Recently I have been quite interested in 211 Vendome located in Grosse Pointe Farms. Growing up I thought it was a museum. Of course, to my 5-year-old eyes, I also thought that the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club was Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland in trying to rationalize the sheer enormity of its tower. I am sure many Pointers can relate. And, let’s face it, 211 Vendome is a Georgian goliath. At an imposing 18,000 square feet nestled on nearly two and a half acres of land, it’s hard not to want to just stare at this incredible estate.
If you have never been inside this home, then I will describe it for you. It was designed by Robert O. Derrick for F. Caldwell Walker, grandson of Hiram Walker of Walker & Sons Distillery, most famously known for Canadian Club whiskey, and was built in 1929. Classical features include a stone entrance porch with ionic columns, urns in niches flanking the main entrance, a balustrade parapet dividing the first and second stories, and decorative carved stone panels. The property boasts 10 fireplaces.
A brochure produced for the property describes the interior, “Splendid formal areas are designed for entertaining on a grand scale, with rich architectural detailing and distinctive appointments at every turn. An exquisite living room and regal dining room feature fireplaces and wide-planked hardwood flooring. The gallery leads to an inviting library with walls of rich paneling and a fireplace and a staircase leads to the lower level bar and wine cellar.”
Oh, and just in case, there are two complete apartments for guests or staff.
Although the home was built for F. Caldwell Walker, I was told by many Pointers that he never actually lived there. Why would someone build this incredible home and then not live in it? I wanted to know more.
Ask the expert
There are a few Grosse Pointe residents who are a wealth of knowledge about our community. One such resident is Mr. Hugo Higbie. He was born in 1927 at his family home on Lakeshore Road in Grosse Pointe Farms that was later purchased by Henry Ford.
Like many of Grosse Pointe’s mansions, 211 Vendome has had an interesting and colorful history—from the architect who built it, the residents who lived there, the society gatherings over the years—but 211 Vendome, I have come to realize, had a very unique beginning.
Higbie helped me understand a little more about the home, and along the way, he shared an interesting story of his own.
Hiram Walker had sold the whiskey and died in 1899, and the distillery was sold in 1926. As an heir to the Walker fortune, F. Caldwell Walker then decided to build 211 Vendome. According to Hugo, between prohibition, the Great Depression, and his own spending habits, Walker lost the house to the bank and moved to California.
I was curious as to why Higbie knew that Walker moved to California, as I was having difficulty myself finding any record of him. That was when he shared his personal and family experiences with Walker.
It began with his older brother, Harley.
Harley was born in 1924. He suffered from asthma and other ailments including pneumonia. The Higbie family doctor said that Harley must be moved to a different climate or he would not survive. So the family packed up and moved to Pasadena in the early 1930s. Hugo Higbie was a young boy at the time, and said that his father commuted back and forth from Detroit to Pasadena by train often. “By the time I was 12” remarked Hugo Higbie, “I had travelled by train myself from Detroit to Pasadena 19 times.” His father travelled this route even more than that, because his business was in Detroit, and his family was in California.
What did this have to do with Walker? According to Hugo Higbie, Walker had also taken up residence at this time in Pasadena. It was a place where many Grosse Pointer socialites travelled. I asked Hugo Higbie what Walker did, as a profession. “He didn’t do a darn thing,” he said without hesitation, and then after a moment said, “rather, I don’t recall that he had an occupation.”
It turns out Walker was a man of ill repute—he imbibed often and his bad habits got him into many scrapes with the law. He knew the Higbie family, and would rely on Mr. and Mrs. Higbie to get him out of jail.“Walker would call my mother from jail,” quipped Hugo Higbie. “She’d drive to the police station and bail him out.”
This happened on more than one occasion.
Walker only ever called the Higbie’s when he was in trouble, and they always helped out because even though he was a trouble maker, Grosse Pointe society always helps its own.
Although 211 Vendome was left unfinished until its first true owners--the Wendell Anderson family--moved in. The home was later purchased by its current owners, the Simon family. Next week I’ll tell you a little about these owners, their connections to Detroit society, and their philanthropic enterprises.
Don’t worry. It’s a very happy ending.