Locations | People

Who slept in the U.S. Grant house?

 By Laura Berman / Detroit News columnist

A tour of the Ulysses S. Grant House at the state fairgrounds raises this question: Who’s been sleeping in the waterbed?

Ulysses S. Grant and his wife lived in the Greek Revival house in 1849, on Fort Street. Threatened by bulldozers as factories moved in, the house was moved to the state fairgrounds in 1937, restored over two decades, and moved again in 1958. It was visited every year by thousands back then and decorated with period furnishings, wallpaper, and even the four-poster bed Grant and his wife supposedly slept in.

Today, the 170-year-old house is still at the fairgrounds. But no official history explains the queen-sized waterbed in the master bedroom, the Formica counters in the kitchen, the baseboard heating and acoustic tile ceiling — in short, style that’s more 1970s Double-Wide than 1850. For years, the house was used for storage and official — or perhaps, given the waterbed, less than official — meetings.

1919 photo of the house

Detroit had a connection to Union commander Gen. Ulysses S. Grant: He was stationed in the city in 1850-51 as the regiment quartermaster of the 4th Infantry. He stayed in this home on East Fort Street, seen in a 1919 photo. (Detroit News archives)

What’s clear is that at some point, the U.S. Grant House devolved from beloved museum to historic house of neglect. Now its future, so breathlessly deemed certain by newspaper writers 50 years ago, is again uncertain.

Now the house Grant rented is in the hands of the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority, the state entity that’s agreed to sell the fairgrounds to Magic Plus LLC, a development group that includes NBA and MSU basketball star Magic Johnson. But the land bank has agreed to move the house — one of at least four registered historic buildings at the fairgrounds — to a new site, still to be determined. The state historical center has agreed to find a proper new location.

“It’s not in terrible shape,” says Sandra Clark, director of the State Historical Center, which has accepted responsibility to find a site. So far, the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, near Eastern Market and on the Dequindre Cut, is the likely place.

Clark’s right; the house isn’t in terrible shape, but its status as a storage area and camping site suggests officials long ago lost interest in maintaining it as a museum.

The Detroit News library files contain dozens of articles about the house, once a source of historical pride and presidential connection. Its age, and history, make it worth preserving now, perhaps even more than in the 1950s, when society ladies dressed in 19th century period costume and ushered visitors through the house. A white picket fence was built, mimicking the original Fort Street fence.

Grant House interior

The Grant house was saved from demolition in 1936 and moved to the State Fairgrounds at Woodward and Eight Mile, opposite the Coliseum, where it was open to the public for decades. This 1936 photo shows the interior, furnished with period objects. (Detroit News archives)

Grant, the 18th president of the United States, was a 29-year-old Army lieutenant and newlywed when he and wife Julia Dent Grant paid $250 a year to live there. Grant was a young officer on the way up whose exploits in Detroit are documented. Smoking a cigar in bed, he almost burned the Fort Street house down.

Before moving on to battles, presidency, and presidential scandal, Grant left his mark: In 1851, then living on East Jefferson, he was the plaintiff in a slip-and-fall lawsuit after taking a tumble on an icy sidewalk.

Jill Robinson, the land bank’s state fairgrounds project manager, who escorted me through the house, is hopeful the house will find a safe new home. Despite the attacks on its architectural integrity, it’s been secure and maintained over the years.

In 1936, a Detroit News editorial writer, praising the insurance executive who bought the Grant House, mentioned that few surviving Detroit homes predated the city’s great industrial age.

“The few that remain should be preserved with care,” he wrote. “They have a worth that is hard to estimate.”

Almost 80 years later, that’s still true.

 lberman@detroitnews.com

Photo gallery:  The Civil War and Michigan