If you consider the nation’s ten cities with populations between 750,000 and two million, then sought out their most appealing neighborhoods, Palmer Woods would likely rank on your list of the top dozen. If you wish to live in a classically elegant home in a quiet, prestigious area of Detroit, this is a neighborhood to consider. It is also a marvelous example of urban planning. Thomas Witherell Palmer, a land developer and businessman in Detroit in the late Nineteenth Century, actively supported the Republican Party. Michigan’s legislature selected him to represent the state in the United States Senate and then President William McKinley appointed him this nation’s ambassador to Madrid. Perhaps, he is best known for serving as President of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In that capacity, he supported the promotional endeavors and architectural achievements of Daniel Burnham whose ideas fostered the highly effective City Beautiful movement.
Thomas Palmer’s huge Detroit estate included much land on either side of Woodward between Six Mile and Eight Mile. He donated 100 acres to the city for impressive Palmer Park, and gave Michigan another section of his estate for use as the Fairgrounds, located at Eight Mile and Woodward. In 1915, two years after Palmer’s death, Detroit developer, Charles W. Barton, purchased that section of Palmer’s property now designated the Palmer Woods Historic District. By the time of World War I, many Detroit entrepreneurs and investors had amassed fortunes through the vehicle industry. Although the Boston-Edison and Indian Village neighborhoods offered attractive choices, many of the newly rich had a taste for even more elegant and spacious homes. Burton’s Palmer Woods gave them the opportunity to purchase land and then recruit one of the nation’s talented architects.
Palmer Woods was the first subdivision to be platted in Michigan. Charles Burton recruited the distinguished and ingenious landscape architect, Ossian Cole Simonds, to design this development. Simonds helped to popularize the prairie style of landscape architecture, a style that emphasized capitalizing upon the natural beauty of areas. Frederick Law Olmstead, who helped design Belle Isle, was the nation’s leading landscape architect of the Nineteenth Century. He emphasized transforming what he found in nature to produce beautiful park,s but when completed, they did not resemble the original landscape. Indeed, much of Belle Isle was a marshy swamp when Olmstead began his design for it. Simonds helped swing American landscape architecture toward using what a designer found on the premises. The University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum may be the best example of Simonds ken. Simonds was a contemporary of, and may have been influenced by, Jens Jensen who was then the world’s leading architect. Perhaps the most attractively landscape home in American is the Edsel Ford estate in Grosse Pointe, work accomplished by Jensen.
In Palmer Woods you will observe gently curving streets without curbs. This, of course, slows the traffic, eliminates the demarcation between lawn and pavement and conveys the message that trucks and buses are unwelcome. There are about 289 homes in the 188-acre area, so there is no crowding. Every lot that Simonds laid out has a unique shape. A number of the owners employed professional landscape architects to make their properties beautiful.
Most of the homes in Palmer Woods were constructed between about 1917 and 1929, although there were some unused lots, so additional mansions were built after World War II. The newest home, I believe, was completed in 1956. Many are Georgian, Mediterranean or Tudor in style. Two of the seven Fisher brothers built their mansions here: Alfred at 1771 Balmoral, and William at 1791 Wellesley. The Fisher Brothers were known for their very large homes. William Fisher’s home on Wellesley encompasses 35,000 square feet. Charles Barton’s home stands at 19400 Afton.
Almost every home in Palmer Woods has architectural features that make it an urban treasure, and quite a few merit special attention because of their beauty and significance. The Fisher Brothers, in 1925, built the largest home in Detroit and gave it to Bishop Gallagher to serve as a residence of whoever governed diocese. The Boston church architects, Maginnis and Walsh, designed this Tudor Revival mansion at 1880 Wellesley, tactfully incorporating many religious symbols and much Pewabic Tile. This is a 40,000 square foot mansion, no longer owned by the Catholic diocese.
The Brooks Barron Home at 19631 Argyle Crescent is one of the most appealing homes designed by Minoru Yamasaki and his associates. The Asian influence is strong in this home that uniquely conveys a sense of serenity since it includes a reflecting pool and a rock garden.
C. Howard Crane was this nation’s most prolific theater architect in the pre-Depression years. The Fox Theater on Woodward shows us his imagination and ingenuity. He designed relatively few residences but his ability to do so are displayed at 1630 Wellesley Drive. John Kunsky earned his wealth by founding the chain of United Artists theaters and wished for a mansion that would incorporate many of the symbols of theater. He had already commissioned Crane to design the impressive State Theater on Woodward, so it is no surprise that he turned to Crane for this Tudor Home on Wellesley. Both the architect and owner spoke of this as a cottage, but some us do not use that term for an immense house.
The Arts and Crafts style of architecture is represented at 19551 Burlington in the home that Detroit architect, Leonard Willeke, designed in 1925 for Chester Souther. This is the one Palmer Woods mansion completely faced in stone, a feature that links this house to the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished in Detroit before the Depression.
The only home in Detroit designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is at the edge of the Palmer Woods Historic District. You can easily recognize this structure—the Turkel Home—by its flat roof. It is located at 2760 West Seven Mile Road, but is highly visible from Strathcona near its intersection with Seven Mile.