Author: Grace Shackman
Once a beloved summer camp for Detroit Edison women, it's about to be replaced by a nursing home
"Like a summer camp, but with grown-up women," is how Mary Kay Bean, public relations officer for Detroit Edison, describes the original use of Vivienne Farm, which from 1911 to 1954 served as a rest and recreation spot for Edison's female employees. Located on East Huron River Drive just west of St. Joe's hospital, it was in more recent times Edison's Management Development Center. The property has been sold, and the building will soon be torn down to make way for a nursing home.
Detroit Edison obtained the land for Vivienne Farm in 1911, as part of their efforts to develop hydroelectric power along the Huron River. In assembling the land and the river rights needed for the Geddes Dam, the company bought the entire Barnes farm at Geddes and Dixboro, including the farmhouse. Because the farm was such a lovely place, Edison employees began to use the property for recreation.
Edison consolidated all its riverside land holdings into one company named Huron Farms and hired William Underdown, then of Cornell University, to manage and develop it. They kept some of the land as working farms in order to demonstrate the uses of electricity in agriculture.
There was an apple and cherry farm across Huron River Drive, where Washtenaw Community College is now, a peach farm near Delhi, and a model dairy farm on Whitmore Lake Road. On hilly land east of the Barton Dam, the company developed the Barton Hills subdivision. The first house built there was for Edison president Alex Dow and his wife, Vivienne.
According to the official history of Detroit Edison, Kilowatts at Work, by Raymond Miller, "Dow was too much a lover of nature to do unnecessary violence to natural beauty, and the contemporary national emphasis on conservation and the protection of natural resources attracted his approval and interest." U-M architecture dean Emil Lorch designed most of the local Edison buildings, including the Barton power station, downtown office buildings in both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and the Dows' Barton Hills home. Frederick Law Olmsted, best known for designing Central Park in New York, was hired to advise on landscaping for the properties.
It was Vivienne Dow who suggested that the Barnes farmhouse be made into a recreation spot for female employees. At that time, paternalistic employers like Edison sponsored recreational clubs for almost every interest: stamps, photography, bridge, athletics, music, drama. The company built a boat club, a tennis club, and a rifle range for their employees' use. Although some of these clubs were co-ed, most of their members were men. Vivienne Farm was established to give the women something of their own.
Soon women from the whole Edison service area, from Bad Axe to Jackson, were coming to Vivienne Farm for, as Miller put it, "an excursion into rural America at a completely nominal cost."
U-M architecture dean Emil Lorch designed "the lodge" for Detroit Edison after the original farmhouse burned down in 1912. It will soon be demolished to build a nursing home (below).
Longtime Edison employee Oneta King explains that "Vivienne Farm was needed, because they didn't let married women work at Edison until the Fifties." Some of the single women who worked for the company lived in boardinghouses, but the younger ones lived at home with their parents. They could go to Vivienne Farm for a weekend or a week without worrying their parents, who knew they were well cared for and well chaperoned by the resident housemother.
Mary Schlecht, whose mother worked at Edison, remembers hearing that Vivienne Farm was a delightful place and that women had wonderful times there. In a 1974 Sesquicentennial Journal article, Vema Parker, wife of Edison's then-president, James Parker, wrote, "The prospect of taking a train to Ypsilanti, being met by Miss Jenney McCarthy, who with her beautiful white hair and dotted Swiss dress, met them in a Model A Ford, became a highlight in the lives of many young girls." According to Bean's research, camp activities included boating, horseback riding, swimming, tennis, croquet, and day trips into Ann Arbor.
Shortly after Vivienne Farm opened, a fire destroyed the farmhouse and a nearby pavilion. None of the sixteen young women staying there was hurt, but their wardrobes were destroyed--and later replaced at company expense. Lorch was then hired to design the building that is there now.
The new building, sometimes called "the lodge," was completed in 1914. Barbara Wolfgang, whose grandmother and mother both worked there, describes it as an "awesome house." As a child, Wolfgang used to slide down the polished wooden banister of its large open stairway. Downstairs was a dining room that seated about twenty, the living room, or parlor (later used as the conference room), a library-den off the main foyer, and a screened back porch that looked out onto a natural area running down to the Huron River. Upstairs there were seven bedrooms, one a triple, the rest mostly doubles.
On the grounds were a tennis court, swimming pool, and putting green, as well as a greenhouse, all now removed or abandoned. There was room to play croquet or just walk around. Earlier pictures also show extensive gardens. It is very likely that Olmsted at least advised on the grounds, since he was then at work on other Edison properties in the area.
By the 1950's, chaperoned farm vacations had lost much of their appeal. At that point, Edison remodeled the lodge into a conference center for employee training. Retired Edison employee Gage Cooper remembers, "It was isolated from business operations, so you could concentrate on what you were doing." At the elegant conference center, attendees slept in the upstairs bedrooms, ate three good meals in the dining room, and in their free time walked on the well-kept grounds or played cards or pool in the basement.
But as car travel became more common, people began to commute to training sessions. In 1978 the housekeeper position at Vivienne Farm was abolished, and meals were catered from then on. Use continued to decline, and in the last six or seven years it has hardly been used at all. Explains Bean, "It's not large enough for what we do today. Most [people] today are learning technology, and there is not that ability there."
Edison considered expanding the house but in the end decided to sell the property. The buyer is the Health Care and Retirement Corporation, headquartered in Toledo, which plans to demolish the existing buildings to construct a single-story, 180-bed nursing and rehabilitation center. Although it's a sad loss of a historic building and landscape, the new use is certainly a natural complement to nearby hospitals. It is scheduled to be completed by the spring of 1997.