The Midwest Downton Abbey Is Full of Secrets


There was a period in the not so distant past when Detroit was a particularly alluring destination for those who saw themselves as edgier members of the Instagram set. Call their chosen genre ruin porn: beautiful photos of formerly grand spaces gone to seed. Detroit’s dizzying rise and fall was their fodder.

Often overlooked in the thirst for architectural carnage was how much of the Motor City’s glory still exists. Cruise the areas where personal fortunes reshaped the landscape, places like Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe, and it’s mostly still there. Or, mosey on over to Rochester Hills and onto the hilly campus of Oakland University. There you’ll find the largest house the auto industry built, which a few people on my recent visit referred to as the Midwest’s Downton Abbey. A 110-room rambling Tudor Revival palace that remains the eighth largest home ever built in America and a trove of secrets: hidden stairways, a destroyed multi-million dollar lookalike palace, a covered-up marriage, and allegations of an abandoned Siamese twin.

Meadow Brook Hall’s deception starts from the very beginning. Standing in front of the mansion, it’s hard to imagine it’s 88,000 square feet. It’s only as you twist and see the house continue endlessly, wing unsheathed from wing, enveloping the front circle, that you realize how big it is. The house was designed in the early 1920s by William Kapp of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, the firm behind a number of Detroit’s towers and factories and the oldest continuously operating architectural firm in the U.S. that isn’t a subsidiary. Its most recent project was the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

Completed in 1929, Meadow Brook Hall was built by Matilda Dodge Wilson, the former Dodge secretary who married the co-founder and, after his early death, suddenly became one of the richest women in the world. In 1925 she remarried, this time to Alfred Wilson, who ran a successful lumber company.

The house from the outside is a classic early 20th century Tudor Revival, a style whose overwhelming popularity in the Midwest is the subject of an essay I hope to read someday. Meadow Brook is altogether lovely, if it does take the pastiche a little far in parts (one section’s plaster and timbering looks a little Disney-ish in its attempt to look aged) but the brick work is fetching and the scale is pleasing. Inside, wandering its rooms, the word that comes to mind for any seasoned house museum traveler might again be “lovely.”

Courtesy Meadow Brook Hall

While it is without a show-stopper room (à la the pools or library at Hearst, the gold salon at Marble House, or the loggia at Vizcaya) it’s all a fascinating window into the best that money could buy at the time–and what that new money wanted to buy. Looking at the floor plans, you realize that part of what makes the house seem smaller was how much of it (roughly a third) was devoted to service functions.

Matilda continued her Tudor fantasy through much of the house with long paneled galleries, a baronial great hall where a 24-year-old Frank Sinatra performed for one of the children’s birthdays, and cozy country house library, but she also added a Christopher Wren-inspired dining room, a Chinoiserie-style breakfast room, a wrapping room, sun room, and a pink Rococo-style bedroom where one day Miley Cyrus would gyrate on the bed for a music video.

Cyrus also performed part of the video in the bathroom, and if there’s one hidden treasure in this house it’s not the collection of Tiffany decorative objects, Stickley furniture, or little details like car- or lumber-themed door handles—it’s the bathrooms. Covered in Rookwood tiles, they range from the merely curious in terms of the choice of colors (taupe with blue and gold border) to eye popping (Daniel’s red Art Deco). Cyrus herself chose Matilda’s unforgettable Rookwood-tiled bathroom for part of her video, singing into her mirror and dancing inside her tub. But above that tub is a mural that struck me as an odd choice, and one that hints that there is more to this house than its lovely facade.

From the respectful awe that emanates from its visitors to the general descriptions of the Dodge Wilson family or how Matilda and her husband were inspired by their trips to various Tudor country estates on their honeymoon—there’s something Midwestern Nice about the whole experience. But there’s nothing nice about the Rookwood mural: It depicts the Greek mythological scene of Leda and the Swan in which, disguised as a swan, Zeus (depending on the telling) either rapes or tricks Leda into sex. It’s jarring to say the least, but so is Matilda’s story and the origins of this mansion.

At the mouth of the Detroit River, 45 minutes from Meadow Brook, one finds the ritzy area of Grosse Pointe where many of the other mansions built by the automotive aristocracy were erected. But 100 years ago there was one mansion that dwarfed all the rest, John Dodge’s Harbor Hill. It was a massive 110-room, 24-bathroom Tudor Revival stone house for which no fewer than 100 Scottish stonecutters were brought over. Dodge also filled in part of the lakeshore to extend his property and build a dock for his 104-foot boat. But on a trip to New York in 1920, John contracted the flu and died, aged just 55. His co-founder and brother, Horace, contracted the flu less than a year later and passed at 52. Their company, their houses, and their boats passed into the hands of their widows, both of whom were more palatable to society than their late husbands. John Dodge, for instance, was a heavy drinker who apparently once threatened a barman with a gun.

Courtesy of the Higbie Maxon Agney archives

Matilda, John’s second wife (or so she thought), was confronted with a number of crises when he died. His will had left nothing to the children from his first marriage and his disgruntled son contested being cut out. Matilda, who later in life served as lieutenant governor of Michigan, was also now a major shareholder of a rapidly growing company. And, there was this massive house on the water into which a couple million dollars had already been sunk.

Although they were different materials—stone versus brick—it’s eerie to look at photos of Harbor Hill and see Meadow Brook Hall today given their similarity in shape and style. Not to mention that the firm that designed them and the number of rooms were the exact same! So while the narrative of Meadow Brook is that Matilda was inspired by her honeymoon with her new husband Alfred, it’s hard to square that with the tale of Harbor Hill. Despite the money already spent, Matilda went on to spend $4 million on Meadow Brook Hall and left Harbor Hill abandoned until demolishing it in 1940 for development into a subdivision. The point John Dodge built for his yacht still juts out into Lake St. Claire at the juncture of Lake Shore and Harbor Hill Roads.

Courtesy of the Higbie Maxon Agney archives

But a forgotten predecessor isn’t all that haunts the halls of Meadow Brook Hall.

Matilda’s daughter died at 4 from measles and her son drowned accidentally at 21. She apparently was estranged from her sister for 30 years. While her fortune was astonishing, there were periods where the mansion was either closed or partially shut off to economize. In 1952, a mere 23 years after Meadow Brook Hall was completed, Matilda and Alfred commissioned a smaller, more modern residence nearby, the circular Prairie-style house Sunset Terrace. When Matilda died in 1967, leaving the mansion and grounds to the university, one of the family’s great secrets also remained buried: John Dodge had been secretly married when his relationship with Matilda started.

On Jan. 3, 1980, Winifred Dodge Grey Seyburn, the last of John Dodge’s children, died. The auto pioneer had stipulated his papers remain private and his trust intact until his final progeny passed, but now that was lifted. What was discovered shocked all outside the family—from 1903 until 1907, just six weeks before he married Matilda, John Dodge had been married.

Dodge’s first wife, Ivey, died in 1903 from tuberculosis. Dodge moved Isabelle, a friend of his sister-in-law, into his house to be his housekeeper. Shortly after, he secretly wed her with only his brother Horace and his wife Anna as witnesses. Weirdly, Dodge would only refer to her as his housekeeper for the entirety of the marriage. Meanwhile he began escorting his stenographer, one Matilda Rausch, to the opera and other social events.

But if Dodge’s secret marriage was strange, batshit insane is what happened next.

In the fall of 1984, just when it seemed like all the claims and disputes over the trust had been resolved, a woman named Frances Mealbach filed a motion to put a halt to the division of the estate. She was, she claimed, a daughter of John Dodge who had covertly been put up for adoption and traces of this had been concealed. Even more shocking, Mealbach’s team theorized that she was the conjoined twin of Frances Dodge, the famed horsewoman who died in 1971 and was born around the same time as Frances Mealbach. Mealbach pointed to scars on her back and neck whose origins she had no recollections of and theorized that Matilda had given her up because the family thought she’d turn out deformed.

Courtesy Meadow Brook Hall

Mealbach’s team claimed Frances Dodge’s birth certificate showed her having a twin. And, she claimed to remember details of another Dodge mansion, the one on Boston Avenue that is now ​​home of the archbishop of the Detroit Roman Catholic diocese. Mealbach’s case garnered national attention, and even appeared on a sympathetic Phil Donahue’s show. She spent the 1980s fighting in court to obtain her birth and adoption records as well as recognition from the Dodge family. In 1990 she finally obtained access to the records, and while her lawyers said they showed she was not a conjoined twin, they did claim they demonstrated “definitely, though not conclusively” that she was a Dodge. (The AP headline read, however, “Adoption Papers Can’t Link Woman, 75, to Dodge Auto Magnate.”) Officially, though, she was not a Dodge.

It’s the sort of juicy, sordid tale that most families, maybe especially most upstanding Midwest families, would understandably want to bury. But as we find ourselves today reliving the Dodge era of excess by the few, these tales remind us that even here, in these over-the-top mansions, the tragedy of being human isn’t something you can build your way out of.



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