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The Alger Family

Russell A. Alger, Jr., (1873-1930) son of Michigan's Governor Russell Alger, became interested in the automobile industry and perhaps had more to do with the moving of the Packard Motor Car company plant to Detroit from Warren, Ohio, than anyone else. Alger became a key investor and Vice President of the Packard Motor Car Company.

The company was founded as the Ohio Automobile Company in Warren, Ohio by the two Packard brothers, James and William.   When Henry Bourne Joy (another Grosse Pointer) and the others agreed to refinance the small company at a board meeting on October 13, 1902, they changed the name to Packard Motor Car Company.  Russell Alger, Jr. was the first associate of Joy to invest $50,000 (Joy had also put in $50,000) and was followed by Fred M. Alger with $25,000 and Joy's brother, Richard P. Joy added $10,000.  Other investors were Truman H. and John S. Newberry - $25,000 each, C.A. DuCharme, $10,000; D. M. Ferry, $5,000; Joseph Boyer, $25,000 and Phillip H. McMillan, $50,000.  (all Grosse Pointers)

The Packards and other Warren, Ohio investors continued as minority investors for a few more years.  The 66.4 acre site of the Detroit (it was still outside the city limits at the time) Packard plant was purchased on May 19, 1903 for $19,434.  On the same day Albert Kahn's plans for the plant design were approved by the board.

During the early 1900s, when Detroit was still a boom town, Russell A. Alger, Jr., abandoned the sprawling city for a grand suburban home. Designed by Charles A. Platt to resemble an Italian Renaissance villa, "The Moorings" was one of the finest country estates to grace Grosse Pointe's Lake Shore Drive.

In those days, the Pointes were dotted with summer cottages, but "The Moorings" was a permanent, year-round residence and it represented a burgeoning trend among the wealthy to take up country life in grand style. Accompanying this rustic fascination was a renewed interest in landscape; and here too, the Alger's were in step with the times. Russell's wife, Marion Jarves Alger was an avid gardener, and Platt accommodated both her personal wishes and his professional taste by designing a villa that was in perfect harmony with the rugged, sloping land.

So charming and natural was its effect that the Italian Renaissance villa was widely imitated, and even those who preferred a different style of architecture were smitten the lakeshore milieu. Within a few years, many of Detroit's most prominent industrialists had followed Russell Alger's example and built themselves family estates on Lake St. Clair. In addition to the well-known Edsel Ford and Horace E. Dodge estates, there were smaller villas with lovely names like "Clairview," "Deeplands", and "Drybrook," which conjured up images of leisurely summer days.

Today, all that remains of most of these residences are the street signs which mark the spots. As land values skyrocketed, taxes soared and lifestyles became less lavish, many of the estates were sacrificed to the wrecking ball.

Like the others who built such mansions, Alger was an aggressive entrepreneur with a taste for action; and, like them, he did not escape unscathed by the effects of his appetites. But through a combination of good fortune, generosity, and the hard work of both his family and the community, his beloved villa has been preserved.

Known today as the Grosse Pointe War Memorial, its current purpose is to serve not only as a memorial to the Grosse Pointers who served their country, but to persevere as a center for the educational and charitable purposes which enrich the community and promote the well-being of the public. In its usage, as well as its concept, it typifies the renaissance ideals of balance, harmony and a glorified existence. Were Russell A. Alger, Jr., alive to see it bustling with community life, he would certainly be pleased.

Beginning with a year-long stint (in the family lumber business) in Manistique, Alger quickly progressed to supervising a tract of timber in Canada. There he took Marion Jarves-daughter of pioneer Detroiter Deming Jarves-for his bride and they moved into their first home, a cabin. When it caught fire and burned to the ground, the young lumber baron learned a lesson. There is virtually no wood in his Lake Shore Drive home.

Near the turn of the century, Alger returned to Detroit at his father's request to become treasurer of Alger, Smith & Co., the family business. An energetic man with an uncommon interest in the world's activities, he epitomized the entrepreneurial spirit. Not only did he persuade the Packard Motor car co. to move from Warren, Ohio to Detroit, but he also helped finance the operation and became an active member of the company’s board of directors. Intrigued by the possibilities of flying, he followed the Wright brothers to France to watch their exhibition and upon their return, invested money in the first commercial airplane.

In physical appearance, he was stocky, with a boxer's physique, and he loved being outdoors, especially near the water. He soon began summering with his wife Marion and their three children - Russell Alger III, Fay and Josephine - in the old Hinchman home on Lake St. Clair. Though many families vacationed along the "cabbage patch," as that strip of shore was called, Alger distinguished himself by purchasing the Hinchman dwelling, tearing it down, and commissioning his dream home.

During the time when Alger was looking for an architect, Italian Renaissance architecture was just beginning to appear in Detroit's private residences and public buildings. One of the people who helped popularize this style was Charles A. Platt, an architect who had originally planned to become an artist. In 1892, he had visited Italy to study Renaissance gardens and, according to one of his biographers, what he learned there was "that villa connotes a house and gardens, derived as a unit for the enjoyment and comfort of the owner." Platt's successful execution of a Renaissance garden for the exclusive Yondotega Club made home the ideal candidate to design a village for Alger.

Situated on the highest point of land along the lakeshore, "The Moorings" fits snugly into the hillside and complements the sloping grade. In the front, two stone lions flank a circular brick courtyard, where a splashing fountain graces a small pool. The house itself is refined and elegant, with symmetrical features-including shuttered windows, stone pediments and handsome bronze lanterns-in perfect balance. The gently sloping tile roof and stone and stucco exterior also contribute to the Italian mood.

To the west of the house extend the formal gardens, Marion Alger's pride and joy. "My mother was an ardent gardener and her gardens spoke of her infinite knowledge of what was right for the right place," the Algers’ daughter, Josephine, wrote in an open letter to the War Memorial docents. Now reduced to a small plot of land between the Fries Auditorium and the parking lot, these lovely gardens once extended to Lake Shore Drive on the north and culminated in a wisteria-covered pergola to the south. There was also a stone staircase descending to a lake terrace which overlooked both the water and the spacious backyard. Here, as Josephine went on to explain in her letter, the family shared many activities:

"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. The butler wore formal tails and his helper wore a hunter green uniform with a striped green yellow waistcoat. 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 early 1910s through 1914 were gay years in the summer colony in Grosse Pointe."

Today, not only have lifestyles changed, but so, too, has the landscape. When the Fries Auditorium was added in 1962, the pergola was incorporated into its exterior, thus blending it architecturally with the house. Unfortunately, in the process, both the lake terrace and the commanding view of the lake were sacrificed.

On the inside, time has exacted similar changes. Extensive remodeling of the bedrooms, the servants' quarters and the kitchen is evident. To create more storage space, the breakfast room was reduced by half. Between 1936 and 1948, the house became an extension of the Detroit Institute of Arts and, to facilitate art displays, the library shelves were boarded over and the dining room's birch paneling covered with green paint. (When ownership of the house transferred from the Art Institute to the Grosse Pointe War Memorial Association, Josephine paid to have the paneling stripped and restored).

Despite the alterations which have accompanied its transition from private dwelling to public house, the building still retains the Algers' character. There is the Great Hall, with its concrete beams painted to simulate wood- a reminder to visitors of Alger's precautions against the intense fire which destroyed his Canadian home. Located just beyond the foyer on the first floor is the room where Josephine made her debut and celebrated her wedding. After the reception, she and her husband boarded a waiting yacht to sail off on their honeymoon.

Perhaps most telling of all are the upstairs bedrooms. Though extensively remodeled for administrative use, their very size and placement reveal a great deal about family priorities. One notices immediately, for instance, of the six bedrooms, the three inhabited by the women are larger, sunnier, and have the lakeside view. It was not by mere chance that Josephine was quartered in the bedroom adjacent to her mother"s. She was a tomboy who frightened her governess by climbing out of the playroom window and onto the roof to enjoy the vista. Her mother, as the story goes, wanted her close at and in order to keep an eye on the little daredevil.

One day in 1921, Alger was chasing hounds at the Grosse Pointe Country Club, despite warnings from his companions that he had passed the age when such sport was a safe activity. Thrown from his horse, he steadfastly remounted and continued the hunt, only to be thrown again. This time the consequences were permanent. Almost immediately thereafter he was stricken with paralysis and remained a helpless invalid until his death in 1930, he was fifty-seven.

After his death, his widow (who never remarried), moved out of the house and offered it to the DIA. However there were problems from the start, but when Eugene Van Antwerp became mayor of Detroit, he struck the Alger house appropriations from the budget.

Meanwhile, a group of Grosse Pointers were formulating plans for a library to serve as a memorial to the Grosse Pointe veterans of WWII. In spring of 1949, Marion Alger deeded the house and grounds to the organization.

What remains for posterity is a gracious family home which has become a living legacy.

Source: Donna Olendorf, Heritage Magazine, Oct 1985, pg. 13-17

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