This week's entry in our Iconic Detroit Building series, The Whitney, is one of the most beautiful private homes ever built in the motor city, which is really saying something, given that we count the Fisher Mansion, Ransom Gillis House, and the Walter O. Briggs house, to name just a few. We've chosen this place for the usual reasons (beauty, pedigree, history), but also because it's supposedly haunted and Halloween is just a week away.
A lavish mansion built with the most costly materials available, the Whitney sheltered its namesake family for just under a quarter century. Today, the home has been beautifully restored by two recent owners and operates as The Whitney, one of the city's most highly regarded fine dining restaurants.
Original Owner: Lumber baron David Whitney Jr., the richest man in Detroit at the time of his death in 1900. Whitney's lumber fortune was estimated at over $15 million or $388 million in 2015 dollar. Whitney was born in 1830 in Watertown, Mass, moving to Detroit in 1857. With brother Charles, he headed the largest lumber business in the US. Whitney was essentially 19th century Dan Gilbert—in addition to his lumber empire, he also dabbled heavily in real estate, ran a fleet of steamships and had banking interests, too. Like Gilbert, he went all in on Detroit, buying property near Grand Circus when it was cheap, and eventually erecting the Grand Circus Park Building, and its successor, the far larger David Whitney Building…now owned by Dan Gilbert. Whitney had one son and three daughters with wife Flora McLaughlin.
Facts: The Whitney family outgrew their original house at Woodward and Sproat, so in 1890, Whitney contracted architect Gordon W. Lloyd, designer of his Grand Circus Building, to create a new family retreat at Woodward and Canfield. The home was a great extravagance, costing $400,000—nearly $10 million in 2015 dollars—and took nearly four years to build. When complete, the grand mansion offered 22,000 square feet of living space in an astounding 52 rooms (10 bathrooms and 20 fireplaces).
Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival
Architect: Gordon W. Lloyd, an English Canadian who practiced mostly in Detroit, designed many of the city's most beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings including Central United Methodist Church, the Wright Kay Building, University of Detroit's Dowling Hall, the Brown Brothers Tobacco Company HQ, and the Thomas A. Parker House.
Materials: Rose-colored South Dakota jasper, Tiffany stained-glass windows, granite, slate tiles (roof), copper, English tile, silver leaf, ivory enamel, Numidian marble, bronze and white onyx.
According to Historic Detroit quoting a Free Press article of the era, Whitney, a lumber baron, especially wanted to highlight wood in the home, so there's extensive paneling, as well as elaborately beamed and coffered ceilings. "He knew the uses of wood, and the beautiful paneling in this house expresses his love of trees and what came out of them" according to the Free Press.
Insane amenities: The Whitney was the first private home in Detroit to have its own elevator. The entire third floor was a museum-quality art gallery, where the family displayed art the collected from across the globe. The house has many Tiffany windows, which are actually more valuable than the structure alone. One of these, an incredibly opulent two-story scene in stained glass, shows a knight because the Whitneys ancestors came from England and and the family took immense pride at having actual knights and royal British blood in their lineage. There's also a ballroom, a coach house, a music room with a Tiffany stained glass window-cum-portrait of St. Cecelia and Apollo with a lyre. The cherubs on the music room ceiling were handpainted on silk. David Whitney likely preferred the adjoining smoking room with its mahogany paneling and vaulted ceiling. There was also a billiards room, making the Whitneys among the first to enjoy a fine Detroit tradition: the basement rec room.
Weird stuff: David Whitney had a secret vault to store the family's most glorious treasures. To hide this, he commissioned panels by Parisian artists at the Gobelin Tapestry Works.
After 1900: David Whitney died in 1900, and his widow, second wife Sarah (his deceased wife's sister) lived there til 1917. The Whitneys gave their glittering treasure of a house to the Wayne County Medical Society, which used the home as offices til 1956. In 1979, entrepreneur Richard Kughn bought the home, spending $3 million on restoration. In 1986, Kughn opened The Whitney restaurant. In 2007, Kughn sold building to former Chrysler exec Bud Liebler for $2 million. Liebler invested in more renovation, restoring more of the woodwork and putting a whopping $300K into creating lavishly landscaped gardens. Liebler renamed the facility's this story bar Ghost Bar because local lore has it that David Whitney's ghost still haunts the place.
Current events: The Whitney, one of the choices on our recent spooky Detroit places map, will host a few fun Halloween events including a haunted high tea and the Whitney's annual paranormal dinner, a $100-a-person affair with "paranormal" tours of the home and carriage house, a 4-course dinner, and a performance of "The Haunting of Broadway." The Whitney will also offer a gala halloween benefit, The Haunting at the Whitney, on Oct 29th. This $150-a-ticket runs from 5:30 pm til after 2 in the morning and benefits The Heat and Warmth Fund, which offers utilities assistance to Detroiters in need.
·Whitney, Jr. David. [Detroit Historical Society]
·The Whitney [Historic Detroit]
·Gordon W. Lloyd: Architect of Lost Detroit [Oocities]
·Entrepreneur Spotlight: Bud Liebler [Model D]
·The Ultimate Thanksgiving Guide To Metro Detroit [Eater Detroit]
·Annual Halloween Paranormal Adventure [The Whitney]
·Haunted High Tea [The Whitney]
·Broderick! Whitney! Capitol Park! Gilbert Staffers! [Curbed Detroit]
·Detroit's Spookiest Places Mapped [Curbed Detroit]
·The Heat and Warmth Fund [Heat and Warmth Fund]