Robson-Dodge Home

642 West Forest in the Warren-Prentis Historic District near Detroit's Cultural Center

The Dodge brothers played a large role in the development of Detroit’s automobile industry and, long after their death, their fortune contributed to the cultural wealth of the metropolis. The Cranbrook Institution, Hart Plaza on the riverfront, Detroit’s Music Hall and the revitalized Opera House benefited from the generosity of Dodge heirs.

The Dodge brothers grew up in Niles, Michigan where they learned to be expert machinists. That small town had some manufacturing firms and was a major service center for Michigan Central trains and equipment. Their father ran a machine shop that produced engines for ships. Two of the Dodge brothers, John and Horace, began working in Windsor, Ontario in 1892. Horace Dodge quickly designed and patented an improved bicycle bearing using ball bearings. They entered the bicycle business as a bicycle boom flourished in the United States and Canada. By the late 1890s, they returned to Detroit, sold their interest in their bicycle business, purchased used equipment in Canada, returned to Detroit and set up a machine shop. William Boydell, a Detroit industrialist and paint manufacturer, erected a large industrial building that still stands at 743 Beaubien. Boydell’s impressive Beaux Arts style home is located at 4614 Cass, within walking distance of the Robson-Dodge residence.

The Dodge brothers immediately began supplying component parts to Detroit’s developing vehicle industry. Perhaps their break into major production came with a 1901 contract to produce 2,000 transmissions for Ransom Olds and his Oldsmobiles. Olds was the first entrepreneur to produce cars in large numbers, using a plant on East Jefferson that burned to the ground in 1903. Nevertheless, the Dodge Brothers business grew rapidly. Most early auto manufacturers could not secure enough capital to produce their own parts. They assembled cars primarily by purchasing parts from suppliers such as the Dodge Brothers. In February, 1903, the Dodge Brothers agreed to be the principal supplier of parts to Henry Ford and his firm. Ford’s advertising seldom stressed that most of the parts he was using came from shops run by the Dodge Brothers. By 1910, the Dodge Brothers were building a large parts plant in Hamtramck.

Similar to many people who worked with Henry Ford, the Dodge Brothers had their disagreements with him. Additionally, as Ford’s firm prospered with the successful introduction of the Model T, Ford was able to increasingly manufacture his own parts. Between 1912 and 1914, the Dodge Brothers terminated their relationship with Ford, but their income was so great that they were able to rapidly enter the auto business themselves producing Dodges. By 1915, they were turning out cars from the large plant in Hamtramck that Albert Kahn had designed. Already very wealthy, their income soared with the success of the Dodge vehicles. In addition, they rapidly and successfully converted some of their factory to the production of munitions during World War I.

In January, 1920, both John and Horace Dodge contracted influenza that developed into pneumonia. At that time, there were no sulfa drugs to treat the ailment, so John Dodge died in January, 1920. His brother lingered, but succumbed to the same illness in December, 1920. They left huge fortunes to their widows who spent some of those funds developing Cranbrook and for other charitable purposes in Detroit.

Horace Dodge and his wife, Anna, moved into the home you see on West Forest in 1904. I do not know how long they remained in this residence. By 1911, Horace Dodge had built a large red sandstone home in Grosse Pointe on the shore of Lake St. Clair, a home he named the Rose Terrace.

This home is located with the Warren Prentis Historic District whose boundaries are Woodward on the east, West Warren on the north, Third Street on the west and the alley south of Prentis on the south. As Detroit became an industrial metropolis, prosperous professionals and administrators desired attractive residences, but within commuting distance of their employment. This neighborhood was developed to appeal to their tastes, much as upscale suburbs were planned and plotted after World War II. You see very substantial architect-designed brick homes in a variety of architectural styles. Most of them were built between 1880 and 1895. At the start, their residents probably used carriages to get to work but by the 1890s, electric street cars took people to their downtown shops and offices. I presume that a Robson family built or occupied this home before the arrival of Horace Dodge in 1904. Compared to east coast metropolises, Detroit has few apartment buildings, but some of the city’s early multistory buildings for prosperous families were constructed in this area.

Architect: Unknown to me
Date of construction: Unknown to me
Books about the Dodge Brothers, their families and their fortunes: Charles K. Hyde, The Dodge Brothers: The Men, the Motor Cars, and the Legacy, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005).
Jean Maddern Pitrone and Joan Potter Elwart, The Dodges: The Auto Family Fortune and Misfortune (South Bend, Ind.: Icarus, 1981)
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Approved for listing January 17, 2001.
State of Michigan Historic Districts: P 25, 278
National Register of Historic Places: The Warren-Prentis District was approved for listing December 1, 1997.
Use in 2007: Residence
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description: Prepared February, 2007

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