Looking Back: Once known for cherries, the Grosse Pointes work to preserve their historic character

This story is part of an occasional series about historic preservation in metro Detroit’s historic communities.

In French, the name Grosse Pointe means ‘large point.’ The area on the southeast side of Michigan is split into five different cities, Grosse Pointe Park, City of Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Woods, Grosse Pointe Farms, and Grosse Pointe Shores. In its beginning, and much like in the neighboring areas, the land of the Grosse Pointes was swampy, but French settlers soon realized that under the mud was a thick layer of clay.

This clay soil was perfect for farming and was the reason for the tremendous size and abundance of fruit-bearing trees and other crops growing in the Grosse Pointes. One farmer reported that his land produced thirteen hundred and fourteen pounds of pumpkins from just two seeds. Remarkable stories like this were common in those first decades of cultivation. As a result, ribbon farms skirted the shoreline of the Grosse Pointes. Surprisingly, in the early 1800s, the Grosse Pointes were known, above all, for cherries.

When Detroit became more industrial, its wealthy residents used the ‘Pointes’ as a resort area. Soon the old ribbon farms were sold and plotted out. More houses began to spring up and many mansions along the big lake. The opulent homes of automobile barons are among the most coveted homes in Michigan. The extravagance of these homes and the area’s proximity to the water is the reason Grosse Pointe is often compared to Newport, Rhode Island. The Anna Dodge mansion, one of the best examples of French classical revival architecture from the gilded age, was torn down in the 1970s. Still, the Edsel Ford Estate, a Cotswold style “cottage” home designed by the famed Alfred Kahn, remains and is open for tours in Grosse Pointe Shores. 

Dr. Leslie Wagner is the vice president of administrations of the Grosse Pointe Historical Society and lives in the historical Isidore Cadieux Farmhouse, one of the last examples of French frame architecture of the ribbon farms. She was traveling overseas when she heard Beaumont was giving the farmhouse away for free. The hospital was planning to knock down twelve homes to expand its parking lot.

Isadore Cadieux Farmhouse Present Day, Dr. Leslie Wagner

But the city and the historical society begged the hospital to save the Cadieux Home. Wagner was chosen out of hundreds of applicants to receive it. Though the home was free, Wagner had to buy an empty lot for it in the Grosse Pointes, and she has spent the last few years restoring the house.  Wagner says all the Grosse Pointes make an effort to preserve history. The city offers a beautification award with historical society plaques. 

“The Grosse Pointes frown on new build, boxy structures and make an effort to make new builds pay homage to old historic structures. People are proud to get a plaque; it’s a point of pride,” Wagner explains. “No one pays for that. They’re awarded and honored, and there is an annual gathering where everyone who has a plaque gets to celebrate one another and the hard work it takes to preserve an old home.” 

Grosse Pointe Farms contributes financially to the society annually, with a $5,000 gift out of their budget. The Historical Society is planning to construct a new facility. Currently, the group uses the Provençal Weir House built in 1823 for its events. But according to Ann Eatherly, president of the Grosse Pointe Historical Society, the society is excited to have more room to house their artifacts and their archived documents and host meetings with fellow members, of which there are over one hundred. 

Before the pandemic, their annual gala saw an attendance of over five hundred people. The cost is around two-hundred and fifty dollars a couple, but those who can’t afford a ticket can volunteer at the event. The society relies on the annual gala for much of its income, so it was unfortunate when it was postponed last year. Each year a Grosse Pointe resident willingly “donates” their large home for the event. 

“That is a big draw to come to the gala,” says Eatherly, “because people get to see the inside of some of these homes.” Currently, Wagner is in the process of beginning a centennial homes project within the Historical Society that will celebrate the preservation of century-old structures specifically. 

Weir House, Provencal. May 2018

Houses like the Wardwell House, built in 1849, is an example of a home that Wagner’s new centennial homes project might celebrate. It was the area’s first brick home and said to be “ahead of its time” as the houses built around the 1840s were still clapboard homes. Its walls are fourteen inches thick, and its original brick was made by a local mason. 

“Grosse Pointe is beautifully diverse in that we have small homes, and we have mansions, and the people with the small wood-framed houses like I have are just as proud of their homes as the people with mansions,” Wagner notes.

One of the unique qualities of the Grosse Pointe Historical Society, is that many of its members do not necessarily live in any of the Grosse Pointes. Mike Skinner, the former president of the Historical Society and a resident of St. Clair Shores, got involved in the group because of the incredible architecture and the fact that many of the homes in the Grosse Pointes were built by the most influential people in history. 

“My interest in Grosse Pointe history,” he says, “is in the well-known families in Detroit and the many automotive pioneers, and the architecture of their historic homes…Grosse Pointe history is just incredible,” he adds. 

Barney Nowicki, also a resident of St. Clair Shores and a board member of the Grosse Pointe Historical Society, spent half of his childhood in Grosse Pointe Shores at his grandparents’ house on Fontana Lane, four houses away from Lake St. Clair. Across the fence from their backyard was the original Alvan Macauley Estate, built by Alfred Kahn. “I have many idyllic memories of spending time there hearing the freighters blow their horns on summer nights off in the distance on the lake.” 

Ann Eatherly explains the Grosse Pointes have experienced many changes since she moved to the area in the 1960s, especially social changes in which the community welcomes more inclusivity than ever before. “There is a strong sense of community in the Grosse Pointes,” she says adding that she’s found the sense of fellowship is the area’s best quality, and it’s this quality which lends itself to the success of the Historical Society and other community groups.

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Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.