Detroit's historic Indian Village

Architect Albert Kahn designed this Indian Village Georgian Revival home in 1909 for Hugh and Frances Houser Chalmers. Chalmers was head of the Thomas-Detroit automobile company, later the Chalmers Motor Car Company which eventually became the Chrysler Corp.

Indian Village,  a residential gem in the heart of Detroit, represents a unique combination of social and architectural history. The Village, which was placed on  the national register of historic places in 1972,  is located on the east side of Detroit, three miles from downtown. It is bounded by E. Jefferson on the south, and Mack to the north and consists of three streets, Seminole, Iroquois and Burns.

Indian Village has 17 types of architecture styles, almost all built between 1895 and the late 1920s. Styles include Georgian, Federal, Colonial Revival, Arts and Crafts, Romanesque, and Tudor Revival. Many of the homes have elaborate carved wood moldings, pewabic tile, onyx fireplaces, vaulted ceilings, elevators, third-floor ballrooms, servants’ quarters and carriage houses bigger than many 1970s-era suburban mansions.

The homes were designed by some of Detroit’s most renowned architects, including Albert Kahn, Louis Kamper and William Stratton. They were built for prominent Detroiters such as, Edsel Ford, Arthur Buhl, Bernard Stroh and J. Burgess Book Sr. The first Village home is reported to have been built in 1895 at Jefferson and Iroquois, and later became headquarters for radio station WXYZ and the home of the Lone Ranger.

Dr. Thomas Brunk, restored his second house in the historic district in 1979. The Dr. James Harvey home on Seminole caught his eye for several reasons. The cherub faces carved in limestone around the doorway, for example provided an unusual accent to the French Gothic exterior with its many peaks and gables. Brunk was also attracted by the spacious downstairs library and the greenhouse. What intrigued him most about the house, was its history. “It’s interesting because this house and the one next door were both designed by John Scott in 1911 for a brother and sister and their families,” says Brunk, who was the President of the Indian Village Assocication. The two houses were owned by Dr. James Harvey, one time physician for the City of Detroit, and his sister, Mrs. Martin Borgman.

Seminole Street, looking south toward Jefferson from Lafayette.

     According to the Indian Village Historical Collections, originally, the land belonged to Francois Rivard and Jacques St. Aubin, recipients of French land-grant “ribbon” farms, long narrow strips of land that gave each farmer some river frontage. Abraham Cook acquired the farms between 1811 and 1815. The area consisted mostly of farms, and a couple of upper-class river cottages, but the main attraction was a mile long oval race track. The track was the site of several Michigan State Fairs during the 1860s and was known as the Hamtramck Race Course.

Around 1893, Cook’s heirs formed the Cook Farm Company, Ltd. to develop a “first class residential district on a generous scale”, and the prices were set high so that only the wealthy could build there.

Many assumed that at one time Indians lived on the land. That may be, but John Owen Jr., a key player in the development of the area, selected the name “Indian Village” because he felt the romantic title would add to the sales appeal.

This brick and stucco, half-timbered arts-and-crafts home was built in 1905 for $8,000 by architects Alpheus W. Chittenden and Charles Kotting.

      In 1895, when the first Indian Village homes were under construction, Detroiters got around town in horse-drawn carriages and electric trolley cars. The homes were closer together because there was no need for two-car wide driveways, which would be decades in the future. The homes’ carriage houses are now two- and three-car garages, and some of them are rented out as quite roomy apartments.

In the 1940s-60s the close-knit Indian Village community often sponsored season activities like winter sleigh rides. At Christmas prizes were awarded to the house that boasted the most original out-door decorations. In the spring, parents and children joined neighbors with rakes, hoses and brooms for a clean-up drive and caches of pennies were concealed in the debris as prizes. During the biggest event, the annual June “Powwow”, residents got out their war paint and dressed in Indian costumes to grill steaks.

Through the years Indian Village has experienced some highs and lows. By the mid-1920s, there was an exodus of wealthy families to the Grosse Pointes. During the depression, home values decreased, but property taxes did not and some of the older and larger homes closest to the Detroit River were turned into boarding houses.

After the 1967 riot, residents started complaining of increasing vandalism and minor assaults. In early 1970 Indian Village residents hired an armed, 24-hour private police force to control the harassment and petty theft in the area. During the 1980s residents debated turning some of their streets into cul-de-sacs to fight some of the property crime and violence.

In 1995, Indian Village celebrated its 100th birthday with its 23rd annual Home and Garden Tour, that also featured musical entertainment, turn-of-the-century costumes, vintage automobiles and art displays. The celebration raised a record $100,000 from an unexpected crowd of 11,000. The Detroit Public Library also held a “there and now” exhibit. Sixteen cases of photographs, maps, deeds, period furniture and memorabilia tracing the 350-home neighborhood.

What makes Indian Village unique is the wide variety of architectural styles.

      Resident J.B. Dixson calls her neighborhood “almost a model of a true urban environment”. “The oldest home in Indian Village still exists on Iroquois and was built in 1895. All the homes are historic treasures. Henry Ford II was born in Indian Village and the Dodge family also built a home there,” Dixson said.

Historic Indian Village Home and Garden Tours began in 1958; since 1973 the tours have been presented each year, making this year the 26th consecutive tour. The tour is sponsored by the Indian Village Association, which was founded in 1937, to help preserve the original character of the neighborhood. They were also successful in having the community zoned for single family occupancy.

Homes featured in Indian Village tours:

2152 Burns: George M. Holley of the Holley Carburetor Co. chose William Van Tine of Pittsburgh to design his home in 1916. Van Tine was the architect of Henry Ford’s Fair Lane Manor.

1485 Burns: Built in 1911 by Bernard C. Wetzel, this home was first occupied by Jacob Carl Danziger, treasurer and general manager of Detroit Motor Casting Co.

2921 Burns: Built in 1923 by architects Herman & Simons, this home’s first residents were Bernard G. Koether and wife, Harriet Bowerman. Koether was General Motors director of sales, advertising and public relations

2171 Iroquois: Built by banker Enoch Smith in 1915, this home was purchased by Edsel B. Ford in 1917 prior to his marriage to Eleanor Clay. Known as the “Ford Honeymoon House”, the Edsel Fords lived there until late 1921. Henry Ford II and Benson Ford were born there.

1763 Iroquois: Built for Christian Henry Hecker, son of Col. Hecker and president of the Hecker Insurance Co. The Architects were MacFarlane, Maul, & Lentz and the construction cost was $23,000 in 1915.

1005 Iroquois: Colonial Revival home designed by Rogers & MacFarlane in 1899 for Henry L. Walker.

1090 Seminole: Architects Donaldson & Meier designed the classical Federal style home for attorney John Beaumont in 1911. Beaumont was a founding member of Smith, Beaumont, & Harris.

St. Paul at Seminloe, looking south to the river.

1039 Seminole: 1901 residence designed by William B. Stratton. Built for Wayland D. Stearns of the Stearns Drug Co. at a cost of $9,000.

1480 Seminole: Home of brewer Fritz Goebel. Architects Chittenden & Kotting borrowed from Dutch and German architectural precedents for this design.

Besides the homes, the Village has 5 churches, a club house and a few schools.

Detroit Waldorf School at 2555 Burns is an independent school for students in grades K-8. It claims to develop a child’s imagination by emphasizing the arts along with academics. It also a holistic approach to nutrition in attempts to nurture the “total child” – in spirit, intellect, soul and body. Waldorf is housed in the former Liggett School which was built in 1913 by Albert Kahn.

Churches in Indian Village

Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church – 8625 E. Jefferson & Burns. Organized in 1854, the original building at Rivard and Jefferson burned and was replaced by a red brick structure, which the congregation occupied until 1926 when the present church building was completed.

Christ Lutheran Iroquois Avenue Church. Designed by Louis Keil, a Great Lakes steamship designer and member of the congregation, the church was built in 1913 for $25,000. An addition was added in 1928 on the north side.

New Friendship Memorial Baptist Church, Greater Christ Baptist Church, and Conventional Baptist Church

The Jefferson Ave. Presbyterian Church at E. Jefferson and Burns.

Detroit’s Indian Village Tennis Club. Founded in 1912 by a group of millionaires and civic leaders, the club is housed in a building 48-feet long by 30-feet wide, which cost less than $4,000 at the time and contained three clay courts. The private recreation facility was destroyed by fire Nov. 24, 1984, and a new, larger building was completed on the original site at 1502 Parker near E. Jefferson, in 1985. The new clubhouse measured 70 feet by 46 feet and cost about $175,000. Early rules required “complete, neat costumes, preferably white or gray,” and banned sleeveless tops. Lace-trimmed shorts for women were unthinkable and any player who comported himself in the tempestuous style of modern champions would have been barred for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Indian Village associations:

* Indian Village Association – President, Peg Reihmer
* Indian Village Historical Collections Inc.
* Indian Village Men’s Garden Club
* The Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association – Indian Village Branch
* Historical Area Cocktail Klub (HACK)
* Indian Play Group

Paul Ryder, a Real Estate Agent, who moved to Indian Village from Ann Arbor, where he owned a record shop for 16 years, says “the beautiful homes and historical background is what attracted me to the neighborhood, but the great neighbors is what keeps me here.” Ryder continues,” there is a sense of community spirit, and I am proud of residents who are taking care of their property to maintain the historical status and integrity that people worked hard for.”

Ryder is also on the board of directors of the Indian Village Association and co-editor of a monthly newsletter, Smoke Signals, which is used to inform the community of events and general information, such as garage sales. In terms of security, the private security patrol is no longer used, but neighborhood walkers keep their eyes open, which seems to limit opportunistic theft from open garages and such.

Now prices of the homes in the Indian Village area range from $90,000 to $400,000. However there is a home on Iroquois being sold for 1 million dollars, which has an elevator, 1,000 sq ft sitting room and a carriage house with a basement.

Garden and carriage house at 1006 Iroquois. Many of the carriage houses in Indian Village are larger than modern suburban homes.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Zena Simmons / The Detroit News