Fellowship House of Lonely Chairs

There's a stretch of Detroit's Islandview neighborhood that some refer to as "Death Row" because of the extremely high number of small nursing homes that line both sides of the street for miles. One of those former mansions-turned-nursing-home recently went abandoned and has a rather interesting history.

Local Detroit architecture guru Benjamin Gravel helped me confirm that this house was designed by Louis Kamper, and that it was built in 1897 for one Frederick Chambe. Recall that Kamper designed many of the tall buildings downtown, many of which I have explored, such as the Broderick TowerBook-Cadillac HotelBook TowerFine Arts BuildingEddystone HotelHotel Park Avenue, and Hosmer Branch Library.

Frederick Chambe seems to have been a confectioner with a bakery listed at 209 Gratiot Avenue in 1861 in Johnston's Detroit City Directory, at 220 Gratiot during the 1870s, according to J.W. Weeks & Co.'s Directory, while Polk's Michigan State Gazetteer for 1889 lists him as a grocer at 225 Sherman Street.

I can't seem to bring up much else about the guy via my usual resources, other than that he was a trustee of the Lafayette Benevolent and Mutual Aid Society in 1860. The Lafayette Benevolent Society was an organization for those of French descent, whereby members paid into a fund that could be used to dispense aid for those who fall ill.

There were many such ethnic- and religious-based benevolent societies in the city at that time, and Chambe definitely sounds like a French surname to me. I wonder if he was descended of one of the original colonial families of Detroit?

It seems from old death notices in the Detroit Free Press that there were two Frederick Chambes, father and son. Frederick Sr. apparently lived at 225 Sherman (probably above his store) and passed away in 1895—just before this house was built—while Frederick Jr. died June 30, 1902. Therefore it would seem that this was his house, and, I would presume that of his son.

As the ages rolled on in Detroit the socioeconomic makeup of the city changed and by the 1940s the wealthy no longer stayed in their ancestral mansions in the inner city, migrating outward to the Grosse Pointes and other affluent suburbs, leaving these grand homes behind. Often they were subdivided up into apartments since no one was really interested in living in these baroque gilded-age mansions anymore. The old Chambe Mansion however went a slightly different route...

During World War II, thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were rounded up and held in "internment camps" by the U.S. government's War Relocation Authority (WRA), designed to keep them imprisoned until the end of the war...just in case any of them were potential enemies. Unlike Germany, we stopped short of exterminating them like they did with the Jews, so we were still able to claim moral superiority over the Nazis at least.

Ironically, right after the 9-11 attacks, I remember the xenophobic American masses clamoring to "round up and shoot" all of the Arabic people in America just in case any of them might be terrorists...I guess we never learn, huh? 'Murica!

Anyway, church organizations in Detroit formed to help aid the resettlement of interned Japanese-Americans after their internment was over, by way of helping to connect resettlers with homes and jobs. Naturally, when you round up and imprison people for several years that kind of f%^#s up their life a little bit, since they will have lost their jobs, businesses, homes, and everything else to forfeiture. So a little assistance was apropos since they could't just go back home and pick up where —they didn't have a home to go back to. 

An interesting book by Greg Robinson entitled After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics says that this house served as a hostel for Nisei resettlers at the end of the war. It was founded by a minister from Washington state named Rev. Shigeo Tanabe, who dubbed it "Fellowship House," under the auspices of the Detroit Council of Churches' United Ministry to Resettlers.

No less than 3,000 Japanese relocated to Michigan directly from camp during WWII, and 1,007 of them settled within Detroit city limits from 1943 to 1944, making Detroit the fifth-largest center of Japanese resettlement in the U.S. Of these 1,007 people, 90% of them were "Nisei," meaning a person born in America whose parents were born in Japan; as opposed to Isei, meaning a person who was born in Japan and immigrated to America. Basically, Nisei translates to "second generation."

This house served as a temporary home for relocated Nisei while they got back on their feet in a new city. There were even a small group of Japanese-Canadians sent from the west coast that took up residence in Windsor, who interacted with the Detroit Japanese according to Robinson. By 1945 2,000 relocated Japanese were living in Detroit.

The WRA also opened another such hostel at 3915 Trumbull, under the auspices of the Bhuddist Church of Detroit. Robinson's book also says that the hostels served as recreation centers for the community of resettlers, and featured libraries and game rooms as well as housing, and organized social events. 

Arriving in Detroit after the war was over was no picnic either. Even with a place here at Fellowship House resettlers faced prejudice and even attacks because of their ethnicity, which made it difficult to find work or permanent housing. The fact that the postwar housing shortage was in full swing at this time also made it nearly impossible to find a home inside city limits. Luckily for the Japanese, they were greatly outnumbered by the black people, which made it somewhat easier to stay under the radar of racist ire I suppose.

After a few years the Fellowship House must have no longer been needed. The old Chambe Mansion was converted into a family-owned nursing home in 1947, according to the sign out front. It remained a nursing home until the present day. "Greektown Stella," one of modern Detroit's more colorful characters, lived out her final days here.

There were many little rooms in the old mansion that had apparently been guest rooms at one time before serving as rooms for resettled Japanese, and finally becoming rooms for elderly folks, without too much hacking or chopping to the original layout.

There were a couple obvious hack-ups, but I think the biggest change was the addition of bathrooms. Almost every single broom closet I looked in hid a surprise toilet and / or sink—it was almost comical. Here, we are looking into the square corner-turret on the front of the house:

The house next door was abandoned as well, and I took a quick peek there on my way out:

Clearly the large window sash on the left was a nursing home modification, undoubtedly added to comply with fire code:

The grand staircase was no longer quite as grand as it had been in the 1890s, its bannister having been removed at some point, and I think there were probably some stained glass windows here that were replaced by security glass:

I'm not sure what was up with all the paintings of trains and stuff on the walls. Here was one of an old streetcar (upper left):

The lobby, or what had once been Mr. Chambe's living room:

The ornamental fireplace mantle had also been stripped out...I wonder if this stuff all made its way to the stolen antique market right around the time the nursing home closed up?

On this floor patriotic art took the place of trains to liven up the walls...someone has taken the liberty of censoring some of it however:

The words "ARSENAL OF DEMOCRACY" here seem to imply that maybe a lot of the old folks who lived in this nursing home belonged to the "Greatest Generation":

This darkened corridor led to the front doors of the mansion...

In the room to the right, I was surprised to find still more of the original crown molding around the ceiling:

Again, the small alcove into the square corner turret:

Somebody's recent bedroom...

"Yes, can I please have the room with the bald eagle head and stars & stripes mural on the door? 'Merica!!"

Actually if you look close at that last photo, you'll notice that the whole corner of the room used to open up into the grand hall, probably for when Mr. Chambe was entertaining guests.

It's actually rather amazing that this over-the-top crown molding has stayed in place this long, and wasn't angrily ripped out in the 1950s. I wonder what the Japanese refugees thought of this practically Rococo living space as compared to their undoubtedly spartan homes back in the old country?

Lonely chair...

Despite being less an entire bannister, the staircase is actually in pretty decent shape:

Here we have the Air Jordan suite, with the paint peeling away in a rather ironic spot:

The quoted Michael Jordan phrase on the wall reads, "You have to expect great things of yourself before you can do them."

The rear staircase again, perhaps the servant's stair:

I decided to head up to the top floor, which happened to be the cavernous attic.

Out a window you can see that the nursing home added a modern wing onto the Chambe Mansion, probably in the 1950s, seen at left in the next photo. I didn't bother going in there however.

This attic was almost the quintessential "old house attic," complete with ancient furniture and giant old-style luggage trunks.

Unfortunately nothing was in the trunks, nor was there an old mannequin with a sheet over it, or a brass birdcage, or any of the other stereotypical items found in attics in horror movies, but I was rapidly getting the impression that it was almost as if this house was set up to appeal to the "lonely chair" fetish photographer...

[INSERT pun about old, discarded lonely-chairs being like the old, discarded grandparents who lived in this nursing home HERE]

So lonely...

No one visits us anymore...so very lonely.

Well, this chair has some company at least:

I wonder if the nursing home employees used to come up here to smoke and drink Boone's Farm? I found my own little chill spot out this window on a little balcony:

Or rather, a little spot for me to sit and wish it wasn't still winter, so that I could enjoy this properly.

On a later trip I hopped over to the roof of the modern wing and took a few shots looking back at the house:

There was a proposal to turn the old Chambe Mansion into a pre-release home for convicts in 2012, according to Curbed, but no news of that potential development has surfaced since, and it is currently sitting abandoned despite being located in what would be considered a desirable location these days. The Islandview neighborhood takes its name from the fact that once can see Belle Isle from there (unless of course the view is obstructed by the many giant trees in the city).

According to another Curbed article in March 2017, plans were in the works to renovate this house as part of a new redevelopment in the Islandview area that include tearing down the 50-year-old Big Boy restaurant nearby.

George W. Hawes' Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1860, No. 1, p. 90
History of Detroit and Wayne County and Early Michigan, Vol. 1, by Silas Farmer, p. 654
Detroit Free Press, July 2, 1902, p. 5
Detroit Free Press, Feb 14, 1895, p. 5
J.W. Weeks & Co.'s Annual Directory of Detroit (1874-1875), p. 184
Johnston's Detroit City Directory and Advertising Gazetteer of Michigan (1861), p. 131
Polk's Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory (1889)
After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics, by Greg Robinson, p. 50

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