History of the Charles T. Fisher Mansion

Detroit was an exciting place to be in the early 1900’s. By 1920, it was the fourth largest city in the US with robust employment, growing prosperity, and for a select few, great wealth. Boston Edison, the location of the Charles T. Fisher Mansion, is a 36 square-block neighborhood designed and developed by some of Detroit’s most prominent citizens of the 20th century. This enclave became home to a who’s who of the most prosperous men of the day. These titans represented new money made in the fledgling automobile, merchant and manufacturing industries. They were the social and cultural elite, and they moved society.

On July 22, 1908, Charles and older brother Fred, together with Albert, an uncle, founded Fisher Body Company just as the automobile was about to emerge as a major industry. By 1914 the company had grown into the world’s largest manufacturer of auto bodies. They produced 100,000 cars per year and customers included Ford, Cadillac, and Studebaker. In 1926, after selling the company to General Motors, Charles and his brothers netted extraordinary wealth.

Architect George Mason worked closely with Charles’ wife Sarah to design a new home for the young Fisher Family. At the time, Mason had a well-established career designing important homes, churches, and public buildings in and around Detroit. His young apprentice, Albert Kahn, would continue that legacy and design the Fisher Building, a landmark office building and theatre, often referred to as Detroit’s largest art object for its jewel-like interior.

In 1922, Charles and Sarah Fisher moved into this 16,000 sq. ft. home and welcomed their sixth child soon thereafter. Although they owned seven homes, fully staffed throughout the year, this was their favorite and the one in which they remained until death — Charles in 1963 and Sarah in 1974.

Guests entered the Fisher home through magnificent doors made of iron and glass with bronze accents. A decorative plaster ceiling and a finely carved English walnut stairway leads up to the second floor and down to the lower level. Lions featured in the carvings are said to be holding the original Cadillac Shield design. The foyer also contains a carved mahogany organ containing 840 organ pipes, with 350 on the third floor, and an automatic violin in the basement. The Fishers, always on the cutting edge of modernity, delighted guests with ontrend organ music.

Throughout the first floor, grandeur and subdued opulence are prevalent. The library features a wood painted ceiling which includes the makers marks of many of the artisans who built the home. This room was originally designed as a billiard room, but when Sarah became disenchanted with the cigar smoke and noise, she moved the men to the lower level. The fireplace was imported from Europe and includes a mantle with carvings depicting the four seasons. The living room is a large and majestic space with black walnut paneled walls and elaborately carved fireplace mantle and surround.

The dining room has one of the six fireplaces in the home, plus 23 carat gold leaf, recently restored, on the elaborate plaster moldings. Hidden behind a decorative door is the silver vault, one of four vaults in the house. Only the butler and Mr. Fisher had the combination to these vaults.

The breakfast room was Chinese inspired with a lattice ceiling and black chinoiserie paintings. After WWII, when Asian influences fell out of favor, the art was painted over although some have been recently restored.

The glass walled sun room features an elaborate white Italian marble fountain and Flint Faience tiles. The tiles are unique as they were manufactured by the Champion Spark Plug Company. Company owner Albert Champion realized that the kilns used to produce porcelain spark plug caps could be damaged when turned off at night. So instead he used the kilns in off-hours to produce colorful tiles which found their way into the homes of many GM executives, although they can also be found as far away as the Presidential Palace of Peru. By 1933, the demand for spark plugs mirrored the demand for automobiles, and Champion was no longer able to continue its tile production.

Originally the home contained 12 bedrooms with two additional rooms in the Carriage House. The second floor housed the family bedrooms in the front with servants in the back. Blueprints of the third floor show a small bedroom for the live-in nurse and an adjacent room called “hospital” with an outside “hospital porch” for taking in the fresh air and sunshine. Seventeen staff members were required to keep the house in operation. Each door in the house had a unique key, and servant access to the keys was closely controlled.

The lower level, with ballroom, billiard room, prohibition liquor vault and pub room, was the setting for parties and revelry. Many homes of that ilk contained ballrooms, and lavish entertaining at home was the standard for the day. The liquor vault and pub room were labeled “cellar” on the original blueprints filed with the City, perhaps to circumvent the Volstead Act of 1919. To further this narrative, a secret tunnel leads from the lower level into the carriage house.

The Fisher family were well known as generous philanthropists, donating to the Catholic Church — a 40,000 square foot home for Bishop Gallagher, plus money for charities, schools and hospitals. Charles established the Fisher Body Craftsman Guild competition in which young men crafted a model coach, and in later years a concept car, with the winner receiving a college scholarship. This program produced many future automotive design engineers. The Fisher’s also donated art to the Detroit Institute of Art and funded a residential home for orphaned children now known as the St. Vincent and Sarah Fisher Center. Two major passions, thoroughbred horses and yachting, occupied much of Charles’ time. Sarah and Charles were very private individuals who led interesting, opulent, and productive lives.

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