Ann Arbor: A Manor Christmas

19 Dec

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Earhart Manor rests on the grounds of Concordia University in Ann Arbor. Today the manor is open to the public for a Christmas tour of the home and grounds; all proceeds provide the Concordia Guild scholarship support for the university students. Once a 400-acre dairy farm, the property known then as The Meadows was purchased by Harry B Earhart and his wife Carrie in 1916. H.B. Earhart was the agent for the White Star Refining Company based in Buffalo NY. He purchased the failing company in 1911, moved its headquarters to Michigan and watched the business flourish as the auto industry boomed. He turned the company into a major enterprise that included a chain of gas stations and a refinery in Oklahoma. He eventually sold the business to Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. which later became Mobil; something tells me he did all right. At first the family used the Meadows as a get-away, they moved there from Detroit in 1920. When H.B. retired at the age of 66 he decided to build the home of his dreams on the property, the manor was completed in 1935.

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The limestone home was designed by Detroit architectural firm Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, the exterior is elegantly detailed with a slate roof, copper eaves and stone detailing; they even hand-chisled the limestone to simulate age. Festive garlands with bright red bows adorn the front entrance. Inside we are greeted by volunteers giving details about the home. I expected the interior to be large open spaces but instead find charming, intimate rooms. The foyer is light filled and bright, decorations stream from the ceiling and walls, a built-in cabinet holds an antique record player surrounded by vintage record albums from Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and others. Albums could be stacked for continuous play, what a cool contraption. Each room in the house has been decorated by a different interior designer; I love looking at all the beautiful decorations. Traffic flow is at a stand-still so we take the stairs to the 3rd floor, stopping along the way to admire the Art Deco handrail, newel and balusters. We arrive at the Ballroom, the barrel ceiling with a skylight is pretty awesome; gold and silver stars dangle from the ceiling. The decorating theme is Nativities, I’ve never seen so many different ones. This is where the Earhart’s would entertain; there’s a stage at one end where a band would perform or the grandchildren would put on plays. A movie projection booth is on the opposite side, since there was no sound system they played family home movies on the screen instead of Hollywood films. 

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The second floor is where the family slept. When they moved into the house 3 of their 4 children had already gone off to college, Elizabeth was already in high school; no need for lots of bedrooms. Today the bedrooms are used for offices and conference rooms and are not open for the tour. Descending the staircase gives us a nice view of the main floor, people have dispersed into other areas making it easy for us to move around. At one end of the hall is the Dining Room, it’s gorgeous. Decked out in cream and turquoise, a pretty chandelier, ornate fireplace and lovely architectural details make the room opulent. A pencil tree wears colored decorations to match the room, Christmas figurines stand in recessed shelves. In their later years Mr and Mrs Earhart took their meals at the small table in the breakfast nook. I’ve decided this is my favorite room.

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The Library is next, wood paneling, full bookcases and deep colors give the room a definite masculine feel. Poinsettia-filled urns flank the fireplace, evergreen roping is draped throughout the space. Two Christmas trees are decorated with white lights, silk flowers and wide ribbon. On one side a bookcase has been slid open revealing a ‘secret’ staircase, let’s see where it goes. Concrete steps and brick walls lead us to the basement Billiard Room, sweet! As you would expect the room is decorated perfectly for Christmas; lots of live greens, baskets of fruit, nuts and pine cones. Candles flicker in the fireplace, antique light fixtures give the room a warm glow. This is where H.B. would hang out with his friends.

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Back up in the main hall we poke our heads into the study, we see another secret passage in the wall. The Living Room is the largest room in the house; surrounded by rich wood paneling with a large fireplace it’s actually quite cozy. A grand piano sits at the far end, the Earhart’s were fond of music, a Christmas tree is set up in front of the bay window, I bet that’s the way the family did it too. When the house was built they incorporated the latest technology for the time; air conditioning, showers with ten heads, vented closets with lights that went on when you opened the door. They say Mrs Earhart was never more than 10 feet away from a call button to summon servants.

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We exit through the glass doors onto the patio, a gorgeous Pewabic tile fountain is built into the wall. The grounds are pretty expansive; there used to be a Peony-lined walk, Rose garden and lily pond. We walk past the gazebo and grape arbor to the greenhouse, this was here long before they built the manor house. You can tell it’s really old by the glass panes and mechanisms used to open and close the windows. One section has Christmas trees for sale, you can also purchase Poinsettia plants, flowering cactus, Cyclamen, ornaments and hand-made cards. Decorated trees are on display in the other half of the greenhouse, they were part of an auction held earlier in the week and are waiting to be picked up.

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Carrie passed away in 1940, H.B. stayed in the house, they say the greenhouse was one of his favorite places to sit and be with friends. I also learned that H.B. was the primary creator of the Huron-Clinton Metro Authority. H.B. passed away in 1954 at the age of 83. A portion of the Earhart Estate including the manor was sold to the Lutheran Church in 1961 for the establishment of Concordia University. The private university offers majors in four academic schools: Nursing, Arts & Sciences, Business, Education. The school restored the manor and continues to care for it and the grounds.

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Time to eat! Zingerman’s Roadhouse on Jackson rd has been here for 15 years now. It’s the 7th member of Zingerman’s community of businesses in Ann Arbor. While places like the deli celebrate good food from all over the world, the Roadhouse focuses on really good American food with old-time classics like mac and cheese, fried chicken, corn dogs and Carolina bbq. It’s super-busy when we arrive but the wait is short. I’m so hungry I can’t decide what to get, Kris is in a breakfast mood, an omelette it is. The other good thing about breakfast items is they don’t take long to cook. The omelette is fluffy and filled with tasty items like cheese, bacon and spinach, the homemade biscuit is surrounded by little cups of creamed honey, jam and butter. French fries and cheesy grits complete the meal. That was good! Be sure and check out the nifty collection of antique salt and pepper shakers displayed throughout the restaurant. Before we hit the road I stop at the Roadshow, a vintage Spartan trailer attached to the Roadhouse that offers the convenience of a drive-thru or a walk-up window for carry-out or coffee, I’m here for the coffee. It’s been a really good day.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a New Year filled with fun adventures!

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