The Secrets of Grosse Pointe
New Urbanism on the Lakefront
We often use the term New Urbanism to describe the cohesive designs of towns such as Wellesley and Edgartown – both here in Massachusetts – where housing and shopping are in close proximity. To our west, in the state of Michigan, is the enclave of Grosse Pointe, another area that beautifully exemplifies the principles of New Urbanism in its walkable, human-scaled villages.
Grosse Pointe is an affluent coastal region approximately 8 miles east of Detroit comprised of five adjacent Pointes – Grosse Pointe City (often called “the village”), Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Shores. Researchers with the Grosse Pointe Historical Society believe “what was once Grosse Pointe Township began dividing into different municipalities because of a dispute over alcohol.” Today, each community is closely linked to the other and shares the common, natural amenity of Lake St. Claire, a 26-mile lake that lies between Ontario and the US where residents can enjoy season-long boating.
Grosse Pointe began as a farming and hunting community where each farmer owned approximately 300 feet of water footage. To ensure the water was easily accessible both for drinking and transportation, most homes were built on the waterfront, which resulted in neighboring houses set fairly close together. As Detroit continued to prosper, Grosse Pointe grew to be the city’s foremost summer resort area. Soon after, with the invention of the railway and the automobile, Grosse Pointe became Detroit’s premier commutable, wealthy suburb – rivaling the Gold Coast of Long Island.
Architects like Hugh T. Keyes who “designed grand estates for the great and wealthy of Detroit” built magnificent homes for the automotive elite. Edsel and Eleanor Ford built the largest of these Grosse Pointe estates known today as the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House. Edsel (the son of Henry Ford) hired architect Albert Kahn to build their Cotswold style home in 1929 after traveling with him to England to study the local vernacular. The home stands today as a national historic landmark and is open to the public for visitors. In addition to these great estates, the burgeoning community needed places for socializing. Clubs such as the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, which was founded in 1914 and we recently had the pleasure of designing their new sailing center, and The Country Club of Detroit, a Tudor Revival built in 1897, remain some of the region’s most prominent buildings.
Today, Grosse Pointe’s architecture is both new and old and is predominantly Tudor, Dutch Colonial, and Neo-Georgian. Wide lawns and full canopy tree-lined streets add to the towns’ timeless aesthetic. The towns are pedestrian friendly – sidewalks are set well off of the streets and bike trails abound. Neighborhoods are designed with walkability in mind and village scaled commercial nodes make shopping easily accessible.
We are frequently asked what regions we are drawn to and what areas we believe hold significant architectural potential. Grosse Pointe is a location that does both. We are drawn to its history and sense of community and believe there is wonderful architectural potential in the village areas. For instance, introducing residential apartments above storefronts or sensitively restoring and updating smaller homes would allow additional housing options for current residents who wish to downsize but stay in the community. With the exciting renaissance happening in Detroit, Grosse Pointe holds significant allure and potential as one of the great examples of New Urbanism today.