Last week we continued our profile of nationally recognized female landscape architects as we explored the work of Eleanor Roache, and Ruth Bramley Dean. Together, along with Ellen Biddle Shipman, they helped spearhead the growth of landscape architecture during the early 20th Century. They were not only pioneers in their field but helped create many beautiful gardens in Grosse Pointe

This week we delve deeper into one of the gardens designed by Ruth Bramley Dean as we profile her work at 354 University Place, Grosse Pointe. The property was completed in 1914, by Detroit based architect F. Gordon Pickell for Charles Bagley DuCharme. However, the garden was created for Mrs. Elizabeth Bonbright - who had purchased the home from Mr. DuCharme around 1922-1923. Images courtesy of Katie Doelle.

Ruth Bramley Dean’s work at 354 University Place (around 1928-29) was one of three gardens she created in Grosse Pointe that resulted in her becoming the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Architectural League of New York’s Gold Medal. The project for Mrs. Bonbright was described in Architectural Forum magazine (October 1929) as “somewhat architectural in plan although informal in feeling. The plot was around 1-acre in size and was designed to afford considerable privacy and to adequately meet the needs of its owner. Restfulness was achieved by means of a well-balanced relationship between open stretches of lawn and luxuriant planting. Grass paths, a pool and an effective brick wall was a feature of the garden.” Image: Architectural Forum magazine (October 1929). 

It is reported the plan of the garden was somewhat unusual. “The fan-shaped arrangement met the client's desire to have the garden afford an effect of spaciousness and at the same time seem intimately related to the terrace. This was accomplished by keeping the main axis open and by using side paths that radiated from the terrace. To lend an effect of distance, hawthorn trees were placed in front of the pool, one on each side of a path wide enough to permit a view and give depth. Due to the square-shaped plot, Ruth B. Dean found it necessary to secure an effect of depth entirely by means of planting. There was little or nothing available in the way of trees to begin with. To block out a rather high brick house on the adjoining property, it was necessary to depend upon heavy planting to give seclusion.” Source and images: Architectural Forum magazine (October 1929).

The 4,570 sq ft 5-bedroom house was designed by F. Gordon Pickell. Born in Jackson, Mississippi on February 3, 1881, he graduated from Columbia University then began his architectural career in Philadelphia, where he worked for several firms. It is reported he relocated to Detroit around 1910. He quickly became a respected architect in the city and became the first president of the American Institute of Architects, Michigan - elected for a two-year term, 1914-1915. It is reported in the document The Story of AIA Michigan (published 2008-2009), Mr. Pickell, at some point during his career, had left the “AIA society” for “business” to become the owner and manager of the Hotel Gordon. He passed away on March 27, 1949.

The original owner of 354 University Place was Chales Bagley DuCharme. The DuCharme’s were a well-known family in Detroit - Charles B. DuCharme was born in Detroit, in 1883. His father, Charles A. DuCharme, was a wealthy Detroit hardware dealer and former president of the Michigan Stove Company.

Having graduated, from the University of Michigan, in 1906, Charles began working for his father at the Michigan Stove Company in various departments of the business before taking the position of secretary. In 1911, he married Isabel Bradbeer, and together they had three children: Charles A. (II); Jerome; and Isabel. During the early 1920’s Charles DuCharme commissioned the noted firm of William B. Stratton, and Dalton V. Snyder to design a larger 6,518 sq ft Colonial style residence for his growing family. Located just down the road from his existing home, 365 University Place was completed in 1923 – you can read the full story of this home by clicking here. At that point, it is assumed Howard and Elizabeth Bonbright purchased 354 University Place.

Having only resided in the property for a couple of years, based on our files, we understand the Bonbright’s had to virtually rebuild their home around 1927, after a fire severely damaged the property. This would possibly account for the garden being redesigned by Ruth Bramley Dean in 1928-29. By 1934, Howard Bonbright had leased the property to J. B. Ford for $175 a month (around $4,000 today). We also understand from comments in the file, at the time the upkeep on the house was high as it required a man to maintain the coal furnace, the coal water heater, and the coal heat in the garage. It was also required to have a gardener at least 2 full days each week during the summer. At the time it was reported the cost of heating the property by coal was close to $300 a year (around $6,800 today). Mr. and Mrs. Bonbright listed the property for sale on September 1, 1937, after J. B. Ford’s lease had expired. The Bonbright family then moved to 30 Touraine, Grosse Pointe Farms.

Howard Bonbright, born on November 16, 1887, in Philadelphia, was a highly regarded auto designer for the Briggs Manufacturing Company. It was Bonbright, along with his colleague John Tjaarda who designed the Lincoln Zephyr. It is reported, while working for the Briggs Manufacturing Company the duo were approached by Edsel Ford (in 1933) for help in designing a new smaller-sized Lincoln that Ford was considering putting into production. After the Ford Motor Company reengineered the original designs by John Tjaarda and Howard Bonbright to make it suitable for production, the Lincoln Zephyr debuted in 1936. Source: Howard Bonbright passed on June 19, 1942.

It is clear Mr. and Mrs. Bonbright understood the value of good design. Not only was Howard Bonbright a successful designer in his own right, but he also knew that by hiring Ruth Bramley Dean, one of the best landscape architects in the nation, he and his wife would get the garden of their dreams.


*Photos courtesy of the Higbie Maxon Agney archives unless stated.

** Research, information, and data sources are deemed reliable, but accuracy cannot be fully guaranteed.


Written by Katie Doelle
Copyright © 2023 Higbie Maxon Agney & Katie Doelle


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