Historic Detroit

Col. Frank J. Hecker House

The Col. Frank J. Hecker House is one of the remaining handful of elegant mansions that once lined Woodward Avenue, and has stayed mostly unchanged for nearly 120 years as the city has wildly change around it.

The mansion was built for one of Detroit’s most notable 19th century citizens, Col. Frank Joseph Hecker. Hecker was born on July 9, 1846, in Freedom, Mich., near Ann Arbor. His family moved to St. Louis, Ill., where he joined the Union army and served in the Civil War. After the war, he worked for the Union Pacific Railway and other smaller railroads in New York. It was during his work with the railroads that Hecker met Charles Lang Freer. The two would become lifelong friends, business associates and eventually neighbors, with Freer building his shingle-style home behind Hecker’s chateau on East Ferry. Freer’s extensive Asian art collection is now part of the Smithsonian.

The Hecker mansion was built between 1889 and 1892 and designed by architect Louis Kamper while he was with the firm Scott, Kamper and Scott. Kamper, who was trained by legendary architects McKim, Mead and White, is best known for his commercial work in Detroit. Among Kamper’s best known works are the Book-Cadillac Hotel, the Book Tower, Broderick Tower and the Water Board Building. Kamper designed the home to resemble a 16th Century French chateau. The inspiration was the Château de Chenonceau, near Tours, France, fitting considering Detroit’s French roots. The home cost $144,936.54 (about $3.5 million today, when adjusted for inflation) for the house, design fees, the carriage house, carpets and décor. Another $19,990.14 ($480,000 today) was spent on furnishings.

When Hecker decided to build his home on the southeast corner of Ferry and Woodward, the area was still rural, with Dexter M. Ferry’s seed nurseries located further east on Ferry Street. In fact, it was Ferry who gave the street its name because he was the largest landholder in the neighborhood. Ferry Street first appeared in city records in 1874, and East Ferry Avenue was subdeveloped in 1886, with homes costing no less than $7,000 and set back 40 feet from the sidewalk. Hecker bought two lots on Woodward Avenue in 1887 for the price of $27,859 (about $667,000 today). Having a Woodward Avenue address commanded a premium price tag.

“At first, when the Heckers built, there were but two houses near them, the Bowens’ and the Mableys’, and the horse cars only came as far as Forest Avenue, so the few residents beyond had to drive from there to their homes,” the Detroit Free Press wrote in 1933.

The Heckers

Hecker and his wife, the former Anna Williamson of Omaha, Neb., had five children, Frank C., Christian H., Louise and Anna, who married Freer’s brother Watson Freer. With the assistance of Detroit businessman Charles Buhl, Hecker and Freer began the Peninsular Car Co., building railroad cars and amassing huge fortunes. Hecker would go on to serve on various bank boards and hold public positions, such as police commissioner, during his long career. The Cass Building — on the southeast corner of Fort and First streets (bought by the Smith Group in 1972 and given a new, modern glass facade) — was built for Hecker in 1910. It was designed by the Smith Group’s predecessor, the firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls.

Hecker was known outside Michigan, as well. He was chosen by President William McKinley to serve as transportation bureau chief during the Spanish-American War. Later, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to the commission to build the Panama Canal. Hecker entertained President Rutherford B. Hayes at one of his famously lavish parties at his home on Woodward. Both Presidents McKinley and Hayes slept at the Hecker mansion in one of the elaborately detailed bedrooms on the second floor.

When Hecker died at the age of 81 in his home on June 27, 1927, he left specific instructions about how to divide his fortune. Rembrandt’s “The Philosopher,” which hung in the home, and four other famous paintings were given to the Arts Commission. His widow received $200,000, the rest of his artwork and furnishings, and was allowed to remain in the mansion for one year after his death. The rest of his estate was given to various Detroit institutions and his children. Hecker was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. When Anna Hecker passed away in 1933, the Free Press described her as “one of the distinguished hostesses in Detroit in the (eighteen) eighties and nineties and right up until her death.”

One sweet home sweet home

The exterior of the home is constructed of Indiana limestone with a steeply pitched hip roof and conical towers covered in gray slate. There are 49 rooms on three floors, totaling 20,988 square feet. The Woodward façade of the home is symmetrical with a colonnaded entry, a second-floor Palladian archway and twin three-story towers being the dominant features. On the Ferry Avenue façade, a 12-foot-high stained-glass window floods the interior stairwell with light, while an arched porte-cochière allows guests to enter the home without being exposed to the elements. At the back of the mansion is the 5,721-square-foot carriage house, also built of white limestone with a slate covered hip roof. Even Hecker’s horses lived in elegance.

When entering the Woodward Avenue entrance, guests pass through an arched double door into a vestibule, which is wainscoted in Italian Siena marble and has a mosaic-tiled floor. The mammoth colonnaded main entrance hall, with its coffered ceiling, is paneled in white oak. The columns are capped by deeply carved composite capitals, which are also replicated in a smaller scale on each baluster in the grand staircase. The original fireplace was replaced by the Heckers with one of quarter-sewn oak. To the right is the grand staircase with a 12-foot stained glass window above the landing.

In his book “The Buildings of Detroit,” W. Hawkins Ferry said: “The Hecker house was ideal for the many gala parties which were given there. When the great doors were rolled back, the entire first floor became an immense ballroom. Couples waltzed slowly and gracefully over the parquet floors.”

The parties at this home must have been the society events of the time, as the Heckers were close friends with such Detroit luminaries as Thomas Palmer, Ferry, Sen. and Gov. Russell Alger, John Newberry, David Whitney and Hiram Walker. The guest lists would have been a veritable who’s who of 19th Century Detroit.

There are more than 12 fireplaces throughout the house crafted of fine marble and onyx with ornately carved overmantels. The fine woodwork in the home was done by William Wright & Co. of Detroit, with each room receiving coordinating motifs. The dining room has carvings of food; the music room has instruments like guitars in the ceiling plaster. The music room has an onyx fireplace, two brass sunburst chandeliers and a mahogany parquet floor.

Next to the music room is the den, which was added onto the home later to serve as Col. Hecker’s smoking room. His wife reportedly hated his cigar smoking, so he closed off a courtyard and built a new room. Lost in the renovation was a stained glass window that used to grace the music room on the other side of the wall.

The dining room is oval-shaped with a beaded plaster ceiling that interlaces elegantly around a chandelier. The woodwork in the dining room, including the intricately carved built-in china cabinets, is Honduran mahogany. The room’s fireplace is of Egyptian (Nubian) marble. The angled tower room ceiling that adjoins the dining room was painted by Elmer Gurnsey, who also painted the ceiling in the Library of Congress. The floors are oak and have a design of inlaid mahogany around the edge.

The library - which was Col. Hecker’s domain - was finished in English oak paneling with built-in bookcases. The ceiling is coffered and also outfitted in oak. The floors are mahogany parquet, and the Egyptian (Nubian) fireplace has the proverb “Tomorrow’s tangles to the winds resign” inscribed below the mantel.

The bedrooms for Col. Hecker, his wife and their children are on the second floor and are almost as elaborate as the first-floor public rooms. They all feature wainscoting, coffered ceilings and ornate fireplaces. After climbing the grand staircase, Col. Hecker’s bedroom is to the left. It also features an Egyptian (Nubian) marble fireplace and has a bathroom and closet that is connected to his wife’s bedroom, which is to the rear of the colonel’s room. Oddly, her room is the only one in the house with pine floors. The children’s rooms are across the hallway from their parents’ suites, and are to the right of the stairs. They were originally two bedrooms, each with its own fireplace. But in the early 1900s, the Heckers converted it into one larger bedroom and installed a new fireplace with Pewabic tile and built-in bookcases. The rooms’ corner towers provided unique spaces for sitting and observing the neighborhood – and the parties - below. The second floor also features a gorgeous fireplace with a scarab carved in wood above the mantel. This is notable because the Egyptian fad wouldn’t catch on in the United States for another 25 years or so after the Hecker mansion was built.

The third floor also had bedrooms for the Heckers’ children, a chapel on the Woodward Avenue side with a beautiful coffered ceiling (and a Nubian marble fireplace) and a billiards room on the Ferry side. At the top of the stairs on this floor is a stained glass window.

Life after the Heckers

From 1928 until 1947, the home - which was still owned by the Hecker family - was operated as a boarding house. The boarding house was run by Harrison and Emma Anderson for single college students.

In 1947, the mansion was purchased by Paul Smiley to house his business, Smiley Brothers Music Co. At this time, Smiley did some renovation work, especially on the carriage house, which was turned into a 200-seat recital hall with separate practice rooms. Smiley also transformed the third floor of the mansion into a piano and organ refurbishing area and consequently removed the original staircase to keep the dust and noise contained. The Smiley brothers used one of the former children’s rooms on this floor as their indoor golf range, with dents from the balls still seen on the baseboards. The wall “looked like it had been shot by a machine gun” there were so many holes in it, said lawyer Douglas Peters, whose office is in the building now. The home would remain in the Smiley family until 1990, when Paul Smiley passed away.

The home sat vacant for a short while, and, as is often the case in Detroit, vandals stole all but eight light fixtures and one wall sconce. Thankfully, the home was purchased in 1991 by the landmark’s current owners, the law firm of Charfoos & Christensen, P.C. Its thorough restoration involved a team of 28 subcontractors working for 10 months to restore the mansion to its former splendor. To preserve the incredible wood and plasterwork throughout, as well as give each attorney their own zoned climate control, a state of the art heating, cooling and humidifying mechanical system was installed. This system was a wise choice for this home because only small holes were made in the floors and ceilings for conduit instead of unsightly metal duct work, which would take away from the superb state of preservation the home is currently in.

The home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in September 1971 and won a 1994 Historic Rehabilitation Excellence Award from the National Park Service. Each lawyer gets a corner tower room furnished with period furnishings. Peters, an attorney at Charfoos & Christian, jokingly told the Michigan Bar Journal about the firm’s home: “Even though we have to rough it, we get by. We only have 11 bathrooms and 13 fireplaces!”

But Charfoos & Christensen has scaled down its roster of lawyers and doesn’t need such a large office. It has listed the mansion for sale for $3.5 million – and the firm “won’t sell it to just anybody,” Peters said, adding that any potential suitor would have to be dedicated to keeping up the Hecker’s majestic and historical beauty.

Special thanks to Douglas Peters of Charfoos & Christensen, P.C.