The Earhart Mansion

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, June 1997,
June 1997

Author: Grace Shackman

"Not too many in Ann Arbor lived such a life," says Molly Hunter Dobson of her great-aunt and great-uncle, Carrie and Harry Boyd Earhart. The Earharts' 400-acre estate along the Huron River included a small golf course for "H. B." to practice his swing, forty acres of woods where he went horse­back riding, and formal gardens and a greenhouse where Carrie indulged her love of flowers. Today, most of the estate has disappeared, swallowed up by Concordia College and the Waldenwood subdivision. But the stone-walled mansion the Earharts built in 1936 still stands on Geddes Road near US-23. Newly renovated to serve as Concordia's administrative center, the man­sion and adjoining gardens will reopen with public dedications on June 16 and 22.

Born in 1870, H. B. Earhart made his fortune in the gasoline business. He was the Detroit agent for the White Star Refin­ing Company, a faltering oil company based in Buffalo, New York. Earhart bought the company in 1911 and moved its headquarters to Michigan--just as the automobile industry was taking off. Under his direction, White Star grew into a major enterprise, with a chain of gas stations and its own refinery in Oklahoma. Earhart eventually sold out to Socony Vacuum, later Mobil.

Four years into his retirement, at age sixty-six, Earhart decided to replace the farmhouse where his family had lived since 1920. Earhart's correspondence with his landscape consultants, the famous Olmsted firm of New York, reveals that Carrie Earhart had doubts about the proj­ect. Though she eventually went along with her husband's desire for a big house, she insisted that it be functional rather than gaudy or ostentatious. Their extended fam­ily would use every inch of it, from the basement pool room to the attic theater.

The mansion was designed by Detroit architects Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, with input from the Olmsted firm. Its clas­sic, simple proportions were enhanced with elegant details that included a slate roof, copper eaves and detailing, and a Pewabic ceramic fountain. Outwardly traditional, the house incorporated the latest in modern technology. Beneath the limestone exterior (hand-chiseled to simulate age), its struc­ture was steel and concrete. It boasted what is believed to be the first residential air-conditioning unit outside of New York City, showers with ten heads, and vented closets with lights that went on when the door opened. There were bells every­where--Carrie Earhart never had to go more than ten feet to summon a servant.

The Earharts and their four children moved to Ann Ar­bor in 1916. "I always un­derstood that we did so be­cause Mother liked small town living, and Ann Arbor at that time had a population of only about 28,000, not counting the university," daughter Eliza­beth Earhart Kennedy explained in her 1990 memoir, Once Upon a Family.

The Earharts initially rented a house on Washtenaw Avenue. But within a year, they bought a historic dairy farm on Ged­des Road known as "the Meadows." Be­fore they could move in, World War I in­tervened. Feeling he should be closer to his business, H. B. moved his family back to Detroit for the duration. They used the farmhouse for vacations and getaway weekends until 1920, when they moved to Ann Arbor permanently.

By then, the three older children, Mar­garet, Louise, and Richard, had left for college. Elizabeth attended Ann Arbor High, but because the family lived so far in the country, she had to be driven each day by her mother's chauffeur. Embar­rassed, she had him drop her off two blocks from school so she could arrive on foot like everyone else.

H. B. Earhart kept the farm active, but he did promptly tear down the old barns, which according to Kennedy's memoir, "were too near for mother's fastidious nose." He had them rebuilt on the other side of Geddes at the corner of what would soon be renamed Earhart Road.

While vacationing in North Carolina the first year they lived at the Meadows, Elizabeth fell in love with horseback rid­ing. When they returned home, her father bought a pair of horses. Like his daughter, H. B. Earhart enjoyed riding, and although Carrie Earhart did not share their enthusi­asm, she contributed to their pleasure by having daffodils planted in the woods, which spread and naturalized. "She was to daffodils as Johnny Appleseed was to ap­ples," says her grandson, David Kennedy. Even today, residents of the Earhart subdi­vision tell of buying a house in the winter and being pleasantly surprised when the daffodils bloom in the spring.

H. B. and Carrie Earhart were both inter­ested in gardening. They established a for­mal garden behind the house and built a greenhouse behind the garage. To superin­tend it all, they lured to Ann Arbor a prizewinning horticulturist, James Reach. Born in Scotland, Reach was working on an estate near Philadelphia when the Earharts met him at a flower show in New York.

The late Alexander Grant began work­ing as a gardener for the Earharts in 1929. In an interview before his death in Janu­ary, Grant admitted that when he first came looking for work, he didn't know "a daffodil from an ice cream cone." But when Reach discovered that Grant had grown up near Edinburgh, his own birth­place, he hired him anyway.

Carrie Earhart was herself a serious gardener. She won prizes at national gar­den shows, served as president of the Michigan Federated Garden Club, and was cofounder of the Ann Arbor Garden Club. For two years in a row, she and Reach re­created part of the Meadows' garden on the stage of the Masonic Temple for the Ann Arbor Flower Show.

While the new house was being built, near the site of the old farmhouse, H. B. and Carrie went on a round-the-world cruise. Returning, they settled into their new home. H. B. filled the library with history books. On the walls of the library the Earharts displayed their art collection, which included origi­nals by Velazquez, Picasso, Millet, and Goya. Carrie enjoyed music, so the living room was dominated by a grand piano. She often hired members of the Detroit Symphony to perform for guests.

The house was decorated with treasures the Earharts had picked up on their travels. "They traveled more, and to more exotic places, than was then common," remem­bers great-niece Molly Dobson. Two huge oil portraits of the Earharts were displayed on the stairwell leading to the second floor. (The portraits hung in Ann Arbor's YMCA for many years, commemorating the Earharts' funding of the Y's residential wing, and are now in the conference room of the Earhart Foundation.) Upstairs, H. B. and Carrie each had a bedroom complete with dressing room and bathroom.

Two of the Earhart children, Richard and Elizabeth, lived on property adjoining their parents' estate. Richard farmed a piece of land just to the north known as "Greenhills." (The school of that name is now on part of his property, as well as Earhart Village Condominiums.) Eliza­beth, married to lawyer James Kennedy, lived west of her parents in part of an or­chard originally owned by Detroit Edison. The southern part of the orchard, running down to the river, was owned by H. B. Earhart's nephew, Laurin Hunter.

Hunter, who worked for Earhart, had originally planned to build a house on his property and had even hired an architect. But one day in 1935, Earhart rode up on his horse while Hunter was working and offered to give him the old farmhouse if he would move it. Although Hunter's property was close enough to be seen from the Earharts', it took three months to move the house--the hard­est parts were turning it at a ninety-degree angle and get­ting it over a ravine.

The Earharts enjoyed having family around and encouraged the younger generation to visit. A room in the basement was fixed up as a playroom, and the pool room--reached by a secret door in the library that looked like part of the bookcase--was a big draw. Grandson David Kennedy re­members having a lot of fun upstairs, too, in the attic theater, which included a stage at one end and a movie projection booth at the other. "We would play in the theater, just goof around," he recalls, "or watch family movies of kids hamming it--not Hollywood movies because there was no sound system."

Outdoors, they could swim, play tennis, or even golf. The area around the house was carefully landscaped. Grant recalled that the gardens included a peony-lined walk, a rose garden, a grape arbor, a gaze­bo, and a lily pond. Grape ivy grew along the back porch and espaliered apple trees were cultivated along the wall to the east of the porch.

Carrie Earhart died in 1940 at age sixty-eight after a short illness. A private fu­neral was held in the home. Dobsdn remembers that the living room was filled with a great profusion of Easter lilies from her greenhouse and that Burnette Staebler, soloist at the First Presbyterian Church and a friend of the younger generation of Earharts, sang "I Know That My Re­deemer Liveth." A front-page obituary talked of Carrie Earhart's many contribu­tions to the community.

H. B. Earhart stayed on in the house af­ter his wife died, keeping busy with his many interests and charities. With more time on his hands, he would frequent the greenhouse lounge, reading or talking to Grant, who had become the greenhouse manager after Carrie Earhart's death. Grant described Earhart at this time as a "tall, stately man, very upright, very delib­erate in what he said, and what he said he meant. He wasn't a man who spent time gossiping, he was very serious."
When Earhart had visitors, he often brought them to the greenhouse. Over the years Grant recalled being introduced to many prominent citizens, including Henry Ford, society people, and a physicist from Stanford who was working on the atomic bomb. One day when Grant was edging the driveway, he heard sirens approaching.

Earhart was involved in many charity works as well. Although he was a member of the First Methodist Church, he took an interest in the nearby Dixboro Methodist Church, where he was friends with the minister, Loren Campbell. Campbell re­membered that when the church needed an addition, Earhart offered to match the con­tributions made by the congregation.

Although much of his charity was not publicly known, Earhart was very re­spected in the community. Campbell re­called in an interview before he died that when Earhart and his sister (Josephine Hunter, who lived with her son Laurin) came to church in Dixboro, there would be a buzz in the community as if a celebrity were visiting.

H. B. Earhart died in 1954 at age eighty-three after suffering a heart attack. He was buried beside his wife in Botsford Cemetery on Earhart Road. His obituary, like hers, was front-page news. Among other accomplishments, the obituary mentioned his support for industrial education and his role as a prime mover in the cre­ation of the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, which is responsible for the string of parks still enjoyed today. The Earhart Foundation, which he started in 1929, is still in existence, mainly funding educational projects. After Earhart's death, his son Richard ran the foundation; it is now headed by David Kennedy.

In the early 1960s, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod bought the land for Concordia College from Richard Earhart and the house from the Earhart Founda­tion. The campus, designed by architect Vincent Kling in a 1960s modern style, was dedicated in 1963.

Over the decades, Concordia has grown from a two-year college to a four-year col­lege with an enrollment of 600 students. Now, thanks to a gift from Fred Schmid of Jackson, who donated the money as a memorial to his father, the college has the resources to restore the Manor, the name it uses for the Earharts' house. "We don't have to tear down a lot to bring it back to its former glory," says Chris Purdy of Archi­tects Four. Most of the design features, such as the Pewabic tiles in the bathrooms and the carved wood in the dining room, are still there. The room lay­out will remain the same except for the addition of an eleva­tor, necessary to make the house handi­capped accessible.

The downstairs rooms--the living room, dining room, and library--are be­ing adapted for public uses such as meetings, receptions, or wait­ing rooms. H. B. Earhart's bedroom will be the office of Concordia president James Koerschen, while Carrie Earhart's will be a conference room. The basement pool room will serve as another conference room. The third floor, left pretty much as it was as a theater, provides a perfect meeting place for the Concordia Board of Regents.

Restoration of the gardens is being planned by HKP Landscape Architects. At first it looked like a simple project of putting in plants that would have been used in the 1930s, but as more information surfaces from the Olmsted archive and from those who remember the gardens, a more authentic restoration is now possible.

Concordia plans to make the renovated Earhart Manor available to the community for events such as conferences, meetings, or weddings. "We're looking forward to giv­ing it back to the community in Ann Arbor to use and enjoy," says Brian Heinemann, Concordia's vice-president for finance and operations, who is in charge of the project. "It'll be the front door to the college as it was the front door for the Meadows." The work on the house is scheduled to be com­pleted in June. Public dedications are planned for the evenings of June 16 and 22, following church services.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: H. B. Earhart with grandson James Kennedy Jr. He was sixty-six and already retired from the gasoline busi­ness when he built his dream house. He looked up to see a police motorcade escorting then Michigan governor Kim Sigler, who was coming to visit Earhart.