"Before"

Photos from October 2013.

My girl and I decided to finally go on one of the Palmer Park architecture tours. It's a popular walking tour that has been going on for years and is basically the only handy way to see the interiors of a lot of the cool buildings to be found in that "National Historic Register Apartment District." I didn't know such a thing existed, but we have one.


Palmer Park is a showplace neighborhood where some of Detroit's most fashionable residents once lived (and still do), but for this post I am going to focus only on the neighborhood's centerpiece, a large city park containing an old log cabin that once served as a historic attraction, but had lain basically abandoned since 1979.

The park itself had been rundown for many years, but the community has been making strides to improve the area. When I visited the Palmer Log Cabin in 2013 it was a rare treat to be able to see the inside, which was not in the best shape. Yes, I realize the place has just been restored and reopened as of 2017, and that all my photos show it back when it looked crappy and rundown, but that's actually the angle I'm going for; when Detroit is fully gentrified and spruced up, I don't want people to forget just how far we had to come in order to get here


Palmer Park's history started in 1832 when this was all forest. Judge James Witherell bought 80 acres of it, and built a log cabin roughly where the Detroit Golf Club is today.

Witherell fought in the American Revolution in the Siege of Boston and the Battle of White Plains. He was later appointed to the supreme court of the Territory of Michigan by Thomas Jefferson, and sat on that court with Judge Augustus Woodward (yes, that Woodward). In the War of 1812 when Detroit was surrendered to the British, Witherell, breaking his sword in half, refused to surrender himself to the enemy. He was summarily imprisoned at Kingston, Ontario until the end of the war. 


Witherell was the grandfather of Senator Thomas W. Palmer, an equally patriarchal Detroiter (hence Palmer Avenue, which runs east-west from 3rd Street to VanDyke). Palmer inherited the Witherell cabin in 1874, but by that time Detroit had already begun expanding and it wasn't as far out in the country anymore, so Palmer used it as a summer retreat. He also bought up 640 acres of the surrounding land (roughly between 7 Mile, McNichols, Woodward, and Lawton) to keep it safe from overdevelopment. He had a farm, orchards, and raised horses here.

As a matter of fact while I was writing this I looked at my map of the city from 1904 and noticed that McNichols Road used to be called Palmer Road...even while Palmer Avenue still existed further south.


Palmer had gained his wealth from involvement in the real estate, lumber, and agriculture businesses, he was a Michigan and a U.S. Senator where he was an outspoken champion of women's suffrage and lobbied for federal regulation of the railroad monopoly. As a proud Republican, his personal slogan was, "Equal rights for all, special privileges to none"...amazing how partisan politics have become so deranged today.

Senator Palmer was partnered in the Saginaw Valley lumber business with Charles Merrill, whose daughter, Lizzie Merrill, he married. As husband and wife they were among the first major benefactors of what became the Detroit Institute of Arts, and also of the iconic Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Campus Martius. He was the first president of what is now the Michigan Humane Society, and Lizzie is known for founding the philanthropic Merrill-Palmer Institute for Motherhood and Home Training (now known as the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute).


Keep in mind, this log cabin is not the same one Judge Witherell built in 1832; this was designed for Palmer in 1885 by noted Detroit architects Mason & Rice, and built with logs from trees cut down on this land. So it wasn't a "log cabin" in the traditional pioneer sense, it was more like a mini-mansion that happened to be made out of logs just to be cute. He had it built because Lizzie was growing tired of the crowdedness of Detroit and wanted a retreat from the urban center. They often entertained other senators and statesmen here, usually under the stipulation that they plant a tree on his land every time they visited.

According to detroithistorical.org, Senator Palmer "found solace in bonfires," and they were a hallmark of his lively parties at the log cabin. He once said (and my friends ought to get a kick out of this), “I wonder if a man ever gets too old to enjoy a bonfire—to gloat and exult over one of them with a sort of childish glee?” Sounds like this guy is one of my crew! This cabin also served as Senator Palmer's retirement home after he sold his residence in the city. He died in 1913.


You may notice on a map that there is a seemingly random sidestreet near here called "Log Cabin Street," but it does not lead to the Palmer Log Cabin as one might expect. Actually Judge Witherell named Log Cabin Street after a trail that ended at his log cabin back in the 1830s. What happened to that original log cabin I am not sure exactly, other than there is a golf course there now.

You may also recall that a couple years ago I wrote a very popular post about a different (and much less famous) abandoned log cabin in this part of the city, the James Smith House.


In 1893 Senator Palmer gave over 140 acres of his land including the log cabin, to become a park under the stipulation that they not touch his woods. The small pocket of virgin forest on his land was as old as the State of Michigan itself, having apparently never been logged (except of course to build this log cabin, heh). I can vouch that there are a lot of massive old oak trees in there. 

The Palmer Log Cabin eventually fell under the care of the Detroit Museum Department, but when that part of city government went the way of the dodo in budget cuts, the cabin—which had been a popular attraction—closed. All of Senator Palmer's artifacts inside it were moved to the Detroit Historical Society's keeping, and it has remained closed since 1979, only opening on rare special occasions such as this. It was in rough shape when I visited in 2013 and the interior bore the distinct scent of raccoon piss, but today it has been fully restored.


Yeah, this is a pretty fancy stairway for a "log cabin." But when you're a lumber baron and real estate mogul living in the 1880s, this is the kind of stairway you put in your weekend country cottage. This ain't ol' Abe Lincoln's crib in the woods.


The leaded glass windows that were broken or missing were completely restored by Detroit's local historic window specialist, Andrea Sevonty:


Although the cabin had been neglected for basically the entire span of my life, the nonprofit volunteer group People For Palmer Park began stabilization work on the structure soon after they formed in 2012. They were like so many other similar groups in the city that have formed over the years, made up of local residents who saw a need to step up into areas where our withering city government was cutting back on services more and more, or had been failing completely due to financial collapse. 


It is the small grassroots groups like these that keep Detroit from falling over the brink of oblivion, not the big billion-dollar corporate investments that get all the credit in the news headlines. The neighborhood volunteer groups are the ones who have been out here working every day for generations—fighting the little battles, trying to make something out of nothing—not Dan Gilbert or Mike Illitch, or Mike Duggan. Yeah, they're good for publicity and PR, but it's the faceless nobodies who have been at the wheel of the ship all this time, while the captains were getting their beauty sleep.

Nowhere has the line between civilization and anarchy been more razor-thin than Detroit, where even basic city services such as sanitation, water, police, fire, streetlighting, etc. have often been absent, and residents must invent ways to fend for themselves (I speak from experience).


This stove is a Jewel by the way, which means it was made in Detroit during our heyday as the "Stove Capitol of the World" during the late 1800s, the same time period as this cabin was built. It could even be the Palmers' original stove?


Out behind the cabin, I found the strange old "Spanish Bell"...


Well guess what, this bell has a history behind it...I bet you didn't see that one coming. Unfortunately much of its story is murky. All that is known is that it showed up in a scrap shipment sent to Keeler Iron & Brass Works here in Detroit in 1895, and I guess someone cared enough about history stuff back then to pull it out. Somehow Senator Palmer ended up with it after that, and he hung it out here (obviously for the local neighbor kids to drive him nuts trying to ring it and run away). The inscription inside the bell reads "Paula Gomez made this, 1793." Or I guess it could also have something to do with the fact that Senator Palmer was the U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

I am even more interested to know what the odd stone beneath the bell used to go to. The inscription on it reads, "TIREMAN," which is the name of a minor avenue that runs on the city's west side. It seems Sen. Palmer collected curio like this; he was president of the National Commission on the World's Columbian Exposition in the 1890s. Among the things that used to chill out here in his yard were a wishing well, and a giant hollowed-out spruce log that was cut from a 450-year-old tree. The inside of the log had rooms, and even an animal cage.


Senator Palmer's old woodlot is actually exceedingly well maintained, which sort of blew my mind. Litter was almost nonexistent here, which was surprising. This is actually a virgin primeval forest, a glimpse of what Detroit would look like if it had never been a city. Some of the oaks are 350 years old, which means they were here decades before Cadillac founded Detroit in 1701. You could very easily imagine you are up north here, and not in the middle of an urban area.


Our sylvan stroll was not entirely without the urban flavor however, as we were treated to the sight of a hooker going to work on a john behind a tree next to the path. 


At the other end of the woods we found this curious little structure, at the Detroit Police Mounted Division's stables:


And even further back in the woods we came across this odd little thing, which we couldn't figure out:


Anybody care to hazard a guess as to what it is or why it is here?

Back towards the log cabin, is the old Merrill Fountain:


I took these photos in 2004 (on black & white 35mm film) when it had been long defunct and in disrepair, but since then the fountain has been cleaned up too.


In 1925 the Merrill Fountain, originally a fixture of Campus Martius since 1901, was moved up here to Palmer Park when the city decided to re-engineer Campus Martius due to the increased traffic of the Automobile Age.


The fountain had been built with a bequest from Senator Palmer's wife, Lizzie Merrill, and was hewn of white marble by noted New York sculptors John M. Carrere and Thomas Hastings.

Palmer park itself was designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who is known for designing New York's Central Park, and Belle Isle in Detroit.


I particularly love this fountain, even without water in it. Here's hoping Lizzie's legacy soon receives the same TLC as her husband's log cabin.


References
Map of the City of Detroit and Environs, 1904, by William C. Sauer
"Inspiration Detroit Made," Preservation Magazine, Spring, 2018, p. 8
http://www.peopleforpalmerpark.org/about-the-park.html
https://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/palmer-park-log-cabin