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A Tour of Historic Felt Mansion; then and now
Christmas season this year, I went on a guided tour of the Felt Mansion Estate with my friend, Ceresta. As we stood in awe of the spacious foyer, we relished in its splendor. With everything decked out for Christmas, it illuminated the massive mahogany inlaid woodwork along the main staircase and detailed carvings etched into the crown moldings.
We were instantly hooked and couldn't wait to see more. Curiousity got the best of us as we wondered who lived here once upon a time? What were the people like? Being a country girl of modest means, I also couldn't help wonder, how? Well, all my questions were answered during the guided tour, and then some, thanks to Patty Hoezee Meyer. She is the visionary, project manager and estate director of the refurbished mansion who made all of this possible. Patty was a delightful host who enthusiastically shared many stories and information with us. For all of you history buffs out there, it's my turn to give you a tour via the cloud, enhanced with many photographs of the mansion inside and out; the next best thing to being there. It begins with the man behind the mansion, Dorr Eugene Felt!
The Man Behind It All - Dorr Eugene Felt
Dorr E. Felt was a naturalist ahead of his time. He loved the rolling grassy dunes and dark green forests along Michigan's west coast and purchased approximately 1000 acres where he constructed a 12,000+ square foot mansion. Today it's well known as the Felt Mansion in Southwest Michigan between Holland and Saugatuck. Ahead of his time, Dorr Felt was concerned for the environment. He intuitively knew the dunes were fragile (unheard of then) and so built his mansion a mile away from the Lake Michigan shoreline. It took three years to build and was completed in 1928.
Dorr Felt's Genius
Lacking a high school education, Dorr E. Felt, nevertheless, was a gifted mechanic. After working in a machine shop since the age of 14, he moved from Wisconsin to Chicago in 1882 to try his hand at inventing his own machine. It took him five years to invent the prototype of the Comptometer, a key-driven calculator he patented in 1887.
Felt's first prototype was made from a macaroni box with crude inner workings, including staples and rubber bands. Today, it's stored in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian Institute. The Comptometers made Dorr Eugene Felt a millionaire. Before the end of his days, he completed 75 patents, most of which were improvements on the Comptometer, but some inventions involved elevators and aeronautics. His Comptometer performed adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, laying the foundation for future computers. The machines were fast and commonly used until the 1970's. Mostly women were trained to operate them after attending Comptometer schools which were set up around the country. As a result, women began to replace men in accountant offices who still relied on painstaking pencil and paper to calculate. In the late 1940's, my mom went to a Comptometer school in Lansing, Michigan. I took her on one of the tours and she was so surprised to discover them there in the showcase.
Chicago based Dorr Felt 's dream was to build a summer cottage for his wife, Agnes, and four daughters. Greatly motivated, he bought the celebrated 1000 acre property in 1919 and named it Shore Acres Farms. He and Agnes wanted a home large enough so their four married daughters and families could spend summers with them. A few years later, he built the 12,000+ square foot house with 25 rooms and a huge third-story ballroom. The grounds had a 75 foot diameter round water garden which was part of Dorr Felt's vast irrigation system. But that's not all . . .
The Conservationist and Farmer
Being the conservationist ahead of his time, Dorr Felt planted over three thousand trees on the grounds in an effort to stop erosion. He planted fruit trees and grapes vines along with other crops to help feed his family, as well as the animals on the property. He experimented with organic farming and implemented a windmill system which watered his fields. Felt even built a dock to ship some of the crops to Chicago where the family normally resided.
A barn stored equipment and a carriage house stored his beloved automobile collection with an upstairs to house the estate's various caretakers.
He generously built two beach houses, one for the family and one for the general public. Dorr Felt lovingly built a grotto for his wife who was a devout Catholic.
Lastly, Felt built roads leading to the beach which today are the hiking trails for Saugatuck Dunes State Park!
Tragedy struck the family when Agnes died within six weeks of moving into their beloved summer home. Dorr Felt died a year and a half later in 1930; some say of a broken heart. The mansion was kept in the family for another 20 years until calculators trumped the revolutionary comptometer. The descendants held an auction in 1949 to sell off furnishings and many other items original to the mansion and grounds. They sold Shore Acres Farm to the Catholic Church and the business to Victor Electronics.
What happened to the mansion after the family?
1949 St. Augustine seminary buys the property. They use the carriage house as a pastoral prep school for young men and use the mansion for housing. The buildings become overcrowded so the church constructs a six times larger facility on the Shore Acres property west of the mansion.
1960's A group of cloistered nuns move into the mansion
1970's The state buys the property and uses the school building as a correctional facility run by the state police; they use part of the mansion for their offices.
1990's The mansion is in bad shape with a caved-in leaky roof and is boarded up. The state tears down the correctional facility and sells a 50 acre portion of the property surrounding the mansion to Laketown Township for $1 under the stipulation it can not be used for private enterprise. That acreage remains under the name Shore Acres and the rest of the approximate 950 acres becomes Saugatuck Dunes State Park. Dorr E. Felt would have been very proud to learn that the land had finally become a protected nature reserve.
2001 Patty Hoezee Meyer and her husband come across the mansion while hiking. She says it looked like something out of a Stephen King novel, but falls in love with its potential and history. She writes a proposal to the township.
2002 Laketown Township, gives the okay for Patty Hoezee Meyer to begin the restoration project and leads the pack of some 400 volunteers.
Patty Hoezee Meyer informed us that after fourteen years when the first volunteers came with tools in-hand and imaginations in their hearts for the future, the Felt Mansion Estate now averages four weddings a week in the summers. Most of the rooms are available for guests to enjoy in a variety of functions including corporate meetings, retirements, graduations, etc. Meyer and the community have done such a beautiful job renovating the mansion that it's no wonder.
All the rooms have been restored as accurately as possible to their original glory using the descriptions from family members or with whatever other proof possible, i.e. professional paint tests, time period studies and such. The floors, woodwork and tile work are all the original, as well as most of the wallpaper. The cost of the renovation is estimated at $800,000 and counting, thanks to many in-kind donations.
With its symmetrical design, the Felt Mansion is an example of Georgian Revival architecture. This style of architecture was a natural fit for Dorr Felt's philosophy because he loved order. The infrastructure is constructed mostly of steel beams and concrete slabs. The roof is constructed of concrete slabs and slate tiles. Most of the interior walls are over a foot thick made of brick. The floors are poured concrete under wood. In his journal, Dorr Felt bragged that he built the mansion like a factory so it will last forever.
During the guided tour, Patty Hoezee Meyer shares many inside stories and although it's too timely to share them all, here's one shocking story about the renovation.
When Patty and volunteers commenced the project, they had to muddle through waste deep trash in the parlor room shown above. That included abandoned couches and other such items from people using the mansion as a dumping ground. Also, left over from the days of cloistered nuns, there were six separate partitioned cubicles. It wasn't until they removed the cubicle walls that they realized how large the room was. They also discovered marble on the floor, so they speculated a fireplace must have formerly adorned the room. The fireplace mantle was later returned by a local man who had purchased it 35 years prior and had stored it in his garage, untouched.
Today, the parlor features a large flat screen television for viewing old movies of the family enjoying life on the farm, often on horseback. The viewing also informs visitors preferring the self-guided tours or guided-tours, alike, about the mansion's history and much more. Standing in the parlor during our tour, we enjoyed imagining the gatherings they must have had there at one time or dreamed of having.
The Guest Bedroom and Bathroom
The first floor guest bedroom is fit for a queen with its dazzling symmetrical design and marble fireplace. There are french doors leading out to a covered terrace and it has it's own fully tiled bathroom. Notice all the shower heads in the shower stall; state of the art for the time!
The Library-Paneled Room
One specific feature in a Georgian home is a paneled room, usually the library, and the Felt Mansion is one more example of that. Many of the books in the library are the originals. Miraculously, one of the story's how this came about, for example, was a lady had purchased the encyclopedias during the 1949 auction and generously donated them back for the cause! Otherwise, several family members donated them back.
The Dining Room
The dining room, in particular, tells us more about Dorr E. Felt. Judging by all the fancy fixings and especially the wall mural, we can see he loved horses and the English Fox Hunt. He traveled throughout Europe and Russia, and respectfully, as one of the first ambassadors for the U.S. Commerce Department. When in Europe, he commissioned an artist to paint the fox hunt mural which was cut into strips, shipped and hung as wallpaper. So sad the wall paper was later stripped. Luckily, during the renovation, a talented local artist, Kathy Kingsley, painted a beautiful recreation of it.
The kitchen is probably the least decorative of all the rooms, but then the family didn't spend much time there. It has the original cupboards and two-toned tile work reminiscent of the "Art Deco" movement at the time. The speaking tubes were primarily for the maids to communicate to each other between floors.
The Breakfast Room
The breakfast room right off the kitchen is such a delight. Its cozy atmosphere must have been a sweet spot to sit down with a morning cup of coffee and gaze out at the grounds.
The Second Floor
The second floor consists of six family bedrooms including a master suite, and two maids' bedrooms. There are five full bathrooms, one of which adjoins two of the bedrooms. All originally had tubs and three had separate shower stalls. All were fully tiled with multiple shower heads. The master bathroom has its original temperature regulator and multiple shower jets. Most of the sinks, tubs and toilets are original to the house.
Four Daughter's Bedrooms and Bathrooms
Lacking original photos of these rooms, the colors and details of the four daughter's bedrooms were recreated primarily from the memories of the Felt family descendants and/or professional paint tests. Mr. and Mrs. Felt loved their daughters dearly guessing by the attention to detail that went into these beautiful rooms.
The Blue and Yellow Bathroom; could it be haunted?
People on the tour are always curious about rumors of hauntings and ask Patty Meyer if she has had any encounters with ghosts in the mansion. One of the stories she tells happened to her and her husband at the end of a work day when they made double sure to turn off all the lights before leaving. Walking outside, they noticed the light to the yellow and blue bathroom was still on and went back inside to shut it off. After several cycles of this, they gave up and later called an electrician. Well, after inspection, the electrician informed her it would have been impossible for that light to ever have been turned on because it was not even wired! Hmm, sounds to me like a lost spirit messing around with the occupants!
The Master Bedroom
The master bedroom was designed especially for the Mrs. with its feminine touches, spacious dressing room, large sun room and full bathroom. If she needed something, Mrs. Felt could summon the maids through a speaking tube. The sun room windows were made of quartz glass in Mr. Felt's hopes that the sun would intensify and improve her failing health. Unfortunately, it didn't and she died in her room. One of her beautiful evening gowns now adorns the room in her memory.
The Third Floor Ballroom and More Ghostly Stories
Patty Hoezee Meyer shared with us how this space was originally slated for storage and the idea for a ballroom was an after thought. The Felt children actually used it at one time for a bowling alley. These days, its used more for what Mrs. Felt had envisioned, such as a dance hall or wedding reception room (with ladies and gentlemen on their best behavior in various celebrations of life's special moments).
Claims of dancing ghostly aberrations have been noted here. Is this the spirit of Mrs. Agnes Felt? I think that could be a very good possibility!
Another unexplained story Patty Meyer told us during the tour has to do with a red rug in one of the rooms. One particular work day of the renovation, she straighten out the rug again and again only to come back to find it crinkled-up in the corner of a wall. It's quite entertaining to hear her tell the entire story. Finally, when she and another worker checked back for the last time, it was completely gone!
- THE FELT ESTATE Michigan Wedding Receptions, Historic Landmark, Family Events, Tours
You can rent Felt Mansion for weddings, overnight packages, corporate parties and events, experience West Michigan history, and visit our historic wedding chapel and ballrooms
Going Green and Future Restorations
One major part of the green initiative headed by project manager, Patty Hoezee Meyer, is a new solar panel field powering the mansion. She has hopes to restore the old windmill and volunteers are currently working to restore the carriage house and barn. Future initiatives continue to restore and enhance the landscape with period plantings and complimentary hard-scape.
An impressive list of projects already completed can be viewed at the estates webpage shown above right!
To volunteer or donate funds towards the continued restoration; or for more information about the projects, tour dates and other information, go the the website at feltmansion.org or use the link above!