John Francis Dodge was born in Niles, Michigan in 1864. His brother, Horace, was born there in 1868. Their father ran a machine shop and foundry, presumably supplying the roundhouse and repair shops of the Michigan Central with parts and tools. In 1886, the family moved to Detroit and the Dodge brothers went to work as boiler makers. As adults, John and Horace worked together very closely.
In 1894, they accepted jobs with the Dominion Typograph Company in Windsor. Horace, who was the brother more skilled as a machinist, invented and got a patent for a dirt-free ball bearing. In the 1890s, something of a bicycle craze spread rapidly across the nation and many firms started assembling a wide variety of different types of bicycles. The Dodge brothers cooperated with other investors to establish a bicycle firm, perhaps utilizing the invention of Horace Dodge. The firm was a financial success and, in 1900, the Dodge brothers established their own machine shop in Detroit, an auspicious decision since the vehicle industry was about to boom. By 1902, the Dodges were assembling transmissions for the vehicles assembled by Ransom E. Olds, the first entrepreneur to assemble cars in quantity.
Henry Ford, similar to the other automobile manufacturers in Detroit in the early 1900s, found it very challenging to raise capital. This meant that he did not have funds to establish all the workshops and factories needed to produce parts for his cars. Rather, Ford bought almost all of the parts he needed and assembled cars from those components. By 1903, the Dodge Brothers were making most or almost all of the engines Ford needed for his cars. Lacking funds to pay the Dodges, Ford gave them shares of equity in his firm. From 1903 to 1913, the Dodges were the main or largest provider of parts for Ford. This period includes the development of the Model T and its rapid movement up the sales rank to become the nation’s most popular vehicle.
The Dodge Brothers were known to live rather extravagantly after they became rich. By the time John Dodge built this striking Arden Park home just off Woodward, he was vice-president of the Ford Company. He commissioned Smith, Hinchman and Grylls—who had designed Henry Ford’ Piquette Street plant—to produce an elegant home reflecting his prosperity. Dodge, of course, derived his wealth from the vehicle industry. The home he built here in 1906 included a four-car garage with living quarters for this staff of servants on the second level. I wonder if this was the first four-car garage erected next to a residence in a United States city? The home itself has elements of many different styles. Note the use of dormers and half-timbering at the upper levels. The red roof tile was unusual for this area since most expensive homes were erected with slate roofs. It is possible that the stone gate that stands at the intersection of East Boston and Woodward was erected by John Dodge at the time the home was built.
Henry Ford had a falling out with many of his colleagues and collaborators. I do not know the details of how the Dodge Brother split from Ford. However, by 1913, the Dodge Brothers developed plans to establish their own vehicle firm and terminate their relationship as a supplier to Ford. By this time, the Model T was selling well so Ford could—and did—buy out his suppliers or establish his own factories to produce parts. The Dodges, I believe, continued to supply Ford with some parts at least until they opened their own plant on Conant in 1917. Fortunately for them, they won a large contact to build trucks for the military during World War I. Their vehicle proved very reliable so their cars came to be highly esteemed as durable medium priced vehicles. Henry Ford, in 1919, bought out the Dodge Brothers’ holdings in his firm for what would be between $300 and $400 million in 2015 dollars.
A pneumonia epidemic spread across the United States in 1918 killing as many as 500 to 675 thousand Americans Both John and Horace Dodge fell ill to influenza and pneumonia in 1920 although I do not known if their fatal ailments were directly linked to the 1918 pandemic. John died at age 55 in January, 1920 and his brother, who suffered other ailments, died about eleven months later at age 52. In 1925, John’s widow, Matilda, and Horace’s widow, Anna, sold the Dodge Brothers vehicle firm to a New York investment banking firm for the equivalent of about $1.4 billion 2015 dollars. The Dodge widows ranked among the richest women in the nation. When Walter P. Chrysler assembled the Chrysler Corporation in the late 1920s, the Dodge firm was a key component along with other Detroit produces including Chalmers and Maxwell.
This John Dodge residence is contiguous to the campus of Most Blessed Sacrament Cathedral. That structure was built as a parish church to serve the Boston-Edison neighborhood in 1913 and then, in 1938, was selected as the cathedral for the Roman Catholic archdiocese. Detroit’s Fisher Brothers obtained great wealth from the sale of their body manufacturing firm to General Motors in the early 1920s. At this time, Detroit was home to the most rapidly growing Catholic diocese in the nation. The Fishers decided that the local bishop, Bishop Gallagher, should live in an extremely impressive home. Thus they paid for the construction of a very large and impressive home at 1880 Wellesley Drive in the Palmer Woods neighborhood. This is known as the Bishop Residence and was where the bishops, archbishops and cardinals heading the local diocese lived. It had the reputation of being the largest home in the city.
In 1989, the Catholic diocese decided to sell the Bishop’s Residence that had been provided by the Fisher Brothers. It was purchased by Detroit Piston basketball player John Sally. By that time, the diocese had been gifted the John F. Dodge home although I do not know when that transaction took place. I think, perhaps, in the 1960s. Thus the home you see picture here is now the home of the leader of the Roman Catholic diocese. The Bishop’s Residence in Palmer Woods is now the world headquarters for another religious organization: Great Faith Ministries.
I do not know how the Dodge fortune was linked to the development of Cranbrook. In the early 1900s, John and Matilda Dodge purchased a large horse farm in Rochester adjoining what is now Cranbrook. They named it Meadowbrook. In the late 1920s, the widow, Matilda Dodge, married a very prosperous Michigan lumber baron, Alfred G. Wilson. They decided to build a home on the Meadowbrook estate. This is now known as Meadowbrook Hall and is a National Historic Landmark. It is a National Historic Landmark and is one of the most impressive estate homes built in this country. This home includes 110 rooms filling 88,000 square feet and is located on the 320 acres the Dodges purchased in 1903. It was also designed by the Smith, Hinchman and Grylls firm that served as architects for the John F. Dodge home. Mitilda Dodge Wilson lived in Meadowbrook Hall from its completion in 1929 until her death in 1967.
In addition to the 320 acres reserved for their Meadowbrook home, the Dodge-Wilson family owned another 1,400 or so adjoining acres. In 1957, they donated these 1400 acres to Michigan State University for the campus of Oakland University. They also donated two million dollars for buildings on the new campus. From 1957 to 1970, Oakland University was a branch campus of Michigan State but then became an independent state funded school. There is a story that when Oakland University was established, the post office assigned an address in Pontiac Township. Matilda Dodge Wilson objected and wished that the university she funded have a Rochester, Michigan mailing address. She went to President Eisenhower’s postmaster general, point out her very substantial contributions to the Republican Party. Oakland University and has a Rochester mailing address to this day even though its major buildings are five miles away.
She was very interested in music and theatrical productions. I believe that it was her fortune and that of her husband that paid for construction of the Detroit Music Hall, also known as the Wilson Theater, in downtown Detroit. Matilda Dodge Wilson was also active in the Michigan Republican Party and was, I believe, the first woman to serve as the state’s lieutenant governor when she ascended to that office in the early 1940s.
Architects: Fred Smith, Theodore Hinchman and Maxwell Grylls
Date of Construction: 1906
Architectural style: Elizabethan with Gothic elements
Book about the Dodge Brothers: Charles K. Hyde, The Dodge Brothers: The Men, the Motor Cars and the Legacy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Use in 2015: Residence of the Archbishop or Cardinal of the Detroit Roman
City of Detroit Designated Historic Districts: The Arden Park East Boston neighborhood was designated an historic district on May 28, 1981.
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: This home is within the Arden Park East Boston Historic District, P4494.
National Register of Historic Places: This is one of 92 homes in the Arden Park-East Boston Historic District which was listed April 29, 1982
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description prepared: July, 2015
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