley furniture, Meissen porcelain and Rookwood pottery, as well as the Wilsons’ collection of original artwork by the likes of anthony van Dyck, Rosa Bonheur, Joshua Reynolds, John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough.
Volunteer guides lead estate tours, offering insights into the great joys and deep tragedies of Wilson and her children. a son, Danny, died at 21 under puzzling circumstances while honeymooning at his vacation lodge on Canada’s Manitoulin Island. according to published reports, the Dodge heir was injured in an explosion while playing with dynamite and drowned after falling out of a speedboat as it raced in heavy seas to a hospital.
By contrast, his sister Frances Dodge, an accomplished horsewoman, lived a fairytale life: Knole Cottage, her six-room playhouse, was Metro Detroit’s first all-electric residential structure in 1926. and Frank Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey band entertained at her 25th birthday party in 1939.
Over the years, Meadow Brook has been the setting for many galas, vintage auto shows and celebrity weddings (rap star Eminem remarried his ex-wife Kim Mathers there in 2006). It also was the backdrop for several Hollywood films, including Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon.
HENRY FORD ESTATE – FAIR LANE
The ingenuity that led Henry Ford to produce Model Ts on a moving assembly line is reflected at Fair lane, his 56-room manor home in Dearborn, west of Detroit. undergoing renovations, it is expected to open occasionally for special events with an eye toward reopening permanently in 2016.
Tours of the Henry Ford Estate, a national Historic landmark, start underground in the six-level Powerhouse, where marble panels studded with copper and bronze levers resemble the interior of a giant submarine. Massive turbines and generators made the 1,300-acre compound self-sufficient in providing heat and electricity, along with ice for the Fords’ private rail car and purified rainwater for Clara Ford’s shampoos.
Built for $1.8 million in 1914-15, the Fords’ modified English-style mansion boasted 15 bathrooms, a centralized vacuum cleaner, a 65-extension dial phone system, a one-lane bowling alley and a pool with steam-heated benches.
For 30 years, the Fords dined on a rare rosebud mahogany table and entertained famous guests including Herbert Hoover, Will Rogers, the Duke of Windsor, Charles Lindbergh and Thomas Edison, who helped design the Powerhouse.
The couple enjoyed early American folk dancing on a walnut-pegged floor in the Rustic Room. and Ford spent time peering through his telescope at hundreds of birds imported from England and herds of deer on Jensen’s Meadow.
Today’s visitors come to admire seasonal blooms, stroll along the Rouge River and follow pathways through the tree-lined meadows that Jensen designed to align with the path of the setting sun.
EDSEL AND ELEANOR FORD HOUSE
Workers watered the moss and ivy on the roof made of imported English stones even before the family of Henry Ford’s only child, Edsel, and his wife Eleanor, moved into their house in 1929. The idea, executed by acclaimed architect Albert Kahn, was to achieve a “look of age” and replicate as closely as possible the styles of the vine covered homes in England’s Cotswolds.
Inside the 30,000-square-foot Ford House, situated on lake st. Clair northeast of Detroit, the theme is carried through in antique English paneling (one mantelpiece dates to 1585) that took more than two years to install.
That’s why visitors to the 87-acre Grosse Pointe shores estate gasp upon entering the streamlined Modern Room with its recessed lighting reflected in mirrored surfaces, rounded-corner Formica tables, leather-paneled walls and exotic hardwood furnishings. The room, one of four in the 60room home redesigned in the mid-1930s by industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague, evokes the feeling of a Hollywood movie set.
Built for $3 million, the Ford home boasts seven fireplaces and four kitchens and is a tasteful mix of styles, French and English furniture, and original artworks by Matisse and Diego Rivera. Daughter Josephine’s playhouse, built in 1931 for $15,000, has a real fireplace, scaled-down furniture and tiny candlesticks.
Currently, in the Ford house garage, a “Women Who Motor” exhibit showcases vintage advertisements, films and cars including Eleanor’s custom-made 1952 Lincoln Town Car, with extra headroom in the backseat to accommodate her hats.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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