Historical Architecture of Grosse Pointe – Welcome to 855 Ellair Place

Last week we presented 824 Lake Shore, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Estate. Set on 4.3 acres with approximately 445’ of water frontage the property features a 5,490 square foot midcentury modern main house, a charming guest cottage (created as an artist studio, in 1966), and a white clapboard farmhouse.

This week we head to 855 Ellair Place – a mid century modern home completed in 1951 by George Bickford Brigham, Jr. for William Harris.

George B. Brigham, Jr. has been called Ann Arbor’s “first modern architect”. He created at least 40 modern style homes in the city, and was nationally recognized as an early pioneer in the use of pre-fabricated materials in residential architecture. Source: www.a2modern.org. His work in Grosse Pointe however, appears to be limited to one special project – 855 Ellair Place.

855 Ellair Place is a 2,217 sq ft mid century ranch style home, reminiscent of the work by Frank Lloyd Wright. The three-bedroom single story residence includes a white marble foyer and extensive use of California redwood.  The open floor plan features a narrow 7’ x 26’ hall, a 16’ x 26’ sq ft living room, and a 13’ x 15’ sq ft dining room. The master bedroom is 15’ x 16’ sq ft, and at some point an 8’ x 11’ sq ft dark room was added to one of the rooms. It appears the William Harris and his wife resided at the property until 1979.

William Harris was the father of actress Julie Harris (born in 1925, Julie Harris was known for her classical and contemporary stage work).Mr. Harris, born in 1897, was an investment banker and authority on zoology. He married Elsie Smith, a nurse, in 1923. That same year Mr. Harris hired prominent New York Architect Alfred Hopkins (Hopkins’ specialized in creating distinctive European-style estates for wealthy Americans) to design a grand English inspired manor house for his family on the shores of Lake St. Clair – 15410 Windmill Pointe. In 1929, the size of the house increased substantially after Harris hired noted architect Hugh T. Keyes to expand it. The east wing was extended upward and outward, additional bedrooms were added, along with a second floor nursery, basement game room, taproom and a sunken rose garden. Keyes ensured the original limestone details, stonework carvings, the windows, and doors were reused in the new additions, and that the living room and garden courtyard maintained their prominence as key focal points to the property.

Mr. and Mrs. Harris lived at 15410 Windmill Pointe until 1951. They then moved to their new home – 855 Ellair Place. The two properties couldn’t have been more different.

The architect of 855 Ellair, George B. Brigham, Jr., was born in Westboro, Massachusetts, in 1889. Having graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he began his architectural career in California. In 1930 he accepted a teaching position at the University of Michigan. At the time modern design, in Ann Arbor, had just started to take off, and became increasingly popular after World War II.

Brigham taught at the University of Michigan for 29 years. During this time he continued to run his own practice, from 1935 to 1958. While his primary focus was on teaching he did find time to work on several residential projects in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. By the late 1940’s he had started to receive more commissions.

In the early 1950’s Brigham’s architectural career began to flourish and his style began to take on a new direction. He started using a lot more concrete and wood in construction (integrating wood into the exterior of his designs), and experimenting with symmetry and light, with more attention being given to sunrooms and sun porches. Source: archpaper.com. Based on research by Michiganmodern.org we understand ‘during the 1950’s Brigham let his inventiveness loose, and experimented with new materials. This produced an array of unique homes, primarily ranch-style’. Mr. Brigham retired in 1959, however he continued to design a few homes in the early 1960’s. He died in Ann Arbor, in 1977. Image sources: a2modern.org and archpaper.com.

There are many wonderful examples of midcentury modern architecture in Grosse Pointe, created by some extremely talented designers. Nationally noted architects who came to the community to work on one project created several of them. 855 Elliar Place, by George Bickford Brigham, Jr. is one such example, and can be added to the collection of rare treasures.

*Photos courtesy of the Higbie Maxon Agney archives unless stated.


Written by Katie Doelle
Copyright © 2020 Katie Doelle

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *