Saline's mansion

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2000,
Spring 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

A May fund-raiser offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see how the Davenports and Curtisses lived

The Davenport-Curtiss mansion and its grounds take up a full block of land right on Michigan Avenue in downtown Saline. The house is so impressive that someone I know assumed it must be a public building—only when he was rebuffed at the door did he learn to his embarrassment that it is a private residence. Built in 1876, the mansion has served as a home for two presidents of the Citizens Bank of Saline, William Davenport and Carl Curtiss, and is still owned by the Curtiss family.

Davenport (1826-1909), the bank's founder, built the house, hiring prominent Detroit architect William Scott to design it. (Scott, trained in England, also designed the 1882 Ann Arbor fire station—now the Hands-On Museum.) The Curtiss family still has the blueprints, which are written on linen and include the instruction that "only finest materials available will be used."

Scott designed the house in the Second Empire style (named for the reign of the French emperor Napoleon III), with a tower and a mansard roof. It was one of the first homes in the city with indoor plumbing. Quality wood—walnut, maple, tulipwood, and butternut—was used throughout, and Davenport furnished the house with pieces purchased at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, an international trade fair held the year it was built. Outside he built a matching carriage house and stable, and he landscaped the grounds with rare trees.

Davenport had earned his fortune as the owner of Saline's largest general store, which segued into a bank. His father died young, and Davenport began working when he was twelve, starting as a clerk in Caleb Van Husen's store in Saline. He was just twenty-five when he opened his own store in partnership with H. J. Miller, whom he bought out two years later. The business thrived, selling everything from sewing supplies to food to wool, and in 1863 Davenport built a new three-story store on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Ann Arbor Street.

Since Saline's only safe was at the new store, people often asked Davenport to store their cash and other valuables. As the town thrived, especially after the arrival of the train in 1870, Davenport's financial transactions increased. In 1885 he formally organized the bank, which he initially operated out of a comer of his store. Davenport and his wife, Zilpha, were civic leaders. She helped organize the Saline library. He organized the volunteer fire brigade and donated much of its equipment, personally traveling to New York to purchase a hand-pumped fire engine that drew water from cisterns dug under the streets. Davenport "has been prominently identified with all Christian, moral and benevolent movements," a local historian wrote effusively in Charles Chapman's 1881 county history, "and is well noted for his kindness and generosity."

Davenport's son Beveriy (1852-1930) graduated from Detroit Commercial College and succeeded him as bank president after his death in 1909. In 1917, Beverly Davenport remodeled the bank's interior, hiring a New York architect who specialized in financial institutions.

Beverly Davenport died without an heir (his only son, Edward, predeceased him). But luckily there was an employee, Carl Curtiss, who was more than capable of taking over. Curtiss was born in 1883 in Camden, a small town southwest of Hillsdale; he started working at the bank as a teller in 1908, shortly after graduating from Hillsdale College. When William Davenport died, Curtiss was promoted first to assistant cashier and then to secretary of the board and cashier—the posts formerly held by Beverly Davenport. After Beverly's death, Curtiss succeeded him as president of the bank and inherited the Davenport mansion.

When Curtiss moved in, the house had been unoccupied for quite a while and still contained all of its original furnishings. (Beverly had had his own house on Henry Street, just behind his father's.) Curtiss admitted in a 1952 Ann Arbor News interview that he had been tempted to tear the mansion down when he first glimpsed the interior. It was over fifty years old by then, and the plaster was cracked, the fixtures old, and the rooms drab and dirty.

Curtiss's friend Henry Ford convinced him that the house was worth saving, and sent experts from Greenfield Village to help him figure out how to restore the building and furnishings. Curtiss didn't take all of Ford's advice, however—for example, he refused to keep the walnut bathtubs with their copper linings, preferring the convenience of a modem bathroom.

Ford also sent over some of his men to plow up the yard for gardens. In the Curtiss era the house became known for its rows of peonies, hundreds of rose bushes, and thousands of tulips. Curtiss's granddaughter, Mary Curtiss Richards, remembers that the gardeners used to dig up the tulip bulbs every year and dry them on screens for replanting.

While meticulously restoring his house, Curtiss was also earning the respect and gratitude of the community by the way he was running the bank. Though he took over at the beginning of the Great Depression, he dealt with people in a humane way, which also turned out to be good for Saline's future economy. Mary Richards tells how he survived the 1933 bank "holiday," when a panicked run on assets caused many banks to close. "He stood on the steps of the bank, cash in hand, and handed it out," says Richards. "After a few [depositors got their money], they stopped asking to take it out and started putting it back." Some area farmers remember to this day that Curtiss lent them money when their crops failed, and according to Richards, he never foreclosed on any property.

After World War II, loans from Curtiss helped start new businesses, most notably Universal Die Casting, which became Johnson Controls. Curtiss also continued the Davenport tradition of civic involvement. He served on the city council and school board and, during World War II, on the draft board. He donated to countless local projects, including the Saline Community Hospital and the Saline Methodist Church. He paid for high school band uniforms and for much of the land for Curtiss Park. He was a charter member of the Saline Rotary Club.

Curtiss and his wife, Vera, participated in the social life one would expect from a big banker. Richards remembers that they were regular attendees at the musical May Festival in Ann Arbor. "Grandma would get a new dress and dress to the nines," she recalls. "Sometimes she'd get a new piece of jewelry for that, too."

Asked whether it was hard being the granddaughter of the big banker in town, Richards laughs and says, "No, not at all. We were proud of him. We never heard anything bad about him."

Curtiss served on the National Bank Board, and when he went into Detroit for meetings, he and Vera would often take in a play afterward. They sometimes entertained in their house, often in connection with some philanthropic project. Being strict Methodists, they didn't serve anything stronger than ginger ale.

At the time, Richards lived with her parents, Bliss and Vera (her mother had the same name as her grandmother), and her brother Carl in a house her grandparents had built when they first came to Saline. But Richards says she was invited to the Davenport-Curtiss mansion "all the time." Most of her memories of the house are of family events, such as watching movies in the basement (Curtiss had his own projection room, and Richards's family still has some of his movies), or eating her grandmother's waffles on the maid's night out.

Curtiss never retired from the bank; he continued working until his death in 1967 at age eighty-four (Vera had died ten years earlier). In 1964, he oversaw the replacement of William Davenport's original bank building with a new Citizens Bank facility. While in the hospital for his last illness, he was worried that he would spoil his perfect Rotary attendance, so his fellow Rotarians offered to meet in his hospital room. He. died before the time of meeting, leaving his record intact.

Richards's parents moved into the mansion after Carl Curtiss died. A few months later she married, and her parents hosted the reception on the grounds. "It was the last big event [held there]. There was a band, a tent. They went the whole nine yards," says Richards. Her mother kept the house immaculately clean, and even though they regularly hired cleaning help, she insisted on cleaning the Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier herself, still climbing on a stool to do it until she was well into her nineties.

Bliss and Vera Curtiss opened the house to one homes tour in the 1970s. But since then the family has maintained strict privacy, except for letting Saline fourth-grade teacher Audrey Barkel bring students through on tours. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those kids to be in there," says Barkel, who has been taking kids through for about twenty-four years.

This spring Bliss and Vera's son Carl, with his sister Mary's help, will open the house to the public again for a very special event: a garden party to benefit Arbor Hospice, which took care of Vera so that she was able to die at home in 1998 (Bliss had died in 1977). The fund-raiser will be held May 21 from 1 to 4 p.m. Docents will explain the history of the home and garden, and refreshments and a booklet about the house will be available. Tickets, limited to 250, will cost $50, and will be available at Arbor Hospice and various Saline merchants, including the Calico Cat. For more information, see Events, p. 53.

—Grace Shackman