Oakland University and Meadow Brook Hall
Wealth from the industrial age in America made country estates and retreats possible in the early years of the 20th century. And in Detroit, the auto industry in particular made Meadow Brook Farms and Hall possible, as well as its sister properties such as Henry Ford’s Fairlane mansion in Dearborn and the Eleanor and Edsel Ford home in Grosse Pointe.
Of course, Meadow Brook’s location in the country, and its sprawling acreage, set it apart somewhat. But, something else would set it apart even more . . . and that something was the foresight and vision of its owners, Matilda and Alfred Wilson, to use their accumulated wealth and property to create a lasting legacy . . . a legacy of higher education that would affect the lives of literally thousands of people and to a growing extent the economic vitality of the region.
THE CORNERSTONE OF OAKLAND UNIVERSITY’S EDUCATIONAL LEGACY
Sometime in 1955, area civic leaders, among them Oakland County commissioners, began to suggest the idea that Oakland County, at the time the second most populace county in the state – and for which substantial growth was projected in the second half of the century – should have its own institution of higher education.
In fact, the chair of the commission, architect J. Robert Swanson, was known to have contacted the Wilsons and asked that they donate part of their 1,400-acre estate to the University of Michigan for such a purpose.
The Wilsons were somewhat interested. However, Mrs. Wilson, who was active in civic affairs and had been Lt. Governor for a brief period, had served for six years on the State Board of Agriculture, the governing body of Michigan State University, and she was a longtime friend and admirer of MSU’s President, John Hannah.
So, on November 3, 1956, Matilda and Alfred Wilson traveled to East Lansing where, just before the kickoff of a football game against Wisconsin, they met privately with President Hannah and MSU Vice President Durward “Woody” Varner and told them they had been approached by Mr. Swanson.
Mrs. Wilson asked President Hannah if he would be interested in establishing a branch campus of MSU on the Meadow Brook property. He quickly said “Yes!” Several weeks later, MSU Vice President Varner visited the Wilsons to further the discussion, and was in his words “awestruck” by the Meadow Brook estate.
On December 26, John Hannah and Woody Varner traveled together to Avon Township to call on the Wilsons at their Meadow Brook home to finalize the gift. In the car ride from East Lansing, the two men decided that, in addition to the land, they needed money for the initial college buildings and that they had better ask for that, too . . . They decided on a figure of $2 million.
As they sat in Mr. Wilson’s study in Meadow Brook Hall, President Hannah told the Wilsons something to the effect that “the State doesn’t have any money and it would be a pity to have this beautiful piece of land sit idle. But, if you could see your way clear to give us $2 million, we could build enough of a building to get this institution off the ground and running.”
Matilda answered almost casually, “Well, I think we can do that.”
MICHIGAN STATE – OAKLAND
The gift of the entire Meadow Brook Estate and $2 million in cash – a value estimated at $10 million – was announced publicly on January 3, 1957 at a civic luncheon at Bloomfield Hills Country Club. Meadow Brook Hall and an immediately surrounding 127 acres would stay with the Wilsons until their deaths – Alfred in 1962 and Matilda in 1967.
MSU’s Woody Varner would become the new branch campus’s first chancellor.
In addition to building buildings and infrastructure, Varner got to work hiring the best and brightest young Ph.D.s from all over the country to serve as charter faculty.
And Varner and MSU colleagues created the academic curriculum through a series of meetings called The Meadow Brook Seminars. During 1958, educational, business and industrial leaders from across the United States met over many weeks at Meadow Brook Hall to create the comprehensive yet innovative educational experience that still characterizes Oakland University today.
Michigan State University–Oakland, or MSU-O as it was called, opened in September 1959 with 570 students and 3 buildings as a new and pioneering effort in higher education just as the space age was in its infancy. In 1963, MSU-O became known as Oakland University.
Founder Matilda Dodge Wilson was actively engaged in life on the new campus, hosting annual formal dances at her home and giving diamond rings to each student in the charter graduating class. Matilda died in 1967 on a trip to Europe to buy horses for her vast stables.
OAKLAND UNIVERSITY TODAY
In 1970, the state granted Oakland autonomy from Michigan State and appointed its first board of trustees. The university has grown steadily since that time to 20,000 students today.
Oakland offers hundreds of undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs, including the Ph.D. . . . through the College of Arts and Sciences, the Honors College and six professional schools: Business Administration, Education and Human Services, Engineering and Computer Science, Health Sciences, Nursing and, since its launch in 2011, the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine.
To visit Oakland University’s site, click here.
MEADOW BROOK HALL TODAY
Oakland University took possession of Meadow Brook Hall from Matilda Wilson’s estate in 1971. Located on the university’s East Campus, near the corner of Walton Boulevard and Adams Road, Meadow Brook, with its expansive grounds and gardens, today operates as a self-supporting auxiliary enterprise of Oakland University. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012, Meadow Brook staff generate on average $9,500 a day in revenue to fund public museum and community educational activity and another $1,500 a day for ongoing preservation of the building and conservation of its invaluable collections.
The Hall offers a case study for other like institutions, raising this extraordinary amount through touring fees, special community events, educational camps, museum store sales, facility rental and philanthropic support. And, equally as importantly, the daily challenges are met head-on by a small, frugal, hardworking staff who embrace the commitment to quality that built America during the first half of the 20th Century.
The educational missions of the university and Meadow Brook are intertwined. The agreement to launch the university was signed at The Hall, the country’s best and brightest participated in the curriculum-defining Meadow Brook Seminars there in 1958, and countless students, faculty, alumni, scholars, conference attendees, corporate management teams and community groups have used The Hall and its support buildings to meet, learn, advance knowledge and enrich lives.
The generosity of friends and supporters has sustained The Hall over the past 45 years as it pursues its role as a treasured cultural community asset and its vision of exploring and promoting the workplace and societal values that the Dodge and Wilson families lived . . . to truly help our children and grandchildren understand how our region and country grew to prominence.