Homes of the Auto Barons
As Detroit grew to become the “motor capital of the world,” opportunities to amass great fortunes grew with it. The automobile “royalty” that emerged took on a pampered lifestyle befitting their status and built great estates full of art and intricate workmanship. Now open for tours, these four estates offer visitors the chance to see firsthand how the auto pioneers lived during the heyday of the auto industry.
The only estate within the city limits, the Fisher Mansion (383 Lenox Ave., 313/331-6740, www.detroitiskconlive.com), inspired by William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, was built by Lawrence P. Fisher of the Fisher Body Company, a talented playboy who once courted actress Jean Harlow and who spent millions of his huge fortune constructing this magnificent riverfront estate. It has been described as “glitz bordering on garish.”
Completed in 1928, it’s most noted for its ornate stone and marble work, exquisite European handcrafted stained glass windows, doors and arches carved from woods imported from India and Africa, and rare black walnut and rosewood parquet floors. More than 200 ounces of gold and silver leaf highlight the decorative ceilings and moldings.
The mansion was neglected after Fisher’s death and was purchased for just $80,000 in 1975 by Alfred Brush Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford, and Elisabeth Reuther Dickmeyer, daughter of legendary United Auto Workers chief Walter Reuther. They restored the mansion and donated it to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, of which they are members. Today, the mansion serves as the Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center and is also site of the excellent Govinda’s vegetarian restaurant.
Edsel & Eleanor Ford House
Farther up Jefferson Avenue, where it becomes Lake Shore Road, stands the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House (1100 Lake Shore Rd., Grosse Pointe Shores, 313/884-4222, www.fordhouse.org, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., noon–4 p.m. Sun. Apr.–Dec., noon–4 p.m. Tues.–Sun. Jan.–Mar., closed on major holidays and two weeks in winter, $10 adults, $9 seniors, $6 children 6–12). The Ford House represents a style of living and quality of craftsmanship that is rapidly vanishing, if not completely gone.
The Cotswold-style mansion, designed by noted local architect Albert Kahn, was built in 1929 for Henry Ford’s only son, who raised his four children in this house. Much of the interior paneling and furniture was lifted from distinguished old English manors; even the roof is of imported English stones expertly laid by imported Cotswold roofers. What makes the house especially interesting is that it remains much as it did when the Fords lived here. Edsel died in 1943, but his wife, Eleanor Clay Ford, left the estate virtually untouched after that. Throughout is evidence of the Fords’ love of art, with copies of masterpieces now replacing the originals that were donated to the downtown Detroit Institute of Arts.
Visitors can take in a 13-minute video about the Fords, an hour-long guided tour that leads them through the distinctive dwelling, and a self-guided tour of the grounds and outer buildings. Highlights include a stylish art deco recreation room by famed industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague; Edsel’s personal study, lined with framed family photos and photos of luminaries like Thomas Edison; and the Tudor-style playhouse created in 1930 for daughter Josephine’s seventh birthday.
Of the four auto baron estates, Henry Ford’s Fair Lane (4901 Evergreen Rd., Dearborn, 313/593-5590, www.henryfordestate.org, tours 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 1–4:30 p.m. Sun. Apr.–Dec., 1:30 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 1–3 p.m. Sun. Jan.–Mar., $12 adults, $11 seniors 62 and over, $8 children 6–12) is, surprisingly, the least baronial. By the time it was completed in 1914, Ford had become active in World War I politics and spent a lot of time helping the war effort in Europe. Nonetheless, it is justly listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Fair Lane encompasses more than 1,300 acres. For some, the natural landscape by Jens Jensen is the highlight of a visit; for others, it’s the estate’s many technical feats, including the extensive six-level hydroelectric power plant created by Ford and his good buddy Thomas Edison. In this house, Ford entertained some of the world’s most influential people, including Charles Lindbergh (also a Detroit native), President Herbert Hoover, and the Duke of Windsor.
It’s an unusual combination of a Scottish baronial structure and the Prairie style developed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Two-hour tours uncover quirky details such as Henry’s basement bowling alley and his penchant for birds (he once had 500 birdhouses on the premises) as well as Clara’s passion for roses. A small but choice gift shop stocks a wide selection of books on related subjects, and a charming restaurant on the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus is located in the spot that once housed the estate’s indoor pool.
Meadow Brook Hall
Last but not least is Rochester’s Meadow Brook Hall (Adams Rd. and Walton Blvd., 248/364-6200, www4.oakland.edu, tours 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Mon.–Sun. June–Aug., 1:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Jan.–May and Sept.–Nov., holiday walk in Dec., $15 adults, $10 seniors 62 and over, children under 13 free). John Dodge and his brother Horace were among the car makers responsible for Detroit’s sudden catapult into big business.
John died suddenly in 1920, leaving behind a vast fortune and a widow, Matilda (his former secretary), who remarried a wealthy lumberman, Alfred Wilson, in 1925. Together, Alfred and Matilda toured Europe and dreamed of a grand estate north of the city. They built the 110-room Tudor-style Meadow Brook Hall in the late 1920s for the then-astonishing sum of $4 million. Interiors were copied from drawings of English estates.
Eight decades later, Meadow Brook is still largely intact, in part because Mrs. Wilson left the estate to Oakland University, which still administers the property. Rooms — including a two-story ballroom, game rooms copied from old English pubs, and Matilda’s bathroom accented with locally made Pewabic tile — still house original family collections and furnishings. A walk in the surrounding woods reveals a six-room playhouse known as Knole Cottage, built for Frances Wilson, Matilda’s daughter.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel