Historic Detroit

Sibley House

Completed in 1848, this Greek Revival residence was home to generations of Sibley family members.

Judge Solomon Sibley, Detroit’s first mayor (before the city charter was adopted), visualized the plans for his third Detroit residence, but, he died before the house was completed. His widow, Sarah Whipple Sproat Sibley, and two unmarried daughters moved in. Sarah Alexandrine Sibley was the last member of the family that resided in the house. She died in 1918.

Detroit’s (technically) first mayor

Judge Sibley was born in Sutton, Mass., in 1769 and was educated at Rhode Island College, now known as Brown University.

When Sibley arrived in Detroit in 1797, he was one of only two lawyers in town, and he soon earned his position as a prominent member of the community. In January 1799, Solomon Sibley was elected as a delegate to the legislature of the Northwest Territory, although his election was challenged by his opponent, who claimed that Sibley provided the voters with liquor.

This appointment dictated much traveling between Detroit and Marietta, Ohio, where Sibley attended sessions of the court. It was on one of these business trips that he met and fell in love with 17-year old, Sarah Whipple Sproat. They were married in 1804, settled in Detroit, and in 1806 Sibley was appointed Detroit’s first mayor by Gov. William Hull. This was before Michigan was a state and before Detroit adopted its city charter. Under the charter, John R. Williams was the first man elected to head city government and and for that reason is generally considered Detroit’s first mayor.

Solomon Sibley was later appointed as the first U.S. attorney for the Michigan Territory by President James Madison, serving from 1815 to 1823. Judge Sibley was also elected to both the 16th and 17nth sessions of the U.S. Congress, and in 1824, he was appointed to the Michigan Territorial Supreme Court by President James Monroe.

In the early 1800s, Solomon and Sarah Sibley were also central figures behind the settlement of the Village of Pontiac, Mich. They provided the oversight and financial means for the first buildings constructed there, including what was known as Sibley’s Cabin, an 18-foot-by-20-foot cabin that remains to this day as the center of the Sibley-Hoyt house in Pontiac.

In 1825, the Sibleys sold almost 50 acres of land in Pontiac to a woman named Elizabeth (Lisette) Denison Forth, making her the first African-American woman to own land in Michigan. At the end of her life, Mrs. Forth instructed that a portion of her estate, garnered from numerous savvy business dealings, be used to help fund the building of an Episcopal church on Grosse Ile, a residential island downriver from Detroit. She had lived and worked in the Biddle family household on Grosse Ile, and with additional funding from the Biddles, St. James Episcopal Chapel was completed in 1868.

Solomon Sibley died in Detroit in 1846 at age 77. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit. Upon his death, many members of the bar association wore a badge of mourning for 30 days.

The judge’s widow

Sarah Whipple Sproat was the only child of Col. Ebenezer Sproat and Katherine Whipple Sproat. She was also the granddaughter of Commodore Abraham Whipple of Rhode Island, who is credited with burning the first British ship, the Gaspee, in 1772, evoking rage from King George III and further fanning the flames of what would become the American Revolution.

Sarah Whipple Sproat was born in Providence, R.I., in January 1782. Both her father and grandfather lost their fortunes supporting the country’s war for independence. They were both given land grants, and in 1788, they founded Marietta, Ohio. Living conditions in the early days of the settlement were harsh, and Col. Sproat moved Sarah Whipple Sproat, his only daughter, to schools first in in Bethlehem, Pa., and eventually to Philadelphia.

Six years later, when she had turned 16 years old, the small settlement of Marietta, Ohio, had become “civilized,” and her father felt it was safe enough for her to return home. On their return trip to Marietta, Sarah and her father brought with them, allegedly, the first piano to travel west of the Allegheny Mountains. Later, that piano stood in the parlor of the Sibley House.

One account of Sarah’s well-known poise and courage is described in a book published by the Minnesota Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), and depicts her bravery during the War of 1812 as she and others were inside Fort Detroit.

“The women and children were all placed in the fort for safety. Mrs. Sibley, then the mother of three children, was found holding her youngest, child, Henry Hastings Sibley, in her arms, while with her busy hands she was making cartridges for the soldiers. Four officers, including her cousin, were killed by a cannonball in the adjoining room. Her husband was out in the field commanding a company of militia.”

Sarah Whipple Sproat Sibley died in 1851 and is buried next to her husband in Elmwood Cemetery.

The house

There is much to be admired about the Greek-inspired elements of the house. At three stories with a symmetrical front facade and a central columned entrance that faces East Jefferson Avenue, its lines are graceful. Some of the windows still have the old pleated panes of glass creating a wavy effect as one looks out.

In the late 1840s, when the Sibley House was being constructed, a view of the Detroit River and its passing parade of ships was appreciated, and for this reason, a two-story porch was added in addition to a second main entrance at the rear of the house.

Perhaps, the most unusual feature of the house is the hanging switchback staircase, thought to be the only one of its kind in Detroit still in existence. It is considered to be “hanging” because it was built from the top rather than the bottom. The story that has been passed down from generation to generation claims that ladies of another era had difficulty negotiating their large hoop skirts as they descended the staircase.

The Sibley House parlor is also rumored to have had the first piano transported west of the Allegheny Mountains.

During its 165-year history, the Sibley family and their house contributed in many ways to enhance the lives of Detroiters and still stands as a tribute to our great city. Utilized in two World Wars to house relief organizations, opened several times as a neighborhood welcoming center, housing for a veteran and his family, and as a rectory for Christ Church next door, this house has long stood as a symbol of the spirit of Detroit and as a beacon of hope.

The home was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1958, included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and it was recorded in the Library of Congress as a distinguished American building in 1934.

Fighting to save the past

The Sibley family lived in the house for almost 80 years, until the home sold to its next-door neighbor the Christ Church in 1925. The church turned the home into its rectory in 1946.

Today, an effort is under way to preserve the home. Every dollar donated to the Sibley House Fund will help to restore the exterior of the house and maintain the former residence for generations to come.

Although the house has been open to the public in the past, it now contains the offices for Christ Church and, in general, is not open to the public for tours.

*E-mail The Sibley House Fund at: [email protected] for further information about this renewal effort. The Sibley House Fund is a designated 501(c) 3 nonprofit fund. You can donate by clicking here or through the church’s website for the house. *