ROCHESTER: Meadowbrook Hall

31 Mar

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It had been a couple of years since our last visit to Meadowbrook Hall in Rochester MI.  One of this country’s finest examples of Tudor Revival architecture it should be on your Must Do list. Before I talk about the home itself I need to lay a little groundwork, it all begins with the Dodge Brothers……..

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John and Horace Dodge were automotive pioneers who shaped Detroit’s early automotive industry. They went from working in local machine shops, to manufacturing Evans and Dodge bicycles to opening their own machine shop in 1901. Interestingly enough (at least to me it is) they began producing stove parts (remember at one time Detroit was the Stove Capital of the US), then moved on to parts for the auto industry. Their first major customer was Ransom E Olds, in 1902 Henry Ford hired them to produce everything except the body, wheels and tires for his new vehicle. At that time Ford was short on cash, he gave the brothers 50 shares of stock in the new Ford Motor Company as payment, making them 10% shareholders in the company. In 1913 John Dodge decided not to renew their exclusive contract with Ford, John stepped down as President of the company and the brothers began the process of building their own “Dodge” vehicle. In November 1914 the first Dodge rolled of the line in Hamtramck. John was a widower and father when Matilda Rausch, secretary for the Dodge brothers, caught his eye, the two were married in 1907, the marriage produced three children. In 1920 John died of influenza, leaving Matilda a (unbelievably rich) widow at age 37, at that time he was worth in excess of $100 million dollars. 1925 was a big year for Matilda, she married Alfred Wilson and she and Anna Dodge sold their holdings in Dodge Motor Company for $146 million dollars, making Matilda one of the wealthiest women in the world.

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John and Matilda had purchased a farm estate in Rochester MI years earlier as a weekend retreat, it consisted of 1500 acres and several residences. This is where Matilda and Alfred would build their family home. William Kapp (Music Hall, Players Clubhouse) of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls was hired to design the house, Matilda requested the home be large enough to entertain 250 people and the dining room be able to hold 40 people for dinner. What she got was a magnificent, 88,000 sq ft castle, (that’s right, 88 thousand square feet) reminiscent of an English country manor home. It was built between 1926 and 1929 for a cost of $4 million dollars. Matilda insisted that all materials should be American as well as the workers. The home is filled with elaborately carved wood, stone, ornate plaster, even the details have details, 27 fireplaces, 39 chimneys and lots of Tiffany glass; she was the largest purchaser of Tiffany in the country. Ok, now we can go in…..

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We enter the home and find ourselves in the expansive foyer, a fire burns bright in the massive fireplace, a bench pulled close for those who wish to warm themselves, a pair of candelabra torchieres flank the fireplace.  The tour begins on the lower level of the home, the entertainment floor, so to speak. Ralph, our guide begins by telling us a bit of family history and how the house came to be. We move into the Ballroom, the only 2-story room in the house, to me it looks straight out of a castle; gorgeous timber ceiling, stone arches, tapestries, light fixtures of wrought iron and glass, almost medieval. The Wilson’s spared no expense when they threw a party, Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra played here with a then unknown singer named Frank Sinatra. Proceeding through the room we find ourselves in the Game Room; this is where the men would go to smoke, drink, play cards, that sort of thing. The ceiling is vaulted, windows are leaded glass, the slate floor gleams, beautiful rugs and leather couches make the room feel comfortable. As with every other room in the house it is finely detailed, trim work surrounding the door is carved with shapes of chess pieces, card suits and the like, my favorite detail? The miniature pool table that serves as a door handle!

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Back on the main floor we find ourselves in the Christopher Wren Dining Room; named after the English architect for the design style. Walls are paneled in walnut, the ceiling, well, it is absolutely stunning. I have never seen another one like it, the work of Corrado Parducci, the detail is magnificent, thick plaster designs hang heavy from above; corn and wheat so detailed you can see the grains, the cherubs have eyelashes, leaves and flowers wrap the perimeter. An amazing garland of fruit, flowers and game birds hang above the fireplace, two large chandeliers anchor the room. Family photos are found throughout the house, portraits of Matilda and Alfred hang prominently. Through a narrow doorway is the Pagoda Room, this is where the children would take their meals; walls are hand-painted, lots of windows let in the natural light, an Asian-style chandelier hangs above, it’s wonderful. Down the hall we enter Alfred’s study, this is the only room in the house that does not feature American wood, being a lumber baron, he chose English Burled Oak to cover the walls. Rectangular panels are carved with scenes representing Alfred’s life from his days in Indiana through college and beyond. A fireplace makes the room cozy, the detail in the door is impressive, and what kind of door handle does Alfred have? A log of course.

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As we walk toward Matilda’s office a window offers us a glimpse of the ballroom below, what a sight! The office is lit by a Waterford Crystal chandelier, a fireplace and desk take up residence in the space, alcoves recessed into the paneled walls hold decorative pieces. The room looks quite comfortable, it is clear Matilda had a good eye and knew what she wanted. The living room is the largest room in the house, at 1340 sq ft it still manages to feel welcoming and warm. The furniture is Chinese and looks perfectly at home in the room, I love the ceiling, it is bowed to prevent cracking, the plaster pattern is lovely. At the far end of the room is another huge fireplace, behind it is a splendid sunroom; lots of windows, the ceiling is Wormy Chestnut, pretty furniture, I can see myself reading a nice thick book in this room. At the opposite end of the room a grand piano sits off to a corner, organ pipes are concealed in the walls, open grates our only clue to what lies behind the wall. A narrow hall leads us past the original organ, the floor is wide plank, the organ is both a player organ and can be played by hand; paper organ rolls are kept in boxes behind glass doors. A charming set of three stone windows catch my eye as we pass heading into the library. One of the (many) amazing things about this house is that the furnishings are all original, the books actually belonged to Alfred and Matilda, the photos are real family photos, their dishes and personal belongings are all here for us to see! 

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Our group climbs the grand staircase to the Great Hall, great is an understatement. At the top of the staircase I turn around to face the fabulous stained glass windows, from there I look up at the plaster barrel ceiling intensely covered in a brocade-like pattern, wow! A table is set as an example of how the Wilson’s entertained. To the right down a hall is the wing where the Dodge children’s bedrooms are located, bathrooms are Rookwood Tile from Cincinnati, guest rooms allowed for them to have friends stay over. The opposite wing belonged to Matilda and Alfred, each had their own room, Alfred’s masculine as expected, and for the lady of the house, French and feminine. Rose-colored silk wallpaper covers the walls, her bed rests upon a low pedestal, it is exquisite, if I heard correctly, she has 14 closets…..Also located in this wing are the bedrooms of the Wilson’s two adopted children Barbara and Richard, along with the nanny’s room. Both Barbara and Richard are still alive, Meadowbrook Hall turns 85 this year, a celebration is planned and the children are hoping to attend.

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Matilda was very active in civic affairs and the arts, generous with her time and fortune, she built the Wilson Theatre in Detroit, now known as Music Hall. In 1957 Matilda and Alfred donated their entire 1500 acre estate, their collections and an additional $2 million dollars to found Michigan State University-Oakland, renamed Oakland University in 1963. The university opened in September 1959, 570 students enrolled that year. Upon graduation Matilda presented each student with a diamond ring. The Wilson’s continued to live at the estate until their deaths, Alfred in 1962 and Matilda in 1967, today, their legacy lives on. It’s nearly impossible to capture the beauty of this home in pictures, descriptions cannot do it justice, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

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The Royal Park Hotel in Rochester seemed like the logical place to have lunch, the boutique hotel which opened in 2004 is also designed in the English Manor House style. The exterior is brick and stone, inside you will find dark wood, rich fabrics, oriental rugs and fireplaces. We take a seat in Elliots Lounge, the menu features casual meals, sandwiches, salads, charcuterie and cheeses. We start off with the specialty sausage board; a grilled chicken and organic apple sausage served with watercress salad and sundried pear and apricot mostarda, yum! Kris digs into the RPH Sliders while I enjoy the Chili Lime Chicken sandwich, everything is well prepared and delicious, service is excellent. When we have finished, we leave the world of the rich and famous and return to reality………bummer.

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