Historic Detroit

Thompson Home

One of many old dwellings on WSU’s campus, the four-story Thompson Home is unique in that it was never strictly a private home.

The house was originally used as a home for elderly women, and opened Oct. 22, 1884. Named for wealthy businessman David Thompson, the home was run by Thompson’s wife, Mary. Since 1978, it has been owned by Wayne State University, and has served several functions for the school.

Early years: retirement home for women

David Thompson died in the early 1870s, leaving his estate to his wife, Mary, to establish a charity. In 1876, she and 31 other prominent Detroit businesspeople founded a charity to help older women. The organization was originally housed in a building owned by Home of the Friendless on Warren Avenue.

Mary contributed $10,000 to establish the charity in 1874, and in 1882, she purchased property for the house on the corner of Cass and Hancock. The lot was originally 126 feet on Cass and 156 feet on Hancock. She commissioned well-known architect George D. Mason to design a home for retired women and widows. Mason, of the firm Mason & Rice, later designed the Masonic Temple in Detroit and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, among many other buildings in Michigan.

The Thompson Home was built in the Queen Anne style with 40 rooms. Its original price tag was $32,000, about $850,000 today, when adjusted for inflation.

The original name was “Thompson Home for Old Ladies,” a name that seems hysterical yet quaint by today’s standards. A portrait of Mary, painted by Percy Ives, hung in the north living room. Sunrooms were added in 1914 and rooms for staff in 1950. In 1964, Mr. and Mrs. Benson Ford donated funds so that a major addition with a five-bed infirmary could be constructed. In the mid-1960s, the home was supervised by a registered nurse.

During World War II, the home sponsored a Red Cross production unit, and one of the women was awarded a prize for the number of children’s dresses she made for a Goodfellows drive. Over the years, a number of programs were set up for its residents, including musical performances, religious services and travel talks. Many of the residents preferred to furnish their rooms themselves, and there was a lounge and meeting space on the third floor. The home’s capacity was 31 residents.

However, in its later years, the home struggled with having enough occupancy. Homes of this type weren’t as popular after WWII, and the location in Cass Corridor did not help enrollment, either. In 1976, it was saved from the wrecking ball by Preservation Wayne (now Preservation Detroit.) In 1974, it was designated as a Michigan State Historic site, and two years later, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In August 1977, the home was closed due to the declining number of residents, and the remaining women found new homes in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church Home in Highland Park.

New Life at Wayne State

The home was purchased by the Faculty Club at Wayne State for use as a meeting space for faculty in 1978. The faculty had been without a consistent meeting space since the 1940s. Though the original purchase price was $125,000, almost immediately, the Club ran into issues from students, who objected to the cost. On top of the purchase cost was the expense of the renovation work — estimated to be between $200,000 and $300,000, that was approved by the Board of Governors. The student newspaper called the club a place for “fat cats” and pointed out that the club had less than 10 members.

“Nothing is more helpful in boosting morale than a place to go for a drink or meeting,” Wayne State President Thomas Bonner said in a South End article on Nov. 13, 1978. Despite objections, renovations for the club went forward, as well as historically minded faculty decorating.

Professor Richard Bilaitis, then an art professor at Wayne, had tried and failed to buy the original furnishings of the home. Those were auctioned off when the home closed. However, he did find some period donations, such as a Victorian pool table from the University of Michigan and chandeliers from the old bar The Brass Rail on Grand Circus Park.

A later controversy was when WSU faculty had allegedly taken items from another historic home on campus and installed them in the Thompson Home. The doomed Sprague House, which stood near Palmer and Cass, had things like stained glass windows, woodwork and picture frames removed by WSU professors. Preservation Wayne discussed litigation. (When the Sprague Home was torn down, it was 96 years old.)

By the early 1980s, the club’s membership was at 718, well above the 500 the Board of Governors required. In 1984, the Club celebrated the 100th anniversary of the home with a Victorian tea reception. On Oct. 22 of that year, extensive renovations, including the Thomas Bonner Parlor and the Maiullo Library, were finished.

The celebration was short-lived, however. In 1985, with issues of finances and enrollment, the Faculty Club moved out of the Thompson Home. Five years later, the School of Social Work moved in. Some renovations were done, but the architectural details of the main lobby were retained. Completed in the spring of 1990, the renovations included new windows, a new ventilation system, air-conditioning, seminar rooms, a student lounge and study areas.

In 2016, the Board of Governors voted to turn the home into student housing. The School of Social Work moved out that January and into a building on Woodward. The Board of Governors granted $350,000 for the conversion, which is to accommodate an estimated 65 residents. The home is scheduled to reopen in fall 2017.