“That Old White House on the Corner”

The El Moore, built in 1898, was designed by prolific local architect A.C. Varney. In his first post for the El Moore blog, Detroit architecture & history enthusiast Jonathan Peters takes a look at another of Varney’s buildings in the neighborhood, “that old white house on the corner,” located just one block east of the El Moore. 

The Queen Anne-style house at the southwest corner of Cass Avenue and West Alexandrine has a long, fascinating past that is integral not only the neighborhood it inhabits, but to the City of Detroit as a whole.

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3975 Cass (originally 709 Cass) was built for Robert H. Brown, a tobacco magnate, along with his wife Jennie, at a time when the street was lined with elaborate homes and flats for the well-to-do. The designer, Almon Clother Varney, was one of Detroit’s most prolific architects during the late Victorian period. Born in Luzerne, New York in 1849, Varney moved to the “boom town” of Detroit in 1881 and started his own architecture firm, A.C. Varney & Co. Mr. Varney is also credited with designing the city’s first apartment building, The Varney, which was located at the corner of Park and Montcalm. It was demolished in 1996.

But back to the Brown House.

In 1916, the dwelling was purchased by the W.R. Hamilton Co. Funeral Home, a business founded in 1855. It was during this incarnation that the home would achieve its greatest claim to fame. As many diehard Detroit historians know, Erik Weisz, better known as Harry Houdini, the world’s greatest magician, gave what would turn out to be his final performance at the Garrick Theater, which was adjoined to the Lafayette Building, on October 24, 1926. Unbeknownst to the audience, Houdini was in dire straits, health-wise. He was suffering from acute appendicitis and had a fever of 104 degrees. Many believe this was triggered from an encounter he had with a college student after a performance in Montreal days earlier. On October 16, after a show at the Princess Theater in Montreal, J. Gordon Whitehead, a student at nearby McGill University, approached Houdini in his dressing room. The youngster wanted to know if Houdini’s claims of being able to sustain any blows to the stomach were true. Whitehead then proceeded to deliver some heavy punches to Houdini’s abdomen.

Houdini valiantly performed at the Garrick. He even passed out during his act before being revived. Afterwards he was rushed to Grace Hospital on John R. After lingering for a few day, Erik Weisz finally succumbed to his injuries on October 31, 1926 at 1:26 PM in Room 401 of Grace Hospital’s John R. Wing. His body was prepared at the Hamilton Funeral Home before being transported back to his hometown of New York City, where his remains are interred at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens.

During its time on Cass, the W.R. Hamilton Co. would serve some of Detroit’s most prominent families, including the Ford family. Three generations of Ford men, Henry, Edsel and Henry II, were serviced here. In 1930, a Art Deco-style mortuary chapel was added to the Brown residence. In 1981, both structures were purchased by the Art Center Music school. ACMS is the oldest school of its kind in Detroit, dating back to 1922.

Today, Art Center Music School is long gone and the future of this Gilded Age gem is in serious doubt. It is my sincere wish to see this landmark restored to its proper glory.

El Moore