Meadow Brook Hall History
A National Historic Landmark, Meadow Brook Hall is the historic home of one the automotive aristocracy’s most remarkable women, Matilda Dodge Wilson, her second husband Alfred Wilson, a lumber broker and their four children, Frances and Danny Dodge, and Richard and Barbara Wilson. It exists as an indirect product of the achievements and good fortune of her first husband, automotive pioneer John F. Dodge, co-founder of Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company who quickly prospered in the burgeoning auto industry before his tragic death in 1920, leaving Matilda one of the world’s wealthiest women. This fortune not only built one of America’s finest residences and country estates, it also supported numerous Detroit charities and organizations, and made possible the founding of Oakland University.
THE GREAT ESTATE
One of America’s greatest estate homes, an icon of the automotive aristocracy, and the home of the founders of Oakland University.
Meadow Brook Hall was built during the country place era, a time when wealthy American industrialists pursued rural life in settings of great beauty. It represents one of the finest examples of Tudor-revival architecture in America and is especially renowned for its superb craftsmanship, architectural detailing and grand scale of 88,000 square feet. Inspired by the country manor homes in England, it was designed and built by the Detroit architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls between 1926 and1929, at a cost of nearly $4 million.
Carefully preserved with original family furnishings and art, the 110-room mansion is elaborately detailed with carved wood and stone, ornate plaster ceilings, Tiffany stained glass, custom made hardware, and filled with fine and decorative art. Although the interiors reflect various historic styles, the house is equipped with every “modern” amenity appropriate to the active lifestyle of the Wilson’s and their children.
Meadow Brook Hall history begins with the 320-acre farm estate John and Matilda Dodge had purchased years earlier as weekend country retreat. The Wilsons’ expanded the estate to include 1,500 acres and several residences. For the Dodge and Wilson families, the farm estate provided a splendid setting for recreational activities and pastimes such as equestrian sports, motoring, and gardening and developed into one of the finest agricultural complexes, producing the finest lines of pedigree livestock.
BUILDING THE HALL
Alfred and Matilda toured the great homes of England on their honeymoon and began planning Meadow Brook Hall, a 110-room, 88,000-square-foot, Tudor-revival style home. They commissioned the Detroit architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls to design and build the hall at Meadow Brook Farm, the family’s country retreat that Dodge had purchased. Groundbreaking ceremonies for the hall were held on Matilda’s 43rd birthday on Oct. 19, 1926.
By all accounts, Matilda was the motivating force behind the design, construction and decoration of Meadow Brook Hall. She personally was involved in every detail from the design of switch plate covers and the selection of woods to the purchase of fine and decorative arts and furnishings. Her decorator, Wallace Newton, once said, “She would listen to my advice on design, but not color. She preferred stout colors. She did not like veneered furniture. She wanted solid woods and marble and set out to build a suitable monument for her children, heirs to the Dodge fortune.”
In 1927, the Wilsons went on a second architectural tour of England accompanied by their architect. Many of the architectural details of the hall are based on specific examples of historic rooms they viewed on their trips to England. Although much of the home is inspired by English manor houses of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Matilda was proud of the fact that the hall was made, to a large extent, of American materials and crafted by Americans. Unlike many wealthy American families of the day, the Wilsons did not import entire rooms of paneling and furniture overseas.
Meadow Brook Hall was completed in 1929 at a cost of nearly $4 million. The housewarming party, attended by 850 people, was held Nov. 19, 1929, just three weeks after the stock market crash that started the Great Depression.
ARCHITECTURE AND INTERIOR
Meadow Brook Hall is especially renowned for its fine craftsmanship, exquisite architectural detailing and grand scale. The architecture is the embodiment of enduring quality in both its design and use of fine construction materials.
The exterior combines various textures and patterns using American materials of brick, sandstone, wood timbers and a roof of clay shingle tile. The house also features 39 uniquely designed brick chimneys that distinguish the picturesque roofline.
Interiors of the house are elaborately detailed with carved wood and stone, handmade hardware and ceramic art tile, ornately molded and carved plaster ceilings, stained glass window insets, crystal and art glass lighting fixtures, and gold-plated bathroom fittings. And while the interiors reflect various historic styles, the house is equipped with every modern amenity available in the late 1920s. It was fully electric with a central heating system, two elevators, four kitchens and a full size home theatre.
The exterior and most of the interior rooms at Meadow Brook Hall were designed in the Tudor-revival style. However, a few rooms were decorated in other period-revival styles: the dining room and Matilda’s study are 18th-century Neo-classical, Matilda’s room and the French bedroom are 18th-century French Rococo, and Frances’ bedroom is American Colonial.
MEADOW BROOK HALL COLLECTION
Matilda spent most of her lifetime filling Meadow Brook Hall with beautiful furniture, paintings and decorative art from across several centuries and around the world. This magnificent home carefully preserved with original furnishings and art, beautifully exemplifies the lavish lifestyles and era of the American industrialists of the early 20th century.
The Hall’s collections include original paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, furniture, ceramics, carpets, glass, silver, costumes and other textiles, and family archival materials. Highlights of the collection include Tiffany art glass, costumes by Paul Poiret, Stickley furniture, paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sèvres and Meissen porcelain, and Rookwood pottery.
THE DODGE/WILSON FAMILY HOME
Excluding a period of time during the Depression, and then in Alfred’s later years, Matilda lived in The Hall from the time it was built in 1929 until her death in 1967. She did close The Hall for a few years during the Depression, partly for appearances and partly for financial reasons because maintaining a home of this size during that time was difficult.
Throughout the 38 years the Wilsons lived at Meadow Brook Hall, they hosted many family and social gatherings and took great pride in sharing this architectural masterpiece, its grounds, art and furnishings with guests.
Parties to remember include Frances Dodge’s wedding in 1938, her 25th birthday party in 1939 where the entertainment included the Tommy Dorsey band and singer Frank Sinatra, Barbara Wilson’s coming out party in 1950, and the largest gathering of Oakland University students, faculty and alumni in 1963 for Matilda’s 80th birthday.
MEADOW BROOK HALL TODAY
In 1957, the Wilsons donated their residence, its collections, the estate’s 1,500 acres and $2 million to found what would become Oakland University. Meadow Brook Hall was opened to the public in 1971, four years after Matilda’s death.
Matilda, a long-time preservationist and member of the Historic Memorials Society, understood the significance of the property as both a testament to an important family and as a grand piece of architecture filled with beautiful and historically significant fine and decorative art. She felt strongly that history, art and architecture should be shared with future generations. “Knowledge of the past helps people face the challenges of the future,” she once said. Matilda also understood that it is through the preservation of properties like Meadow Brook Hall that future generations will have the opportunity to be inspired and educated by their history.
Currently, The Hall welcomes more than 70,000 visitors each year to participate in tours, educational programs and a variety of special events. This historic house museum also provides a sense of tradition for Oakland University and is a research, scholarship and training resource for students and faculty.
A National Historic Landmark, Meadow Brook Hall strives to preserve and interpret its architecture, landscape, and fine and decorative art so that visitors may be entertained, educated and inspired by history.