England often nibbles at the edges of my mind. For almost 40 years that country was an integral part of my life. I wore out 4 passports to go there to be with family, and to admire its lovely gardens and classical architecture- early, middle and late Gothic and Tutor styles, especially- the best examples of which are found in ancient, ancestral homes and thousand-year-old cathedrals. I sorely miss these structural wonders.
England’s traditionally delicate winters make for stunning scenery. I loved how snow would gently collect around mullioned windows, or enhance primeval forests. So when Joe wandered into the kitchen one day and set his iPad in front of me, I gasped. A stunning old- home? castle? -was pictured, featuring wonderful carvings and graceful archways built with stone and brick. The building radiated warmth and comfort in the late afternoon light.
“Where IS this place?”
He smiled. “Only an hour and thirty five minutes away by car. It’s the entrance to Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester Hills, just north of Detroit. Isn’t it gorgeous?”
It was, for me, a deeply pleasurable reminder of England.
During Michigan’s often difficult, long winters we’ve taken to driving around America for a week or so- to Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and southern California, to explore their natural wonders. But I rarely see human architecture that captivates me as completely as it did in England..
We are a very young country, preferring to be- innovative. Modern steel sculptures are featured on huge, grassy knolls that front imposing mansions or museums or important buildings. Some homes are mostly giant windows and have lots of angles. Most don’t appeal to this traditionalist. Buildings erected with an absence of curves, with little appreciation of the warmth of wood, are, for me, empty of soul.
Now I was gaping at Tudor Revival architecture created in the early twentieth century, that was practically on our doorstep!
So, of course, we loaded Bryn into the car and made a day trip there last Friday. Joe booked an hour-long tour, starting at 1 p.m., through this American beauty, born from the imagination of Matilda Dodge Wilson, wife, then widow of, John Dodge. She later married Alfred Wilson, a lumber baron. She was, by the way, one of the richest women in the world in her own right, at that time.
We arrived at noon, and took Bryn for a walk on a paved path that wound through a freshly fallen snowy forest, a lovely part of Meadow Brook Hall’s landscape. A large bridge arches over a wide, burbling stream near the house, and every tree and bush was coated with icy snow. The effect was magical. Bryn wandered along sniffing deer tracks while we absorbed its quiet serenity. (Matilda’s adopted daughter, a famous horsewoman, rode all over this 320-acre property.)
The house is splendidly appointed inside. The stunning chimneys outside, and their corresponding fireplaces inside, arrest the eye. Each fits the room it’s in, but none are cavernous. A nice fire would heat the room without roasting its residents. And oh, the wonderful, wide, thick doors! Each is a work of art, beautifully decorated with hinges and carvings. Even the door handles are handmade.
Matilda traveled extensively through Europe admiring its spectacular architecture, and thus developed an eye for detail. She brought her knowledge back to Meadow Brook- and her instinct to ‘do’ –but NEVER ‘overdo’- yielded spectacular results. It took three years to build Meadow Brook Hall. Though her home comprises 88,000 square feet of living space, I never once felt uncomfortable or lost. The layout makes perfect sense. She designed this ‘castle-house’ to be warm, welcoming, and accommodating, instead of immense, imposing and ostentatious.
Her Tutor ballroom could have been gigantic, but is better described as welcoming, without being vast. I thought it delightful. By the way, there is an air of mischief, too, incorporated into many of the carvings and stone gargoyles scattered about. Many depict events they’d experienced, or are medieval-type caricatures of Matilda, her husband or her children and friends that depict lots of subtle silliness, if you know how and what to look for... Matilda had a fine sense of humor.
That ballroom and the garden room are among my favorites.
The wonderful floor-to-ceiling leaded windows in the bedrooms are set into oriels, to better view the gardens. Their fragrant flowers would perfume these rooms all summer.
Castles and giant homes in England often possess ceilings so high -20-25 feet- that one’s voice would echo. (Oh- and because heat rises, the medieval V.I.Ps below would always freeze in winter unless they stood right next to the fireplace.
Meadow Brook’s are lower- perhaps 15-18 feet high- and frequently supported by huge, carved timbers. Some ceilings, though, seemed to float suspended; -for example, in the dining room- and the beautifully done plasterwork up there doesn’t detract from the room’s lovely walls and flocked paper. Everything is the epitome of Taste.
She was truly gifted.
There are secret passageways, secret doors, intriguing, narrow circular stone staircases leading to the highest ramparts, or to the upper floors- she thought of everything. Every little thing.
There are two changes I’d make if I owned this jewel: marry ‘Meadow’ to ‘Brook.’ Meadowbrook Hall.
It seems to flow better....
And I’d remove the (three or four) huge steel abstract sculptures that sit on the hills as one motors in and out of the estate. They simply don’t fit. Not one bit.
There’s one more wonder: the basement. Perhaps my favorite of the three floors. I’m sitting here trying to find the right words to help you picture its gorgeous cathedral ceilings- the incredible bathrooms, the game rooms, the tiles, the wonderful little gargoyles—
Michigan has other architectural marvels like this to explore. We plan to. (By the way, Meadow Brook was donated by the Dodge-Wilson family to Michigan State University- now Oakland University- in 1967, when Matilda died (while still living there). The campus is close, but you’d never know it.)
The courtyard, the stables, that wonderful bridge, the ramparts--- the entrance door and its handle and a thousand other details- Ah, I’ve sputtered and run out of descriptive adjectives.
One has to see this place to understand how special it is.
Meadow Brook Hall, a national historic landmark, has:
110 rooms in total
It is the fourth largest historical house in the United States.
The National Park Service maintains its vast, hilly grounds and wildlife.