Architecture

Detroit’s historic Palmer Woods neighborhood to host home, garden tour

detroits-historic-palmer-woods-neighborhood-to-host-home-garden-tour

It was one of the hottest places in Detroit when the Motor City was just getting started.

Everyone from auto managers like the Fisher brothers to department store king Charles Van Dusen to former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer have lived in the neighborhood, and famous architects like Albert Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright have designed homes in the area.

Palmer Woods is located in the northwest of the city and is known as one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Detroit. There are many Tudor-style houses, manicured lawns, and gardens and pools in the back yard.

As Detroit continues its revitalization, interest in Palmer Woods is growing as more millennials move into the neighborhood and start families there, said resident Barbara Barefield, a photographer who has lived in the subdivision for 32 years. When she started a biracial family, Barefield said having a diverse group of neighbors was a selling point for her and her husband, jazz composer and guitarist A. Spencer Barefield.

“We’re a community that not only has a wide variety of architectural styles, but also many different types of families,” she said. “Different ethnic backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, same-sex marriages and relationships, and more traditional marriages and relationships.

“It was very important to us to come to a neighborhood in which there is a diversity of families and a respect for differences.”

Next month, neighborhood residents will be opening their homes for one of Metro Detroit’s most popular architectural tours – the biennial Palmer Woods Home and Garden Tour.

“For the good of all”

Located north of 7 Mile Road and west of Woodward Avenue, Palmer Woods dates back to 1883 when Senator Thomas Palmer, R-Detroit, donated 188 acres of farmland on the city’s northwestern border “for the good of all.”

Palmer died in 1913, and two years later his family sold a northern property to developer Charles W. Burton that would eventually be converted into the first clad subdivision in Michigan.

Other developers who helped Burton complete the project included Detroit Mayor Frank Couzens, who built 14 houses from the 1920s onwards. Landscape architect and native Grand Rapids American Ossian Simonds designed the curving streets of Palmer Woods, a change from the rigid rusty roads that frequented other parts of Detroit.

In addition, Simonds limited the number of streets cutting the subdivision to control traffic and provide privacy.

According to the Palmer Woods Association website, an advertisement from this period reads: “The landscaping, personally planned by the famous landscape architect Simonds, preserves the natural beauty of the place and promotes the charm of winding driveways, wooded vistas and artistically grouped bushes.”

In 1938, Palmer Woods received an Award of Merit from the Michigan Horticultural Society and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

World class architecture

Palmer Woods contains 297 buildings, of which 202 were constructed between 1915 and 1940. Tudor Revival is the most common style in homes, derived from English medieval and early Renaissance architecture from the 1500s and 1600s. According to the association’s website, the style of living emphasized “structural integrity, high-quality materials and fine craftsmanship”.

Tudor Revival borrows many elements from medieval design such as twisted chimneys, battlements, stained glass, and lead windows. Other features are classic molded parts, Doric columns and irregular floor plans.

Many famous architects designed houses in Palmer Woods such as:

Albert Kahn

Kahn, the son of German immigrants, came to Detroit in 1880 at the age of 11. The industrial architect is known for designing Detroit’s first major auto plant for Packard Motor Car Co. as well as Ford’s Highland Park Plant and the Fisher Building. Kahn also designed houses, such as the Georgian Colonial House built on Lincolnshire Street in 1935. Features of the house include wooden crown moldings and its characteristic crown relief crown made from grapes, grapevines and scrolls in the dining room.

Albert Kahn, architect of the fisherman building

Richard Marr

Marr is from Detroit. He attended Harvard University and graduated in architecture in 1911. When he returned home, Marr began designing homes and buildings around the Detroit Metro, particularly the Architects Building in the Cass Corridor neighborhood.

Some of the houses he made for Palmer Woods consisted of Tudor Revival, English Tudor, Greek Revival, and Mediterranean style.

Clarence Day

Day, another Detroit native, trained with several architectural firms before opening his own practice in 1915. He designed a mansion in Lake Orion for the Detroit News publisher William E. Scripps and 10 houses in Palmer Woods. His creations included a house for former Chrysler President KT Keller, whose Elizabethan design included a bay window and arched entrance.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Born in Wisconsin in 1867, Wright designed homes and buildings in the United States and around the world, including the Midway Gardens entertainment center and National Life Insurance Building in Chicago, and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan.

In 1956 a house was completed in Palmer Woods that he had designed for Dorothy Turkel, who lived in Detroit. The house is on 7 Mile and was designed in typical Usonian style by Wright. It was built in an “L” shape.

This is how Detroiters saw Frank Lloyd Wright on their last visit here in 1957

The people of Palmer Woods

Many auto managers and their families lived in Palmer Woods during the 1920s and 1930s, including William Fisher, president of the Fisher Body auto company, and his brother Alfred Fisher, the company’s chief engineer. Also, the Kresge department store president Charles Van Dusen lived in the neighborhood.

More recently, former Detroit Piston John Salley bought the 35,000-square-foot Bishop’s Mansion in 1989 and lived there until 1995. The house was then sold to Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of Great Faith Ministries International. He is also President and Founder of the Impact Network, the largest African American Christian television network in the country. Known as the largest private residence in Detroit, the mansion was sold in 2017 to a California investor who paid for the property in cash.

Former Detroit Pistons basketball player John Salley speaks to contestants during the 48th annual Hash Bash at Diag's Diag in Ann Arbor on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

Other prominent people who lived in the subdivision were:

  • Charles W. Burton – developer of Palmer Woods (1700 Lincolnshire, then 19440 Afton)
  • John Ballantyne – financial advisor to the Dodge brothers, President of the Detroit Bankers Co. (1570 Balmoral)
  • Edward Jeffries – Mayor of Detroit 1940-47 (19241 Afton)
  • William S. Knudsen-Ford, President of GM 1937-40 and appointed by the FDR to head the War Mobilization Board during World War II. (1501 Balmoral)
  • Marvin E. Coyle – Knudson’s successor as President of Chevrolet (19391 Suffolk)
  • KT Keller-Pres. Chrysler 1935-49 (19366 Cumberland)
  • Meyer L. Prentis – Treasurer of GM, Founding of the WSU School of Business (1905 Balmoral)

The Fisher mansion in Palmer Woods sold for $ 1.55 million on July 31, 2015

House and garden tour

Those who want a glimpse into the beauty and glamor of Palmer Woods have the option to do so during the Palmer Woods Home and Garden Tour, July 13-14.

On the first day of the event, an evening soiree will be held in one of the neighborhood’s Tudors, a 600-square-foot home with a greenhouse, fountain, and a variety of flowers, trees, and plants designed by Deborah Silver of Detroit Garden Works’ Palmer Woods Association in a press release. A shuttle provides transportation for a preview tour throughout the evening, and guests have free entry to the Sunday tour. The party takes place from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The garden in Lucerne 19410 was designed by Deborah Silver of Detroit Garden Works.  The house and garden, recently updated for today's life with pool, terrace and greenhouse, will be shown at the soiree and preview on July 13th.

The following day consists of guided tours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during which 10 private houses and gardens are exhibited. Architectural designs include two Mid-Century Moderns designed by nationally renowned architects, a Grand Dutch Colonial (one of the first homes in the neighborhood), a sprawling New England Colonial, a French Chateaux-style house, and an English Grand Manor, two English Tudor revivals and more. All houses were built from the early 1920s to the mid 1950s.

The tour begins in the Welcome Center for house and garden tours. The location will be announced shortly. The participants check in there and receive a map and information about the tour. The tour is self-guided and guests have the option of taking a free shuttle bus to each house. The tutors of the houses and gardens will share more details about the history, design, architecture, and landscaping of their space.

In some residences, both the garden and the house are open to the public. In other cases, only the garden or the interior of the house is shown.

This living room on Lowell Drive is on display during the 2019 Palmer Woods Home and Garden Tour.

Tickets for the soirée are $ 125 and include access to both days of the event. Tour tickets are priced at $ 35 upfront and $ 40 on the day of the event if tickets are available. The cost for children is $ 15 for children ages 13-18 and is free for children under 12. Tickets can be purchased online at palmerwoods.org/home-and-garden-tour or in person on the day of the tour in the check-in tent of the Home and Garden Tour Welcome Center.

“It is wonderful that we have neighbors willing to show their homes and be dedicated to the historic preservation, beautification and appreciation of architecture and rich history,” said Barefield. “This neighborhood is 104 years old and has been one of Detroit’s jewels ever since.”

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Dusty Kennedy