Tag Archives: Detroit History

DETROIT: Woodlawn Cemetery

28 Oct

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There’s a place in Detroit where city fathers, industrialists, bankers and politicians reside alongside social activists, writers and musicians–many of which changed the face of our country. A city of sorts, spread out across 140 acres of gentle rolling hills, towering trees, a body of water nicknamed Millionaires Pond; where obelisks reach toward the sky, deer and geese roam the grounds and private mausoleums house families whose names are found on street signs and buildings all over Detroit. I’m talking about Woodlawn Cemetery on Woodward between 7 and 8 Mile roads. Established in 1895, the first burial took place in 1896, to date there are over 71,000 interred here. This is one of the largest collections of private mausoleums in the country.

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Kris and I have always enjoyed walking through historic cemeteries; visiting Woodlawn is a bit like strolling through a local history museum that just happens to be in a beautiful park-like setting; peaceful, serene. In my opinion Autumn is the absolute best time to come, trees are painted brilliant colors, the temperature is just right for meandering. The simple entrance gives no clue to the magnificent mausoleums and gravestones contained on the grounds. Most structures are granite, designed in the Egyptian, Greek or Roman Revival styles of architecture. From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries the monument industry thrived in America.

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We first stop at the Greek Revival style Hecker mausoleum, resting on a  hill this is the only building on the grounds with a marble exterior; Hecker was a railroad car manufacturer, his lovely Chateau-style mansion still sits on the corner of Woodward and E Ferry. Many mausoleums have striking, elegantly detailed, bronze grill work doors, they have acquired the perfect patina over the decades. Stained glass windows are another popular feature, we go right up to the doors and peer inside, if the sun is shining just right the colors glow, lighting up the interior. The Mills mausoleum is an impressive structure, done in the French Beaux Arts style it reflects the wealth the Mills family amassed organizing Detroit Stove Works, the Banner Tobacco Company and First National Bank, he was also Mayor of Detroit in 1866 and 67.

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Traversing the grounds leaves crunch under our feet, geese scatter, squirrels chase one another; colorful hydrangea trees decorate the setting. Each name we read is familiar: Hudson, Booth, Grinnell, Ford, Groesbeck, Pingree. Members of the Four Tops, Miracles, Temptations, Funk Brothers, Winans and Spinners are laid to rest here along with family members of Berry Gordy, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. The Egyptian style Dodge mausoleum is guarded by two large sphinxes, four papyrus-topped columns flank the doorway. Brothers John and Horace died 11 months apart and are reunited here. Next door John’s wife Matilda and her second husband Alfred Wilson are laid to rest, the Art Deco style building has amazing entrance doors and a sculptural medallion done by sculptor Corrado Parducci, really take the time to look at the detail.

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The lake is surrounded by European-style garden memorials, the most impressive belonging to the Kanzler family. The plot is 50′ by 50′, reminiscent of an 18th century French formal garden, the sarcophagus is carved from one piece of French marble, so elegant and pastoral. Kanzler worked with Henry Ford at FMC then went on to organize the Guardian Detroit Bank with Edsel Ford; his wife Josephine was the sister of Edsel’s wife Eleanor Clay, and J. L Hudson was their uncle– how’d you like to move around in those circles? Across the way a tall arch topped with an obelisk looks out onto the lake.

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One beautiful memorial after another, they are stately, grand, reflecting the stature of the deceased; clearly I cannot talk about all of them, but here are a few more of our favorites. C. J. Whitney has a distinctly Art Nouveau design, he is credited with bringing the first motion picture projection to Michigan in 1896. James Couzens mausoleum was designed by Albert Kahn, it is one of the largest in the Detroit area and is considered to be a mini-version of the Parthenon. A bronze statue of a woman mourns for W. H. Harrison, her anguish obvious; today fresh flowers rest in her arms. The bronze Bowen gravestone resembles an Italian Renaissance sarcophagus, it has aged gloriously, dripping with patina, pilasters have claw-foot bottoms, it was designed by Paul Phillipe Cret, the architect who designed the DIA. At one time Bowen was president of Cadillac then went on to become president of D. M Ferry Seed Company, his house remains at 5435 W0odward Ave. 

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We enter the main public mausoleum, built in 1941 it has a more Modern/Art Deco look about it inside. In a series of hallways individuals are entombed in the walls, there are small rooms where families are grouped together, their name engraved above the doorway; each a symbol of the personal style of the family with a particular marble, lighting and elaborate stained glass windows. The windows are stunning! Angels, landscapes, religious scenes, colorful patterns and flowers are just some of the designs. Urns rest on marble shelves in glass-windowed cabinets, carpet covers the floors, it’s so quiet in here. In the chapel area pews, lectern and walls are the light-colored wood popular at the time; the Our Father is beautifully carved into panels.

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Again we see more recognizable names like Whitcomb (Belle Isle Conservatory), Mel Farr, Fruehauf. We take a stairway to the second floor, at the end of the corridor Stanley S Kresge is laid to rest, stained glass windows in rich colors are religious in nature. When we are finished we proceed to the basement level, maintenance is in the process of replacing letters that have fallen off through the years. Large gravestones accompany the traditional mausoleum walls. Time has passed quickly, it has been fascinating traveling through Detroit history. 

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Just a short drive away is Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles located on Livernois between 7 Mile and Outer Drive, we arrive just after 3 pm and the place is packed!  Open for less than a year their creative menu of southern comfort food keeps people coming back. The place is very attractive inside; red walls, open ceiling, funky floors, great art, very cool.We are seated at the only open table, I look around to see what surrounding diners are eating–everything looks delicious. Our server drops off our drinks, takes our order and reminds us everything is made to order from scratch, so it takes a little time. The crowd thins out after 3:30 and our food arrives.

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Ok, so we went a little crazy ordering, that’s what take-home boxes are for….Here goes: The Big Red is a red velvet Belgian waffle served with a scoop of cream cheese icing in the center, a side cup of bourbon maple syrup, 3 large, hand-breaded, luscious chicken tenders and a side–we are having collard greens. Every single item is outstanding, and the bourbon maple syrup, well, you’re gonna have to try it for yourself! Biscuits and Gravy are the ultimate comfort food, we got 2 buttery, crispy on the outside-flaky on the inside biscuits and a bowl of chicken gravy, over-the-top good! Then there’s the LALA, it comes with a waffle, this one has tiny little squares that really hold onto the melted butter and syrup, 2 eggs, ours are scrambled and a cup of cheese grits, yum! I can see why the restaurant is so popular.

Packard Proving Grounds

14 Dec

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Detroit’s rich automotive and manufacturing history spreads far beyond the city limits. Today we are in Macomb County, Shelby Township to be exact, visiting the Packard Proving Grounds Historic Site. In 1927 the Packard Motor Car Company began constructing a testing facility on 560 acres of farmland in Shelby Twp. Designed by (don’t you know it) Albert Kahn, the steel-framed buildings were state-of-the-art in their day. The Lodge was home to proving grounds manager Charles Vincent and his family, with the start of WWII, the family left the Lodge in 1942. Packard continued to use the property until 1958, it was then sold to Curtiss-Wright, who in turn sold it to Ford Motor Company in 1961. By 1998 Ford no longer had use for the property. After a long series of negotiations the acquisition of the total site was a combination of a gift from Ford Motor Land Development Corp. and purchase by the Packard Motor Car Foundation.

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It is a chilly late Autumn day, a combination open house and car show is being held on the property. A line of cars has formed gaining entrance to the event, rows of vehicles are parked on the front lawn, the familiar scent of exhaust fumes fill the air. Everywhere I look people are milling about, vintage Packards are parked along the garage area, they are beautiful, elegant, dazzling. Many have Art Deco style designs and trim, colors range from rich jewel tones to creamy neutrals, spare tires are mounted on the side like a decoration, hood ornaments are large and showy, and then there’s the chrome……..  Most models had a letter or a number for a name: Model K, N, the Dominant Six or Super Eight, later they used names like the Caribbean, Clipper and Hawk. The vehicles are a testament to the era they were designed and equally as attractive today.

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The Lodge is open for tours today. We enter through the kitchen, renovation is an ongoing process, the vintage sink, stove and refrigerator are from the 1920’s. Passing through the sitting room it is pointed out that the fireplace brick was laid in Kahn’s signature herringbone design, the foyer floor is original Pewabic tile. Upstairs we find a series of bedrooms, the Vincent’s had three daughters, the youngest, Roberta is living in Arizona today, but has been back to visit the house. Windows are leaded glass, photos, books and Packard advertisements are displayed, wet plaster is under repair, yellow caution tape abounds. The master bedroom overlooks the main gate and the Princeton Elms that line the boulevard. We come to a hallway leading past several dormitory-style rooms, these were used by visitors to the Proving Grounds. Most interesting is the Radio Room. Mr. Vincent was a ham radio enthusiast; he designed and built the equipment used in the first successful air-to-ground radio-phone communication which was done at the Proving Grounds in 1929. The tour ends back downstairs in the living room, currently used as a Board Room for meetings, the room is similar to its original appearance, complete with fireplace.

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Back outside we cross the courtyard to the Repair Garage, once used as an experimental and engineering laboratory, today  the Johnny Trudell Orchestra is playing big band favorites, Packard’s are randomly parked throughout the building garnering much deserved attention. On view are a number of engines complete with that signature Packard script, the 1956 showroom display chassis has drawn a crowd, Kris and I catch a glimpse of the stonework that surrounded the main entrance at the original Packard building in Detroit, safe at last. On loan for the day from the Algonac/Clay Twp Historical Society is the Miss America X. On September 20, 1932 Commodore Gar Wood set a speed record of 108.48 knots for a nautical mile and 124.71 knots for a statue mile. Powered by four 12 cylinder Packard engines, they are arranged as a two bank unit of two 24-cylinder engines creating  6,400 hp. A platform allows us to get an up-close view of Miss America X, she’s a beauty! Dials, gauges and levers cover the interior, the engine gleams in orange paint, the wooden hull is varnished to a high shine. We’ll have to visit the museum soon.

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Behind the building an elevated water storage tank stands high above the proving grounds, a sight familiar to me since I was a little girl. Just beyond sits a 4,000 sq ft hangar, now called the Lindbergh Hangar. In 1929 Col Charles Lindbergh visited the site to test-fly a Packard-powered airplane. At the back of the property the original timing stand and a 458 ft section of the test track remain. The second level of the timing stand provides a panoramic view of the proving grounds. Back in the day we would be overlooking a 2.5 mile oval track specifically built for high-speed testing. They say it was so well-engineered that drivers could travel around the banked curves in excess of 100 mph without holding the steering wheel. In 1928 Leon Duray set a World’s record for a closed course of 148 + mph, making the test oval the fastest in the World. Volunteers are taking visitors for a ride around the grounds in vintage Packards, we go for a spin, the drive ends and we are dropped off near the gate. Thanks to the support and donations by members of the old-car hobby, automotive historians and the local community, this site has been preserved and is now on the National Register of Historic Places; this is more than Detroit history, it is the history of our Nation.

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Bad Brad’s BBQ is located nearby on 23 Mile Rd, serving up delicious beef brisket and pork shoulder, the restaurant is a wonderful addition to the area. The interior is a combination of wood planks, brick and corrugated metal, the main dining room offers tables, booths and bar seating, they also have an awesome patio. Meats are steeped in fruit wood and hickory smoke for up to 14 hours, everything on the menu is made from scratch. Our Classic BBQ sandwich is piled high with sliced brisket, a wooden skewer stuck through the middle holds it together. House made sauces are on the table, I recommend trying each and every one. The kettle style BBQ chips go nicely with the sandwich, a side of cornbread is a must!

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Stony Creek Metropark is just a short drive from here, so we decide to extend the day with a walk and visit to the Nature Center. Much of Stony Creek was part of Valley Creek Farm, a weekend getaway for the Charles Hodges Sr family of Grosse Pointe from 1928 until the metroparks purchased the property in the mid 1950’s. Here we find prairies, woodlands and wetlands, trees like Norway Spruce and Norway Maple were planted by the family and are not native to the area. We begin our walk on the Reflection Trail, fallen leaves crunch under our feet, my face and hands are getting cold. A boardwalk leads to a lookout over a river, colorful leaves reflect off the water. The trail provides many places to stop and take in picturesque views. We keep our eyes open for wildlife such as birds, ducks, fish and turtles, something runs across the trail, we follow the sound and watch a cute little chipmunk have a bite to eat.We warm up a bit in the Nature Center, the building resembles a lodge, lovely wood beams make up the ceiling, large windows fill the walls, it has that “up north” feeling. Glass aquariums contain live frogs, snakes and turtles. Tall cabinets display examples of fox, ducks, hawks and owls, wow, some of them are huge! The view is tranquil, chairs are placed near windows overlooking bird feeders, I can feel myself relax as I watch the birds come and go. The scenery changes with every season. 

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