The idyllic neighborhood of Ransom Gillis

Bill Loomis
Special to The Detroit News

The houses and surrounding empty blocks of Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood are regularly described as “blighted,” but Brush Park isn’t blighted. It reached blighted 70 years ago. Today it’s post-blight, an empty area of field grass and stones. It’s so far gone it’s hard to imagine what it was like to live there. But in its heyday, Brush Park was the neighborhood everyone envied.

Alfred Street was lined with Victorian homes of wealthy Detroiters, like this striking residence belonging to civil engineer George Jerome,  photographed in 1881. The house's architectural style is Eastlake Victorian, featuring complex roof planes and lavish ornamentation.

Recently 2,000 people showed up on a sunny autumn afternoon to walk through a Brush Park house restored by Nicole Curtis, the star of the TV show “Rehab Addict.” It was the former grand Victorian ruin called the Ransom Gillis house, built in the 1870s at the corner of Alfred Street and John R in what is now considered Midtown. Its distinctive turret, bright-colored tile accents and stone flower carvings hint at the gracious living of the wealthy of that time.

Former Detroit News editor Russell McLauchlin was born in 1894 and grew up in Brush Park. He wrote about the neighborhood regularly for The Detroit News in his Town Talk column, and compiled his memories of Alfred Street in a book in 1946. “All the householders were well acquainted and every front door swung open at a youngster’s touch,” he wrote. “On a summer’s evening there was no front porch unoccupied. The front porch brought all these neighbors into a single, close-knit community, as if one pleasant sitting-room had stretched, quite unobstructed, for a quarter-mile.”

This 22-block area east of Woodward was one of Detroit’s finest neighborhoods of the Gilded Age from 1870 to 1900. These wealthy few lived in magnificent homes on tree-lined streets and were respected city leaders, mostly Christian and usually Protestant. In Detroit’s version of the Victorian era, men made fortunes as manufacturers or related wholesalers. Ransom Gillis was among them.

Who was Ransom Gillis?

Gillis was the quintessential Victorian businessman, responsible citizen and family father. He was born in 1838 in upstate New York and like so many from his generation came to Detroit at the end of the Civil War. In 1872 he was a founding partner in the dry goods wholesaler Edson, Moore & Co. After both James Edson and then George Moore retired he became sole managing owner and subsequently extremely wealthy.

Businessman Ransom Gillis was born in upstate New York in 1838, moved to Detroit after the Civil War and became a prominent member of Detroit society. He died in 1901 at age 64.

While a prominent man in Detroit, he was never featured in the newspapers until after his death on Dec. 31, 1901. His obituaries repeated phrases like “to know him was to love him,” “sterling integrity” and “universally admired.” He never drank liquor and led prayer meetings at the Y.M.C.A. at lunch time. He and his wife donated time and money to many charities and society events:

“The Yale Glee and Banjo Club were royally entertained during their stay in Detroit … by Mrs. Ransom Gillis and Miss Grace Gillis [daughter]. The decorations were in red and green and they provided refreshments.” — Detroit Free Press, Dec. 22, 1895.

Ransom Gillis was a bank board member and a senior elder at the First Presbyterian Church. (Many families in Brush Park were Presbyterians, coming from Canada of Scottish descent.) He was a leading member of the Republican Party’s Michigan Club and a trustee at Grace Hospital. His name was commonly listed with the other Detroit Victorian leaders of his day: U.S. Sen. James McMillan, also a multi-millionaire investor; D.W. Ferry, founder of the Ferry Seed Co.; J.L. Hudson, founder of Hudson’s Department store and Hudson automobiles; Christian H. Buhl, owner of an iron foundry; J.G. Standish, director of First National Bank; Thomas McGraw, wholesaler; M. Fyfe, shoe manufacturer; J.H. Muir, railroad executive, and a few others, many of whom were pallbearers at his funeral.

The Gillises’ neighborhood

Brush Park was home for many of these captains of industry. The Muirs lived across the street, the Standish family lived on the street, Thomas McGraw’s home was four doors down, and Joseph L. Hudson lived a few blocks away on Alfred. John R was the cross street and was busy with horse-drawn traffic. (In those days McLauchlin says it was pronounced Ja-NARR.) But Alfred Street was quiet. The street pavement was made of cut cedar block, which made a hollow clump when horses walked on it in summers.

McLauchlin’s family lived two houses down from the Gillis house on Alfred Street. The Gillises had a barn that backed up to the alley behind their home for their horses, carriages, and a uniformed coachman who lived above. Not all the families could afford such a luxury.

The Ransom Gillis house on Alfred Street at John R is seen in 1876, a Venetian Gothic style home with a turret, ornate columns beneath the front portico, a mansard roof and lots of iron work, ceramic details and other ornamentation.

The lawns were trimmed, furnaces fueled, and snow shoveled for the entire street by a 40-year-old German man named George Brudell. He was assisted by his white-bearded father who spoke only German.

Twice a year a woman named Miss Van Horn would come to each house in Brush Park and spend several days tailoring the women’s wardrobes. While at the house she ate at the family table, and being so intimate with so many families was prone to gossip, never scandalous but pointedly critical of neighbors’ household hygiene, according to McLauchlin.

The families of Brush Park were kept healthy and whole by Dr. A.W. Imrie, the neighborhood family physician whose horse-drawn trap (a two-wheeled carriage) was a common sight in Brush Park and which for some unknown reason had bright yellow wheels. He and a nurse, Sarah Hawthorne, knew every family member. As McLauchlin wrote, “She slapped us into existence the moment we were born, and closed the eyes of our dear ones when they departed.”

There were neighborhood characters like Mr. Elisha Taylor. He was in his 80s when McLauchlin knew him and every day arose and dressed in full evening attire - tuxedo with tails, top hat, white tie, cummerbund and cane — to walk the street and pay a morning call on some neighbor who had died 20 years ago. His most striking feature was his resplendent snow-white beard that hung down to his waist. Neighborhood children were sent out to make sure he was safe and escort him home.

There were no ice cream trucks but children waited for D. Peters’ pony-drawn popcorn wagon, described as the world’s smallest wagon, barely big enough for D. Peters and his popcorn machine. A small bag of popcorn sold for one penny, a large bag for a nickel.

Brush Park’s demise

It was an idyllic time for these families, but short lived. Brush Park had been established in the 1860s, when the Brush family began breaking up their ancient farm, which stretched northeast of Woodward from the Detroit River for three miles. With the dawn of the automobile at the turn of the century there was no longer a need to live so close to downtown, so families began moving out to new enclaves such as Boston Edison, Indian Village and Grosse Pointe.

As early as 1908, the massive Victorian houses were no longer desired and began to be converted into rooming homes for factory workers desperate for housing, as offered in this typical classified advertisement from 1908:

“Owner leaving city. Offering nicely furnished 22 room rooming house. Alfred St. Clears $200 monthly. Price $3000+. Three toilets. Two baths. Bargain.”

By the 1920s a Sanborn Insurance survey showed that every single house on Alfred Street was listed as a rooming house. When African-Americans began migrating from the South, Brush Street became home to many, and racial tension followed as white immigrants feared competition for limited jobs. Part of the terrible race riot of 1943 took place in this area, some nights directly in front of the Ransom Gillis house.

Another new housing development aims for Brush Park

McLauchlin described the neighborhood in 1946: “No representative of the neighboring families remains. The houses, mostly standing as they did half a century ago, are dismal structures. Some have night blooming grocery stores in their front yards. [The Ransom Gillis house.] Some have boarded windows. All stand in bitter need of paint and repair. It is a desolate street; a scene of poverty and chop-fallen gloom; possibly of worse things.”

Over the decades the area became more valued for parking cars, a twisted outcome since automobiles caused the neighborhood’s downfall.

It is almost a miracle that a few of the houses remain and have been preserved. The restoration of the Ransom Gillis mansion, a planned $70 million Brush Park development by Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services, and other housing development plans for Erskine and St. Antoine streets portends better days for the neighborhood, something that would certainly please Russell McLauchlin:

“At night my concomitants and I would play ‘ketch’ until it was too dark to see. Cats would streak across the lawn on dark business of their own. Our dogs would romp around for a while … and finally seek their own porch and go to sleep. Then the arc lights would flicker into power, the night hawks would give their raucous cries overhead, mothers’ voices would ring out calling home their broods, and soon screen doors would slam, lights appear in sitting room windows and the very elm trees which made of Alfred Street a long green tunnel for the whole summer’s length, would seem, without much fancy to huddle down more closely and link protecting arms about a placid neighborhood.”

Alfred Street memories

Russell McLauchlin’s book on Brush Park, “Alfred Street,” is available online for free through University of Michigan’s Hathi Trust Digital Library at https://www.hathitrust.org.

Bill Loomis’s latest book, “On This Day in Detroit History,” will be released Jan. 11, 2016.