After visiting the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House for a tour a couple of weeks ago, I knew I had to find a similar tour to follow up the Ford House feature in my series on Detroit tours. Though it is a fair drive north of Detroit, I knew Meadow Brook Hall would have to be the next stop.
The estate was the home of the late Matilda Dodge Wilson, widow of John Dodge (co-founder of Dodge Motor Company) and of Alfred Wilson (a lumber baron she met after John’s passing), and to say it is palatial would be an understatement. I got so turned around simply trying to find the entrance that the (wonderfully courteous) woman manning the front desk came out into the courtyard to find me and put me on the right path.
Though my sense of direction is, admittedly, worse than others, I can imagine I am not the first visitor to lose their way. When the then-farmland was originally purchased by John Dodge, it was a full 320 acres (which he acquired for the whopping price of $50,000). Unfortunately, John would not live to see the now famed home built; due to complications from an illness contracted while travelling, both John and his brother passed in 1920.
After John’s passing, Matilda and the couple’s three children left Michigan to spend the next few years in France. Tragedy befell the family once again when the youngest of the Dodge children, Anna Margaret, passed away from measles upon the return trip. A heartbroken Matilda sought refuge in the Presbyterian church, and soon found love with a deacon there, lumber baron Alfred Wilson.
The two wed quickly, and would come back from their honeymoon and quickly embark on the construction of Meadow Brook Hall. The couple had very specific notions regarding the character and style of the estate, and even had an architect accompany them on their honeymoon throughout Europe to take note of their favorite stylistic elements. For this reason, the immense home (an impressive 88,000 square feet upon it’s completion in 1929, currently making it the third largest historic home in the nation) has a very personal feel.
One of the most notable such features are the intricate wood carvings throughout the home. Though ornate and lavish, the carvings are extremely unique. In the game room, there are images of cards, billiards, and dice carved into the wall above the door to enter the room; in Alfred’s study, the panels around the room depict stages in his life, from his childhood, to college, to his marriage to Matilda, all with a playful nature; and in the library, each wall features carvings of either writers, artists, musicians, or philosophers that the family enjoyed. (The childrens’ nursery, similarly, featured tiles depicting different nursery rhymes.)
The personal touches extend far beyond the carvings on the walls, however. Alfred, a notably shy man, had a secret staircase put in so that he would be able to sneak off from the hustle and bustle of the parties thrown by Matilda. Likewise, Frances Dodge had a staircase to a private playroom above her bedroom, while Daniel Dodge had a ladder to his own private playroom (Matilda and Alfred also adopted two children of their own, Richard and Barbara, though they didn’t benefit from being old enough to have private playrooms).
Though there was an obvious level of privacy that the family appreciated, the home was also very welcoming. Each of the Dodge childrens’ bedroom wings had a separate guest room for overnight guests, as well as the three other guest rooms that were shown to us on the tour (all in different styles for varying tastes). The Wilsons threw lavish parties often, including a surprise 21st birthday party for Frances at which Frank Sinatra performed. And it was not just the parties that displayed the luxury of the Wilson home; Matilda’s office was done in completely flawless pine, sets of sheets were woven through with 14 karat gold thread, and all guest rooms had circular silver safes.
The family contributed much more than a beautiful hall to Michigan, as well. In addition to using Detroit based architectural firm Smith Hinchman & Grylls, the Wilsons commissioned the works of many Michigan artists (the majority of the amazing plaster ceilings in the home were done by Detroit sculpter Corrado Parducci) and used exclusively American grown wood, save in one room of the house. Matilda was also heavily involved in the Salvation Army, the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and was even the first female Lieutenant Governor of Michigan.
Perhaps most notably, Matilda is the co-founder of Oakland University. Initially started as the Oakland campus of Michigan State University with John A. Hannah, the satellite location grew so rapidly that it eventually became Oakland University in the 1960s. (Matilda even gave each of the members of the first graduating class of Oakland University a 1 karat diamond ring.) Students at Oakland University are even able to tour the home of their cofounder for free.
Meadow Brook Hall will perhaps be at it’s most impressive in just a few weeks, when the house hosts it’s annual Holiday Walk. Not only is the estate decked out in holiday decorations, guests can hear carols played over the famed organ (the largest player organ in a residence, which boasts 4600 pipes running throughout the house), and even visit with Santa Claus.
As always, though I have done my best to recount my favorite tidbits, only a personal tour can do a home such as Meadow Brook Hall justice. Stop by the Hall for a regular daily tour, a behind the scenes tour, or for the 42nd annual Holiday Walk. And be sure to check out Meadow Brook Hall on Facebook and Twitter!