Lavish Grayhaven community was crippled by Great Depression

A 1930 aerial view of the Grayhaven community with the Gar Wood mansion in the foregound.

In 1923 Edward Gray, chief engineer for Ford at the Highland Park plant, began his dream project — a boating community of homes, each with a 40-foot boat well, which could also drydock yachts through the winter.

Born on a farm near Peoria Ill, Gray came to Detroit in 1909, and went to work for Ford. After eight years with Ford, he turned to real estate and by 1931 had attracted the attention of the Fisher brothers, of Fisher Body fame; William Koerber, a prohibition era brewer, and Gar Wood, whose speed boats not only won races but made the rum-runners happy. All built large homes in Grayhaven. But the Great Depression made continued development almost impossible.

Gray took out a full page ad in a Detroit newspaper May 10, 1931, which read in part: “Grayhaven is a strictly private residential community minutes from downtown, yet isolated on the shore of the Detroit River…Homes range from moderately priced to very expensive….and the list of residents already reads like a Detroit Social Register…A paradise for Yachtsmen…created by a yachtsman. Restrictions provide that every home have a dry-dock in which the owner can keep his yacht safe and clean winter and summer…

Lawrence Fisher, shown here with actress Mary Pickford in 1938, bought a strip of 46 lots on which to build his Grayhaven mansion.

“Guarded gates and a private intercommunicating telephone system allow undesired traffic to be denied entrance…a privilege because the streets are owned outright by the residents…Grayhaven, merely a dream 18 years ago, is today a reality nearly complete…as shown in the photographs…The world’s largest and finest privately owned, fireproof marine garage is here…offering safe and clean storage to owners of boats and yachts from 10 to 75 feet in length…

“You may search the world over but you will not find another community like Grayhaven where the shore and city homes are so pleasingly combined. Ideal conditions…wholesome social conditions, health-giving atmosphere and sports…quietude and privacy…exceptional beauty…in city location…close to public and private schools…close to churches…

“The cost may be more than for the conventional type, but the difference is more than saved in the first two years by decreasing the cost of caring for the yacht and the cost of constructing a detached garage… and you may build a conventional home if you wish…Come to Grayhaven today…Tour it with the man who designed and developed it for you. Drive out to Dickerson Avenue, turn right and follow to the end of street and GRAYHAVEN.”

Eight other buyers had smaller homes built on the island and along the Port Lagoon mainland strip. But Gray’s dream did not come to fruition during his lifetime. He died in 1939 and his widow had to let the remaining vacant lots revert to the city for nonpayment of taxes.

However the three original Grayhaven builders stuck around despite changing conditions.

The first of them, the Fisher family, bought the entire easterly strip of 46 lots along the Starboard Lagoon facing Lenox Street. The U-shaped canal flows a half-mile to the single bridge connecting the rectangular 40-acre island in the middle of the entire 67-acre subdivision. The canal’s eastern entrance grabs some of the natural Detroit River current and channels it at one mile per hour around the island keeping the 10 foot deep water fresh and flowing. The wide canal allows 70-foot yachts to enter and maneuver. The Dodge family’s “Delphine” often docked behind the Fisher mansion.

Because the Fisher family was so large, many other Detroit homes are called “The Fisher Mansion,” but they should not be confused with Grayhaven’s Fisher Mansion. Lawrence P. Fisher, one of the seven Fisher brothers, spent $1.5 million to build his Grayhaven mansion in 1928. The home’s front faced Lenox, but the rear backed up to the wide canal. The grounds included a small golf course where Fisher entertained guests like golfing legend Walter Hagen.

Fisher chose a grand Spanish design that featured an open courtyard. The interior ballroom had a light blue ceiling with puffs of white clouds.

Fisher loved the theater and often invited the casts of touring musicals to his mansion. Once a chorus girl spied the stairs leading from Fisher’s library to his 104-foot boatwell below and remarked to another chorus girl, “Gee, this guy must be rich! He has boats in the basement.”

Fisher remained a bachelor for many years. Despite being linked to movie starlets and even Mary Pickford, Lawrence did not marry until 1951 when, at age 62, he wed Mrs. Dolly Roach. Fisher died in 1961, his widow in 1968.

In 1975 the Fisher mansion was purchased by two young members of prominent Detroit families. Alfred Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford, and Elisabeth Reuther Dickman, daughter of United Auto Workers leader Walter Ruether, met as members of the Hare Krishna religious group.

“When I first met Lekhasranvanti Dasi (Mrs. Dickman’s spiritual name) I didn’t think of her as the daughter of an opponent, but as a god sister,” Ford said in a 1983 interview. “I think our friendship just shows the potency of the process (of Krishna) that we’re following.”

Alfred Brush Ford and Elisabeth Luise Reuther stand in front of the old Fisher Mansion in Grayhave prior to its dedication in 1983 as the Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Ford is the grandson of Henry Ford and Reuther is the daughter of UAW founder Walter Reuther.

Alfred Brush Ford and Elisabeth Luise Reuther stand in front of the old Fisher Mansion in Grayhave prior to its dedication in 1983 as the Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Ford is the grandson of Henry Ford and Reuther is the daughter of UAW founder Walter Reuther.

In 1983 after seven years of renovation, the Krishnas invited the public to visit and view the restoration, and to also enjoy Krishna fare at the restaurant there, Govinda’s. The Krishnas renamed the mansion Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center, and changed its emphasis to roses, free roaming peacocks and a meditative lifestyle in place of golf, theater parties and yachts. The bowling alleys were converted into a 300-seat auditorium. Some of the boat wells rented out, but two were converted into 40 seat theaters to show the Krishna story.

Swami Visnupada, leader of the then 80-member group said, “We came into a very rundown section of Detroit, and since we’ve been here, the whole area has become very attractive. It’ll also help signal a spiritual revolution in Detroit by infusing a spirit in a city where many people suffer because they don’t understand what is important in life.”

The Krishnas have proven to be good neighbors and almost immune to the squabbling around them.

Another early Grayhaven resident, brewer William Koerber, bought his 62,000 square foot property in 1925. He built a large home facing the Detroit River across the canal from Gar Wood’s mansion.

The Koerber family had founded the Michigan Brewing Company in 1912 in Ionia, supposedly closing the Ionia brewery during Prohibition and using their trucks to haul what they called “near-beer” from Toledo. When Detroit’s notoriously violent Purple Gang saw them as competition, the Koerbers closed up shop in 1923.

After repeal the family opened breweries in Ionia, Port Huron and Toledo which operated until the fifties.

The Koerbers and their seven boys and one daughter lived in the Grayhaven home for nearly 40 years, eventually encountering a different set of hard times almost as bad as the Purple Gang or the Depression: urban blight. Slowly homes and lots fell to abandonment and disrepair.

A 1934 aerial view of Grayhaven.

A 1934 aerial view of Grayhaven.

In 1952 a steel executive paid $1,500 for a 50-foot lot on Grayhaven. In 1962 the city tried to sell all of its 87 lots, but received an offer of only $87,000. In 1966 the city almost sold them for about $1,700 each, but decided to hang on to the land for future plans.

“We paid $600 a front foot in 1925,” Mrs. Koerber said in a 1970 article. “No one gave it to us and we worked hard to pay the $80,000 in taxes over the years.” In 1966, Koerber offered to sell his 62,000 square foot property for $7 a foot, or $455,000, and got no takers.

The third of the original Grayhaven owners, boat builder and racer Gar Wood, built a spectacular mansion on the island facing the river overlooking the hydroplane course between Detroit and Belle Isle where Wood often sped to glory.

In a 1932 interview, Gar Wood’s wife watched him race his Miss America X past their Grayhaven home. “He believed in the adage that an easterner who marries a California girl will have good luck all his life. It worked.”

The Gar Wood graystone mansion featured 46 rooms, lavish marble floors and luxurious windows and doors. Sculpture and artwork graced the home. A basement swimming pool and an outdoor reflecting pool allowed the residents to avoid the river water. A great pipe organ provided music for the dancers in the grand ballroom.

Gar Wood leaves on vacation from his Grayhaven mansion in a sea plane.

The Woods also decorated in a more personal manner for their family. They called their young son, Gar Jr., “Ginger” and decorated his rooms with his favorite theme. He is “crazy about Indians.”

Mrs. Wood died in 1948, Gar Wood died in 1971 at age 90 at his Miami home.

Wood originally bought several extra Grayhaven lots, almost half of the island, but later allowed them to revert to the city for non-payment of taxes. But he hung on to his seven-acre Grayhaven estate. Wood had other homes in Algonac and Florida and during later years left his Detroit home unused.

In the early 1960s Wood tried to sell the home for $150,000 but there were no takers.

Construction of a dam at the foot of Continental Ave. in 1929.

In 1965 real estate investor E.J.Harris paid $100,000 for the seven-acre Gar Wood estate, about $3 dollars per square foot. In 1966 Harris bought 87 city-owned Grayhaven lots for about $12,000 an acre.

Harris also purchased 109-acre Peche Island from Canada for $1,500 a month payments, and planned to make it into a $30 million tourist attraction accessible by ferry. He planned to use fill to enlarge the island by 500 acres on the American side. He planned for a 1,000-boat marina accessible by cable car from the Grayhaven mainland.

But Harris ran into stiff opposition from neighbors and local political leaders and by 1971 had lost $700,000, and was over $500,000 in debt. He offered Peche island for auction and the Canadian government bought it back for $400,000.

Harris tried to redevelop Grayhaven, but the original bylaws and restrictions allowed only luxury single-family dwellings and required complete agreement of all the property owners to allow waivers. Even though Harris controlled 95 percent of the community, the remaining owners refused to vote with Harris on any waivers, group housing or marina plans.

Real estate developer E. J. Harris outlines his plans to build a $30 million tourist attraction on Peche Island, which he had purchased from the Canadian government in 1965.

So Harris rented the lavish and ornate Gar Wood estate to a motorcycle gang, “The Outlaws.”

Outlaw president, Lennie Braund, 27, sent out invitations to 356 “true brothers” from 18 chapters. “We brought in 18 half-barrels and 45 cases of beer, 22 cases of pop, 25 cases of wine, 15 Texas fifths (quarts) of booze plus the food — and we planned to clean it all up.”

“I wanted that place bad for a clubhouse for The Outlaws…I really respected that Gar Wood place. It would have made an ideal setup for us.”

The estate was trashed, but the Outlaws blamed hippies and conspiring neighbors. One neighbor, Mrs. George D. Kyes, defended the Outlaws and said “they (the hippies) have been tearing the place down piece by piece for years. Much of the statuary was broken, and strewn about the yard or thrown in the river. The rock bands and nudie parties drove us indoors quicker than a hurricane would.”

In 1976 the mansion’s east wing burned and collapsed. Fire fighters could not cross the narrow bridge onto the private island.

Harris sold his holdings that year to the state and the city for about $2 million. By 1981 most of the homes were destroyed by neglect and vandalism.

In 1989 about 200 lowrise and townhouse rentals, some with boat docks, were built near the bridge area. In 1998 57 luxury homes, each with a 40-foot boat well, were built.

Perhaps Gray would be pleased.

After neighbors blocked his plans to redevelop Grayhaven, he rented the Gar Wood mansion to The Outlaws motorcycle gang. Photo shows rubble of broken marble statues off the front porch of the mansion.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News