Take a look inside the 88,000-square-foot architectural masterpiece conceived by Matilda Dodge Wilson.
By Susan Peck
Photography by Brett Mountain
One glance at Meadow Brook Hall, and you’ll understand why the mansion is often described as an American castle. Designed by the Detroit architectural firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls and still operating today, the 110-room estate was inspired by English country manor houses of the Tudor and Elizabethan periods.
The 88,000-square-foot Tudor revival mansion is the former residence of one of the automotive aristocracy’s most memorable women, Matilda Dodge Wilson (widow of auto pioneer John Dodge), her second husband Alfred G. Wilson and her children. Matilda and John Dodge had three children, Frances, Daniel and Anna Margaret, who passed away at age 4. Matilda and Alfred Wilson adopted two children, Richard and Barbara.
“Named a National Historic Landmark in 2012, the mansion was built between 1926 and 1929, at a cost of $4 million, by elite craftsmen and materials impossible to reproduce today,” says Shannon O’Berski, a Meadow Brook Estate spokesperson. “Meadow Brook Hall was built in the center of a 1,500-acre country estate and was quickly recognized for its grand scale, fine wooden craftsmanship and exquisite architectural detailing.”
The prosperous co-founder of Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company, John Dodge, died in 1920, leaving Matilda one of America’s wealthiest women at the time. After she married Alfred Wilson, a Wisconsin lumber broker, in 1925 she began building the majestic Meadow Brook Hall on her property in Rochester.
According to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, inductee Matilda Dodge Wilson had a philosophy of life: “To attempt great things is to expect great things. Nothing attempted, nothing gained.” The completion of Meadow Brook Hall exemplified her dynamic point of view. By all accounts Matilda was the driving force behind its construction, and she left no detail forgotten, such as custom switch plate covers and handmade door latches in the games room that replicate billiard balls and sticks. She also took on large-scale projects like replicating two-story-high Tudor revival concrete and rounded oak arches in the ballroom, where a young Frank Sinatra once sang at a family birthday party.
The interior boasts 23 bedrooms, 25 bathrooms and three kitchens. The exterior is made of American materials such as sandstone, brick, wood and a clay-tiled roof, and features 39 uniquely designed chimneys.
Matilda co-authored “A Place in the Country: Matilda Wilson’s Personal Guidebook to Meadow Brook Hall” to introduce readers to her favorite elements of the mansion. “It was also an opportunity to acquaint them with her art collection, which includes works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Gilbert Stuart, Frederic Remington, Emile van Marcke, Rosa Bonheur, Justus Sustermans and Louis Betts,” O’Berski says.
On the main floor, the Great Hall welcomes guests with oversized family portraits and the Wilson coat of arms. Through the corridor into the ballroom you’ll find a built-in movie theater, where popular films were shown to guests — a rarity for that time. Matilda was an avid photographer and videographer who owned 17 cameras, including a prestigious Voigtlander from Germany that is on display today.
Rooms on the main floor are detailed with carved wood, stone and molded plaster ceilings like the suspended masterpiece in the Christopher Wren Dining Room, commissioned by Italian-American artist sculptor Corrado Parducci, whose work can be seen at the Fisher Building and Guardian Building in Detroit. Other highlights include Tiffany, Waterford and Lalique art glass, Sevres and Meissen porcelain, Rockwood pottery and luxurious amenities including gold-plated bathroom fittings.
The living room with an attached sunporch is influenced, like much of the home, by estates the Wilsons visited in England. Notable artwork includes “The Strawberry Girl,” a portrait by Joshua Reynolds that is said to have “eyes that follow you everywhere in the room,” and a replica of Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s “The Infant Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” as their original is currently on loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The winding staircase to the third floor opens to the guestrooms, bedrooms and playrooms for the children, and a separate bedroom each for Alfred and Matilda. Busy philanthropist and businesswoman, Matilda designed a home that included amenities that a homemaker could only dream about — like a gift-wrapping alcove, doctor’s house call station and a full-service beauty salon, including a manicurist, close to her dressing quarters.
Lovers of music and literature, the Wilsons had music piped through the mansion from the Aeolian Opus organ — considered the ultimate status symbol and still the country’s second largest residential organ. The adjacent library holds 1,600 books showcasing works by Bach and Beethoven and just one American author — Mark Twain.
After stepping down from her roles as the first female lieutenant governor in Michigan (and the United States), and the first woman in the country to chair the board of a bank, as well as her many charitable causes, Matilda made her largest contribution in 1957 when she and Alfred donated their entire estate, including Meadow Brook Hall, and $2 million for the foundation of Oakland University. After her death in 1967, the estate was opened to the public in 1971, providing tours, educational programs and special events so that visitors can be inspired by art and history for generations to come.
Meadow Brook Hall features:
- Eight vaults and every guest room has a built-in wall safe
- Two elevators and a dumbwaiter
- Two patios on the roof
- 68 closets
- One room dedicated to storing newspaper clippings
- Fun fact: The Wilsons built Sunset Terrace on the property in 1952 because Meadow Brook Hall was becoming too large for them, at age 69.
Take a 3D tour of the home here
See more photos of Meadow Brook in our fall fashion spread: