Ninety years ago, construction on Meadow Brook Hall was just complete.
On November 20, 1929, the candles were lit, the champagne was chilled and the stage was set for the first and most spectacular party at Meadow Brook Hall.
After three years of construction done in almost total secrecy, the Wilsons were ready to welcome friends, family, community members, business leaders to their housewarming party.
They sent out 400 invitations to the party and informed the Society pages of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press that entry to the open house would be by invitation only.
The Party of the Season
On November 20, 1929, Matilda Dodge Wilson wrote in her guest book “To-day our House-warming party… A terrible, slippery, stormy day.”
But neither the weather nor the threat of non-entrance prevented a line of Dodges, Fords and Packards from lining up on the country lanes leading to Meadow Brook, their tires squealing against the icy dirt roads as their windshield wipers strained against the falling snow.
Despite only inviting 400 guests, Matilda followed the weather report in the guest book with “about 850 here.”
The large number testifies to the fact that, even in a region awash with mansions built by the automotive aristocracy, Meadow Brook stood out as one of the grandest and finest. The guest count is remarkable for another reason: The party took place just one month after many friends and acquaintances lost their wealth in the Wall Street Stock Market Crash of October 20, 1929.
It wasn’t long before the guests and party crashers had eaten all the food and moved on to the enormous decorative fruit centerpieces in the dining room. Henry S. Booth (whose parents founded Cranbrook) remembered that even the fruit displays matched the grandeur of the house: “Those grapes were bigger than quarters and must have cost five or ten times that but I figured the centerpiece wouldn’t be worth anything the next day so I started nibbling.”
As the party roared on, Rochester butcher Hardy Korff saved the evening by heading to his store to gather all the food he could, allowing for a late-night feast of scrambled eggs, sausages and sandwiches. His wife, Ruth Korff, later recalled, “We had to clean out the whole store – bread and everything – to feed those people.”
A Beautiful Beginning
The attention Meadow Brook’s Housewarming party received was a fitting testament to the hard work of the hundreds of craftsmen who had built and decorated the new home, and a symbol of the millions who would visit it for parties, tours and events over the next 90 years.
The calmness with which Matilda and Alfred Wilson navigated the event, with its party crashers, empty food platters and icy roads, foretold their handling of the tragedies, triumphs and changes they would see during their lives on the estate – before launching Meadow Brook Hall on its next big adventure: serving as the centerpiece of the future Oakland University.