Historic Detroit

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John J. Bagley House

Perhaps few others are as synonymous with Detroit as John Judson Bagley, whose mansion at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Park Avenue towered above Grand Circus Park for nearly four decades.

John Judson Bagley was born July 24, 1832, in Medina, N.Y., to a pioneering family. During his young life he spent his years in Lockport, N.Y., then Constantine, Mich., and Owosso, Mich., before arriving in Detroit in 1847, at age 14. In those days before the automobile came to Detroit, the city attracted a number of industries, such as cartmaking, shipping, stovemaking, lumbering, and tobacco production. It was with the latter industry that John J. Bagley established himself, first as an apprentice, then as a salesman, then an agent, and finally as a manufacturer with his own tobacco house of John J. Bagley & Co. Having amassed a small fortune in tobacco, Bagley turned his interests to politics. In 1855, he was elected to the Detroit Board of Education and was among the founding members of what would become the Republican Party, later serving as chairman for four years. His other work included positions as Detroit alderman and a member of the Detroit Common Council and the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, as well as an organizer and president of Michigan Mutual Life Insurance Co.

In 1868, John J. Bagley and his wife, Frances E. Bagley, set out to construct their impressive mansion on Park Avenue spanning the entire block between Macomb (now known, appropriately, as Bagley Street) and Washington Boulevard, fronting on Washington. The mansion of incredible proportion was built in the Italianate Villa style, a style popular in Detroit in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Sadly, the name of its architect appears to be lost to the ages. The building has the interesting distinction of being the first house in Michigan in which plate glass was used in the windows. The Bagleys moved in on Jan. 1, 1869. The house was of brick construction and an L-shaped structure wrapped around a veranda and an impressive four-story tower, where John J. Bagley could surely look out over the entire expanse of Grand Circus Park. In addition to the residence, an equally well-appointed carriage house was erected on Macomb. While not much is known of its interior, the Detroit Free Press wrote Aug. 2, 1868, about the house’s construction, that Bagley’s mansion was “one of the largest and most elegant houses in that part of the city.” The Free Press continued saying the house featured “solid stone” and “hardwoods” and “will be finished in the most expensive and elegant manner.” It was said that in Bagley’s library, he hung a motto that projected onto all that witnessed it a simple but charming phrase “East or west, home is best.” Surrounding himself with treasures of art and literature, and his wife and seven children - Florence, Sherman, John, Frances, Paul, Olive, and Helen Bagley - took immense joy in domestic life, welcoming many from all walks of life into his humble abode. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Matthew Arnold and Bronson Alcott were among the famous guests to stay at the Bagley home.

But Bagley’s greatest feat was his candidature and subsequent election by, according to the Free Press “an immense majority,” to governor of Michigan in 1873, a position he would hold for two terms, until 1877. As governor, Bagley accomplished much including the establishment of the Michigan Board of Health, the Michigan Fish Commission, and the State Pioneer Society. He took upon himself the task of controlling juvenile delinquency and was an adamant supporter of regulation of the railroads. Bagley was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Detroit and was thus a supporter of Prohibition and helped usher in the liquor tax law. Bagley constructed new schools for the imprisoned, including the State School, and consistently took it upon himself to consider the welfare of what were then referred to as the “neglected classes.” In fact, it was Bagley’s administration during which the State Capitol Building was first introduced to the citizens of Michigan. In a sermon written for Bagley upon his death the Rev. T.B. Forbush spoke that Bagley’s administration was characterized by four principle tenets: 1) that the state should contract no debts or incur any expenses that it could not promptly meet, 2) that those who were less fortunate, above all children, should have no less opportunity than those who are fortunate, 3) that education should be practical and widespread and necessary for industry, and 4) that he never quivered in his confidence in the people of Michigan. Bagley was quoted by the Free Press as saying that having “faith that with good laws, equal justice, and general education as the foundations, we could build here a State that would stand forever as the handiwork of a free people.”

John J. Bagley passed away in San Francisco on July 27, 1881, and his remains were returned to Detroit and interred at Woodmere Cemetery. At his funeral, located at his mansion off Grand Circus Park, the streets were said by the Free Press to be densely packed with people who had come to pay their respects, so much so that the crowd stretched for 2 or 3 miles down Fort Street and Woodward Avenue. In 1887, H.H. Richardson designed a lasting monument to John J. Bagley, when he designed the Bagley Memorial Fountain in Cadillac Square.

There exists an old saying that behind every great man stands an even greater woman, and nothing truer could be said of Frances E. Bagley, John J. Bagley’s wife and love of 26 years before his untimely death. Born Frances E. Newbury in Rutland, Vt., Frances spent her youth surrounded by the religion of her Presbyterian minister father and the culture and travels of her mother. In 1855, Frances married John J. Bagley, who was for her a lifelong companion since childhood. During her life in Detroit and her years spent living in the lovely house and estate on Park, Frances founded a Sunday school and at her church, the First Unitarian Church, she taught a class in ancient religions, a class so popular it commonly outgrew the limits of the church parlors attracting on average 50 participants each session. Frances held the position of president of the Women’s Hospital and the Women’s Club and was an active member of the Industrial School. She maintained membership of the English Society for Hellenic Study and the Archaeological Institute of America, which met every session in her lovely home on Park. Frances, in sharing with her husband’s love of domestic life, would hold speeches for the entire public at their Park Avenue mansion including one evening where the Free Press recounts an enthralling speech by a monk on different Hindu philosophies which drew an immense crowd to the residence. If that wasn’t enough, Frances was a corresponding member of the Anthropological Society in Washington, D.C., and the Egyptian Exploration Society. Frances was even selected as one of the lady managers at large of the World’s Fair in Chicago of 1893, where she helped promote the opening of the fair on Sundays. After her husband’s death, Frances spent many years traveling, venturing as far as Greece and Egypt, which was no easy feat in those days. According to the Free Press, Frances Bagley was an accomplished student of literature, a liberal in her efforts, a social leader in her community, and a charming conversationalist. She passed away in 1898, 17 years after her husband.

The Bagley mansion served a stint for a while as the Michigan Conservatory of Music. An ad in December 1907 for the conservatory claimed it had "national fame," and was "the leading, most thorough, progressive and artistic institution in America."

But on Oct. 1, 1907, when it was sold to Arthur H. Fleming of Pasadena, Calif., for $210,000 (approximately $5 million dollars today, when adjusted for inflation). Speculation immediately turned to a hotel coming to the site, but that announcement would be several years away, and the conservatory continued operating out of the house. Meanwhile, in August 1911, Fleming bought the Frank H. Jerome property adjoining the Bagley site. This gave Fleming 182 feet of frontage on Washington Avenue and 182 feet on Bagley.

On March 17, 1912, it was announced that the conservatory had obtained a different Detroit luminary's former home as its new home base, that of Detroit Mayor and Michigan Gov. Hazen S. Pingree. The Pingree house had been previously used by the Eastern Star Temple. The home's third-floor ballroom had seating capacity for about 300, making it ideal for a concert hall. After 12 years in the Bagley House, the move was to be made about April 1 of that year. And the move came just in time: The Bagley House was torn down in June 1912.

"It was announced by the representatives of Mr. Fleming that the building was being torn down to save taxes to the owner," the Detroit News wrote June 28, 1912. "The real reason, so those in touch with the situation say, was to make ready for the erection of the hotel."

Those in touch with the situation were correct.

In June 1913, it was announced that the United Hotels Co. would build it. That deal failed. Instead, Fleming sold the property a month later to Ellsworth M. Statler, in order to build the Statler Hotel. Ground was broken for the Statler on July 2, 1913, and it opened Feb. 6, 1915, ushering in a new era of hotels in Detroit.

Dan Austin of HistoricDetroit.org contributed to this report.