David Whitney Jr.
General Family History
Excerpts of an article that first ran in Volume 89 Issue 5 of the DAC NEWS:
In the late 1800s, when lumber baron and millionaire David Whitney Jr. took a break from business and looked out the window of his office in his Woodward Avenue mansion, he surveyed a sight that warmed his heart – the playing fields of the original Detroit Athletic Club.
The location of the Whitney mansion near the grounds of the DAC was no accident.
Whitney and his son, David C. Whitney, were both members of the original DAC, whose grounds are now a part of Wayne State University. “Its bleachers ran along the southern edge of Whitney's property line, affording the family a bird's-eye view of track and field events from the second-story balcony,” according to a 1978 article in the Detroit Free Press, including baseball games and polo matches in the summer, and hockey and skating in the winter.
Today, the building has been transformed into one of Detroit's finest restaurants, "The Whitney – An American restaurant in an American Palace."
Around the turn of the century, that part of Woodward Avenue was millionaire's row lined with beautiful mansions. The Whitney is the last real piece of that kind of architecture in the city. Its magnificent architecture shows a real understanding of the era in which it was built.
Both the house and the man represent a significant level of success and achievement in pre-automotive Detroit.
David Whitney Jr. was one of the most prominent persons in the city of Detroit. And he was very much involved in both the development and industry of the city as well as the social scene of the day.
Besides lending money to J.L. Hudson to build the first department store in Detroit, Whitney contributed to medical and educational institutions in Detroit and was a leading philanthropist of his day.
"The Whitneys represent that element of Detroit families who have made substantial fortunes in the lumber industry invested in Detroit and supported all sorts of social and philanthropic causes," said Arthur Woodford, author of several books on Detroit history.
Whitney built the opulent family home that still stands on Woodward and Canfield between 1890 and 1894, at a cost of $400,000.
Designed by architect Gordon W. Lloyd, who built many residences and churches in and around Detroit, the 22,000 square-foot Romanesque Revival mansion originally had 52 rooms, including 10 bathrooms, 218 windows, 20 fireplaces and a hydraulic elevator.
The structure is built of South Dakota jasper, a rare variety of pink granite, and many of the rooms are decorated with marble, onyx and elaborate hand-carved woodwork. Polished japer columns support multiple arches, and Tiffany stained-glass windows illuminate the interior.
The Whitney's spent an additional $250,000 on decorating and furnishing their majestic Victorian home and another $300,000 on art treasures displayed throughout the mansion.
For years it was one of Detroit's show places, with streams of carriages driving up to its porte cochere for receptions, teas and musicales.
When he died in 1900, Whitney was the wealthiest man in Detroit, with a fortune estimated at $15 million. His wife, Sara, continued to live in the house until the 1920s.
As a tribute to their beloved patriarch, his family – including three daughters and son David C. – erected the David Whitney Building, empty now, but still standing at the corner of Woodward and Washington.
David C. Whitney, a member of the original Detroit Athletic Club and a lifelong member of the new club until his death in 1942, established the headquarters of the Whitney Realty Company in the Whitney Building and built his own home, Ridgemont, in Grosse Pointe.
Daughter Grace (Mrs. John Jacob Hoff) was instrumental in creating the Detroit YWCA. Katherine, with her husband, Tracy W. McGregor, a lifelong DAC member until his death in 1936, established the McGregor Fund, sponsoring care for the sick and poor and supporting higher education.
The philanthropic sprit and the interest in the DAC carried on into the third generation – the Whitney Fund, named for David Marshall Whitney, grandson of the lumber baron and a lifelong member of the DAC from 1915 until his death in 1965, has awarded millions in grants to area nonprofit organizations.
Many members of the Whitney family still live in the Grosse Pointe area.
In 1941, the Whitney family gave the house to the Wayne County Medical Society. According to Dr. Alpheus F. Jennings, then chairman of the board of the medical society, the "million-dollar gift was one of the most notable ever made in the country to any medical society."
In 1957 the medical society sold the house to the Visiting Nurses Association. As a sign of the family's continuing interest in maintaining the house, the buildings was rehabilitated for the VNA with a grant of $75,000 from the McGregor Fund.
The massive and multi-gabled mansion was still owned and occupied by the Visiting Nurses Association when antique collector and entrepreneur Richard Kughn dropped by in 1978.
The VNA had been good stewards of the property, maintaining it well and making few alterations, and Kughn was impressed by the magnificent architecture, the rich woodwork, and the beautiful Tiffany-glass windows and marble fireplaces. By the time he finished touring the building, he had learned of the VNA's plans to sell the house when they moved to larger quarters.
"As I reached the bottom step, my friend Chuck Hagler said, 'You're going to buy it, or else they're going to tear it down,'" said Kughn.
Within a few months, Kughn was the new owner of the Whitney House. [Note: Richard Kughn sold the Whitney home to Arthur “Bud” Liebler in 2007. Liebler continues to operate The Whitney restaurant.]
"The Whitney House speaks to all of the architecture and opulence and magnificence of that era," said Kughn. "No building is better able to tell that story, and it should be preserved, not for personal use but so that the public can see and enjoy it."
The greatest challenge in restoring the house and creating a restaurant was meeting the city codes. The new owners installed a fire-suppression system and installed thirty-two furnaces and air-conditioning systems, all operated separately. Electric fixtures, original to the house, had to be rewired; although electricity was not uncommon when David Whitney installed it in his mansion, it wasn't entirely trustworthy, and Whitney, like many other homeowners at the time, kept and used gas fixtures, which can still be seen in the restaurant. The new owners gutted the servants' wing and built a “building within a building" to support three state-of-the-art kitchens.
Once codes were met and structural modifications complete, each room in the restaurant was decorated with period furnishings, with everything from regency to Queen Anne to French Empire represented, keyed to the original colors in the fireplaces.
Many rooms are named as they were when the Whitney family lived in the house: the Study, the Music Room, the Reception Room and the Drawing Room, for example.
David Whitney's monogram can still be seen, carved into the limestone above the door and repeated in the silver-leaf plaster above the massive fireplace in the Great Hall; the swirling, intertwined D and W have been reproduced on the creamy china used in the restaurant.
"The house is 95 percent the way it looked on the day it was built," said Fox. "All of its owners maintained it well and treated it like a grand old lady."
As host to celebrities and entertainers, for weddings or for lunch or dinner, the Whitney is open to Detroit residents and visitors almost any day of the week – in sharp contrast to so many of the beautiful homes that lined Woodward when David Whitney Jr. lived there, 100 years ago.
The Detroit Free Press ran a lengthy article about the house in 1894 when the building was completed, and its words have proved prophetic: "The Whitney House will last as long as is given to houses made by man to endure."
History of Michigan
David Whitney Jr Profile
David Whitney Jr. - When David Whitney Jr., died in Detroit November 28, 1900, it was said of him: "He coveted success, but scorned to attain it except through industry and honest means. He acquired wealth without fraud or deceit, and the results of his life are full of inspiration to the rising generation." His was one of the productive careers in the citizenship of Michigan during the last half of the nineteenth century. In the various departments of the lumber industry lay his chief activities, and his success in that field was sufficient to place his name alongside that of the great lumber kings of the state. His business was for many years conducted from Detroit, and the greater share of his investments was placed by that city.
David Whitney, Jr., was born at Westford Middlesex County, Massachusetts, August 13, 1830. He always wrote his name David Whitney Jr., perhaps partly from early usage and partly from respect for his honored father. David Whitney, Sr., was of the true New England type of energy, resourcefulness and rectitude of character, was the owner of a good farm, and also did lumbering and brick making on a small scale. The activities of the farm and the common school were the chief sources of training for David Whitney, Jr., in his boyhood. Throughout his life he acknowledged a close fellowship with honest toil, and it was hard work as much as endowment of masterful ability which brought him success.
On coming of age he left the farm and for three years was a clerk in a lumber firm, which also operated a box factory. That experience proved of great value to him and his subsequent career. He proved his worth with the firm, and when he left he was superintendent of the plant. In 1857, at the age of 27, David Whitney, Jr. came to Detroit. He was a western representative and a member of the firm of S&D Whitney Jr. and of Skillings, Whitneys & Barnes Lumber Company, which corporation is in existence today and is ne of the oldest corporations in the United States. His brother Charles was interested with him in those two firms, whose headquarters were in the east. Mr. Whitney had the immediate management of all the western business, which was principally the buying and shipping of lumber and the purchase of pine lands and logs. The two firms mentioned were for some years among the largest lumber dealers in the United States, and the work of David Whitney, Jr. covered the states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania while the eastern partner had supervision over the business in the northeastern states and Canada.
The partnership of C&D Whitney Jr. was dissolved in the late 70s, and from that time forward David Whitney, Jr. operated independently and invested heavily in the pine lands of Michigan and Wisconsin, but he still retains his interest in the Skillings, Whitneys & Barnes Lumber Company. He possessed a practical knowledge of lumbering conditions which made him almost an authority and with characteristic foresight he realized that the great forests of Michigan and Wisconsin before the close of the century would be calling upon to supply a large portion of the lumber consumed in the United States and his investments were carefully laid to take advantage of such development. As the owner of magnificent tracts of uncut timber and as a manufacturer his operations were among the most extensive in the lumber regions of those two states and eventually made him a millionaire.
Naturally his relations with lumbering led him into many commercial related fields and into banking. He owned and had in commission a large fleet of steam barges and other vessels on the Great Lakes, utilizing chiefly for the transportation of lumber, but subsequently also used for shipping iron ore from the Lake Superior ports to the manufacturing and distributing centers on the lower lakes. The proceeds of lumbering operation were invested chiefly in Detroit real estate. He was a stockholder and director in many banking institutions, and was officially and financially identified with several industrial and manufacturing plants, chiefly in the production of lumber material.
The late Mr. Whitney was a Republican in politics, a member of the Presbyterian Church, and a liberal though unostentatious contributor to the benevolent work of his home city. While an aggressive and forceful business man, perhaps his most noteworthy characteristic was his extreme reticence and his avoidance of all public notice. He knew and estimated the dispositions and character of men almost as unerringly as he understood the lumber business, and had many close friends among his business associates. Personally he was straightforward and frank in all his relations with a proper sense of the responsibilities imposed by success and wealth he used his influence and resources for the substantial improvement and betterment of his home city and state, and would never deserved any other tribute to his memory than an exact measure of what he accomplished in a business way.
Mr. Whitney left four children as follows: Grace, now Mrs. John J. Hoff, of Paris, France; David C. of Detroit; Flora, wife of R.A. Demme, of Detroit; and Katherine, wife of Tracy W. McGregor, of Detroit.