Moored in History


The Grosse Pointe War Memorial has always been a busy place. Today, young ballerinas prance through the hallways of the Italian Renaissance mansion on their way to class, senior citizens attend lectures, and brides-to-be envision the setting for their big day.

A century ago, a very different type of bustle filled the rooms of 32 Lakeshore Dr. in Grosse Pointe Farms: the active family life of one of Michigan’s most famous industrialists, Russell Alger Jr.

The Algers led an almost larger-than-life existence. Russell Jr.’s father, Russell Alger Sr., was a Civil War general who served with Generals George Custer and Philip Sheridan. He later became a private assistant to President Abraham Lincoln, made his fortune in the lumber industry in northern Michigan, and was elected governor in 1885. He was named secretary of war under President William McKinley, and went on to serve as a U.S. senator. A Michigan city, county, street, and even a movie theater bear his name.

Russell Jr. carried on his father’s legacy. A natural at business, he too harvested northern Michigan lumber, and had concerns in railroads and banking. He was one of the main investors in the Packard Motor Car Co., along with other Grosse Pointe luminaries, including Henry Bourne Joy, the Newberry brothers, C.A. DuCharme, and Phillip McMillan. Alger served as Packard vice president.

He, of course, wanted a home that reflected his status, one where he could entertain colleagues and associates. So he and his wife, Marion Jarves Alger, hired New York architect Charles Platt to design a villa on a bluff along Lake St. Clair in 1910, when Grosse Pointe was transforming itself from vacation spot to prestigious suburb. They reared their three children — Josephine, Fay, and Russell III — in the home they called The Moorings, where they also hosted prominent members of the corporate world and society.

“He was a dignified man, but also an inventor and a bit of an adventurer,” says Mark Weber, Grosse Pointe War Memorial president. Russell Jr. loved hunting, horseback riding, boating, and flying. “He designed floats to put on a Wright Brothers No. 6 biplane so it could land on water,” creating one of the first seaplanes ever built, Weber says.

Fascinated by the emerging aviation industry, Alger helped the Wright Brothers found their commercial-flight business by investing in the Wright Co. and even bringing a plane to Grosse Pointe to give rides to potential investors and their families. The demonstrations took place on the polo grounds of the Country Club of Detroit, where Grosse Pointe South High School’s athletic field is now.

Russell and Marion loved being surrounded by friends and family, as a letter written by daughter Josephine makes clear:

“On Sundays, Mother and Father entertained their friends by bowling on the green. The men bowled and the women watched from the lower terrace in their pretty Sunday dresses with broad-brimmed hats. Tea was afterwards, served by the family butler and the second man. … During the summer days, the whole family with children and friends swam from the boat landing. There was a launch to ride in and Father and Uncle Fred’s larger yacht was anchored off the club dock.”

The Alger children were a lively trio, especially Josephine, who was known to climb out the attic playroom window and cavort on the roof.

This daring young Josephine, whose father allowed her to fly in a Wright Brothers biplane at the tender age of 12, was most likely the inspiration for the Tin Pan Alley song “Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine,” made famous again in the movie Titanic.

The home was built in the style of an Italian villa. Though less formal than nearby residences, it took full advantage of its site. The great hall, dining room, library, and sunroom offered sweeping views of Lake St. Clair. The second floor featured six bedrooms (Marion’s and the girls’ rooms looked out on the water). The lower level included a billiards room with paneling imported from Great Britain that concealed a tunnel leading to the lake for smuggling contraband liquor during Prohibition. The Terrace Room opened to a wide patio with steps leading down to a bowling green and the lake. At water’s edge was a boat landing with Venetian-style mooring poles on either side, from which the house took its name.

Marion, an avid gardener, agreed with Platt’s philosophy about the close relationship between home and garden. Famed landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman was brought in to design the formal gardens, which became one of the home’s more notable features.

Soon after it was built, the Alger house was showcased in such publications as Architectural Record and American Country Houses of Today. In 1980, the Michigan Society of Architects cited it as one of the 50 most significant buildings in the state.

The happiness of the household came to a tragically early end in 1930, when Russell Jr. died at age 57, nine years after being paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident. His wife, who had tended to him lovingly during those years, moved out. She had long been involved in philanthropic efforts and was a great supporter of civic causes. So, rather than sell the home, she decided to use it for the benefit of the public, and gave it to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“Marion had an early vision of what this house could be to the community. It was just too beautiful not to share,” local historian Suzy Berschback writes in the new book Grosse Pointe War Memorial (Arcadia Publishing), which she co-authored. “She cared deeply about her community and wanted that commitment to continue after she was gone.”

The Alger home served as a branch of the DIA until the late 1940s, when it was deeded to a newly formed organization that was creating a memorial to Grosse Pointe’s World War II veterans.

Since then, the Grosse Pointe War Memorial has had the dual mission of honoring all military veterans while offering educational and cultural programs. In 1962, the Fries Auditorium and Crystal Ballroom were added to the structure, allowing for greatly expanded programming and events under the leadership of John Lake, the center’s beloved first director. The inaugural lecturer series included Jerome Cavanagh, Leonard Woodcock, and Henry Ford II. About 200,000 visitors annually attend events and programs at the Memorial today.

“The home was a gift to the community from the Alger family,” Weber says. “And now we are a gift back to the community.”

The Grosse Pointe War Memorial/Alger House centennial will be commemorated on May 23. Information: 313-881-7511. The book Grosse Pointe War Memorial, by Ann Marie Aliotta and Suzy Berschback, is at area bookstores.