In the latter decades of the 19th Century, many Detroit entrepreneurs became wealthy as the city capitalized on its favorable transportation location and its nearness to resources to become an industrial Mecca. Quite a few of them built mansion along the city’s most prestigious street—Woodward—between Grand Circus Park and what is now the city’s Cultural Center. Until it was widened to eight lanes in 1936, Woodward was quite narrow so the homes were well set back from the street. By the start of the Depression, many of these beautiful mansions had been razed to make way for the next generation of churches, industrial buildings and stores. The prestige of a mansion on Woodward waned when the coming of auto industry generated the prosperity that led to the development of new neighborhoods for the rich, including Boston-Edison and the Grosse Points.
Only four of the Victorian era mansions along Woodward from Detroit’s pre-automobile prosperity survived into the 21st century: the David Whitney home at Woodward and West Canfield; the Hecker chateau at Woodward and East Ferry; the Beecher Home at Woodward and West Ferry and the Samuel L. Smith Home that you see.
This mansion was designed by Detroit architects Rogers and MacFarlane for William C.Williams, a businessman who helped to established the Detroit College of Medicine in the late 1850s or 1860s. This is the oldest of the predecessor educational institutions that eventually formed Wayne State University. In about 1890, this home was sold to the man whose name it bears today. Smith made a fortune in Michigan copper and lumber in the 19th century, and then added to his wealth with holdings in transpiration. Typical of Detroit entrepreneurs, he was one of the early backers of the automobile industry. He invested in R. E. Olds Company, a firm that produced a substantial number of cars in Detroit and than Lansing during the 20th century. Indeed, Olds preceded Ford as a producer of relatively large numbers of moderately priced autos—his well-known curved dash 1903 model.
Because the Smith House is hemmed in by the Macabbes Building and the new Wayne State University Welcome Center at the corner of Woodward and Warren, it is challenging to appreciate the architectural significance of the Samuel L. Smith home. It is easy to overlook this square brick Queen Anne home. The brick was subsequently painted gray. The round corner tower that you see was commonly built into Queen Anne homes. You will also notice the Queen Anne style gable along the Woodward Avenue front. The architects designed the front entry arch in the Romanesque style. Around 1920, a two-story rear addition was built, along with a brick gabled carriage house that is no longer readily visible. This pair of architects also designed the impressive King Company building in downtown Detroit on Library Street and the Bagley Home on East Jefferson.
This Woodward Avenue mansion was sold, in 1917, to the Detroit Music Conservatory and then, 33 years later, to Wayne State University, the current holders of the title.
Architects: James Rogers and Walter MacFarlane
Architectural Style: Most prominent is the Queen Anne style but there are Romanesque and Colonial Revival influences
Date of Completion: 1889
Use in 2004: The mansion is owned by Wayne State University but apparently is not being used.
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not Listed
State of Michigan Register of Historic Sites: P25248, Listed:
State of Michigan Historical Market: None erected
National Register of Historic Sties: #86001038; Listed April 29, 1986
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description Revised: November, 2007
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