Dorr E. Felt Mansion, Laketown Michigan

Date added: January 12, 2023 Categories: Michigan House Mansion

The Felt Mansion was the summer home of Chicago businessman Dorr Eugene Felt, inventor, entrepreneur, and statesman. Felt invented the Comptometer, the first multiple-column calculating machine, and established the Felt & Tarrant Manufacturing Company to manufacture the product. He served as president of the highly successful company. It was a trend among wealthy Chicagoans in the early twentieth century to establish summer estates along Lake Michigan's east shore.

Dorr Eugene Felt was born March 18, 1862, on a farm in Rockford County, Wisconsin, near the town of Beloit. After leaving school at the age of 14, Felt went to work in a machine shop in Beloit. At eighteen he moved to Chicago where he soon became foreman of a rolling mill. According to a 1921 profile in Illustrated World, it was in 1885, when Felt was twenty-four and working as a planer in a machine shop, that he was first struck with the idea of developing a calculating machine to aid the shop's accountants. He devised a prototype using a wooden macaroni box, meat skewers, and rubber bands. The model so impressed the machine shop's owner, Robert Tarrant, that he fronted Felt the capital and provided him with tools and workspace to construct a metal version of the device. Felt called the machine the Comptometer and, according to an article in the November 11, 1893 Scientific American, it was able to "compute addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square and cube root by the application of which everything in arithmetic is calculated". There were other simple adding machines in use at the time, but Felt's was the first machine that could actually calculate numbers in a complex fashion. Felt patented his machine, improved it, and began marketing it. Though it met with initial resistance by accountants who thought it would put them out of a job, it soon gained acceptance and sales took off. The first machines were made by Felt himself but by 1889 sales had increased so dramatically that Felt opened a manufacturing plant, the Felt & Tarrant Manufacturing Company, located at 52-56 Illinois Street in Chicago. Felt served as company president until his death in 1930. The enterprise was a great success and sales were soon worldwide. Felt received three medals of excellence for his invention and the Comptometer was exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Felt also developed a calculating machine that listed and printed the figures being calculated. According to a competitor's brochure, "Mr. Felt's efforts include probably more important contributions to the adding machine art than any other inventor of the early period". Over the years, Felt was granted forty-six patents in the United States and twenty-five in foreign countries. While the majority of the patents related to the improvement of his calculating machine, his inventions ranged from a coupon cutter to an improved camera diaphragm controller.

Dorr Felt's success as a businessman soon brought him national attention. When the War Industries Board was created in 1918 after the outbreak of World War I, Felt was appointed as Regional Director-Region 9 of the Resources and Conversion Section. He acted as a liaison between the federal government and local business owners to identify existing resources and mobilize them for conversion to war-related products. There were thirty such regions across the nation and Felt's included Iowa and northern Illinois and Indiana. Felt performed his job well and at the end of the war he was appointed by then Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson to aid in the reconstruction of Europe's economy as a member of the Employer's Industrial Commission. Felt served as the spokesman for a team that visited Great Britain in 1919 and worked to end the labor strikes that were rampant in that country. He also visited France and reported on the labor conditions there. In 1920, Felt was appointed Director of the United States Chamber of Commerce. During his term as director, the International Chamber of Commerce was created, whose mission was to increase U. S. trade opportunities abroad. Other positions held by Felt include: delegate, Pan-American Scientific Congress 1915-16; President of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, 1919; director and member of the board of the Chicago Association of Commerce; and member of the American Academy of Political Science and Social Science, Philadelphia and New York; of the executive committee, Legislative Voters League; and of the executive committee, Chicago Public School League. He also authored a number of monographs on international labor relations.

Felt's primary home was in Chicago where he built a two-and-a-half-story, Chateau-style mansion at 423 Wellington. According to the book, Chicago, City of Neiqhborhoods, the area was originally the village of East Lakeview, which was annexed by the city of Chicago in 1889. The Felt home was located at one of the neighborhood's more "fashionable" addresses between Sheridan Avenue and Lake Michigan. The house, with its corner towers, massive stone construction, arched porch, porte cochere, and matching carriage house, was a symbol of the wealth that Felt had obtained through the success of his machine. In his private time, Felt was a world traveler and visited diverse locations such as Egypt, Palestine, the Panama Canal, Hawaii, and Alaska to satisfy his interests in geology and biblical history.

When Felt first came to Saugatuck in the early 1900s the village was just beginning to promote itself as a resort town. According to James Sheridan in his book, Saugatuck Through the Years, at that time resort meant "roughing it" and a number of tent camps and simple boarding houses were established in the area. Soon, the village acquired land for a public beach, built a stairway and observatory on the Mt. Baldhead sand dune, and began advertising its scenic beauty in the Chicago papers. In 1905 the "Big Pavilion" was constructed, piers were built to accommodate Lake Michigan passenger boats in 1906, and in 1910, the Ox Bow Summer Art School was established. By 1922, enough black top road had been laid to allow automobile travel between Chicago and Saugatuck. Soon "summer bustled with excitement and action. . . streets were crowded with... color and movement early and late."

According to local lore, Dorr Felt's first visit to Saugatuck was as a guest at a local estate (now a bed and breakfast known as the Belvedere). He loved the area and offered to buy his host's home, but the owner would not sell. A review of the Allegan County deed records shows that Felt first began acquiring land in Laketown Township in 1919 when he purchased a few parcels in Section 33. Each year he acquired more property until 1925 when his land purchase activity peaked with the acquisition of over fourteen parcels of land. In all, Felt acquired almost 900 acres of land bordering Lake Michigan. The lot where the current house stands was purchased in 1926. According to former newspaper editor Art Lane, when the Felts came to Saugatuck they lived in a simple gable-front, frame house with a full-length screen porch. Pictures taken in 1927 show that this modest but well-kept structure stood to the east of the site of the current mansion, just to the south of the garage. The farmhouse has since been demolished. According to early twentieth-century architectural critic Royal Cortissoz, it was with "something like suddenness the big and permanent country house came into fashion, the lordly dwelling having practically no relation at all to even the most luxurious 'cottage' of previous generations". The Felts followed the trend of other wealthy summer vacationers from Chicago, such as railroad passenger car heating system manufacturer Egbert H. Gold, who established Marigold Lodge near Holland in 1912-13, and began construction of their impressive mansion in July of 1927.

The house was designed by the architectural firm of Frank P. Allen & Son of Grand Rapids. Frank P. Allen (1856-c. 1934), a native of Fenton, Michigan, came to Grand Rapids as a youth and by 1881 was listed in the city directory as a carpenter. Allen became an architect about 1891 after taking a mail-order architecture correspondence course. About 1901 Allen took his son Frank P. Allen, Jr., into partnership, forming Frank P. Allen & Son, but by 1909 the son moved to the west coast. About 1921 the senior Allen took son Roger Allen into partnership, and it was this incarnation of Frank P. Allen & Son which produced the Felt Mansion. Frank P. Allen was responsible for such buildings as the Lake County Courthouse and the Belding Memorial Library, but the Felt Mansion is the most important currently known residential commission of the firm during the period when Roger Allen was a partner. The 1929 directory is the last to list the Frank P. Allen & Son firm, and Frank P. Allen himself is listed as an architect for the last time in the 1932 edition.

The Felt Estate, Shore Acre Farms, was comprised of both dune and farmlands. The land Felt purchased included two working farms, complete with orchards, corn fields, and dairy cows. Felt continued to operate the farms and planted an orchard between his house and Lake Michigan where the seminary/prison buildings now stand. He employed a full-time caretaker, Joseph Woodall, who lived on the farm with his wife and nine children for fourteen years until Felt's death in 1930. Felt used his inventiveness to devise a unique irrigation system that was activated by wave action on Lake Michigan and supplemented by a windmill located on the top of the sand dune to the south of the mansion. According to Art Lane, remnants of the system can still be found. Lane also noted that concrete footings can still be seen in Lake Michigan, running parallel to the shore, where Felt attempted to build a dock that would enable him to ship the fruit from his farm directly to the Chicago market across the big lake. He soon saw the infeasibility of the plan and the dock was never completed.

In addition to being a working farm, Shore Acre Farms was also a summer playground where Dorr Felt could indulge in his wealth. His interest in the exotic was shown in the construction of a small zoo on the property. Caves were constructed in the sand dune to the south of the house, lined with concrete, and equipped with bars to house exotic animals. These caves were filled in when the state purchased the property in 1977. There was also a deer park. As noted in the History of Western Allegan County, when Guy Teed organized the Allegan County Conservation League in 1929, he purchased deer from the estate to start a herd in the county. The Felts built a small, two-story brick bathhouse on the lakeshore leaving the second story open to act as an observatory. This was eventually destroyed by neglect and erosion. Paved tennis courts were located near the garage. According to an article in the July 12, 1928 edition of the Saugatuck Commercial Record, Felt built a system of gravel roads throughout the sand dunes and woods on the property. These "skyline drives" ran along the tops of the dunes providing striking vistas as well as automobile access to the beach. Felt's interest in landscaping the grounds of his estate went well beyond the formal gardens surrounding the house. He planted over 3500 trees on the farm including large groves of black walnut and poplars. Many of the stately trees found on the formal grounds were moved to the area from nearby Gorshorn Lake. According to Felt's grandchildren, he influenced a 1920 conservation effort conducted by the state in conjunction with the village public works department to stabilize the Mt. Baldhead sand dune when he loaned them his "man" for consultation on reforestation of the area.

According to local residents Art Lane and Al Meshkin, the Felts were well respected in the community and often opened the estate to the general public. The "zoo" was open to local families and many in Saugatuck have memories of visits there. The Felts sponsored dances in the third-floor ballroom that were open to the community. They even went so far as to build a wood-frame bathhouse a short distance down the beach from their own brick structure for use by the community.

In August 1928, Dorr Felt's wife of thirty-seven, Agnes, died suddenly at the Felts' summer home, just one year after its completion. In 1929, Mr. Felt married Jeanne Saurin, a woman he had met in France. According to Art Lane, the new Mrs. Felt did not enjoy country life and the Felts rarely visited the home after their marriage.

At the age of sixty-eight, Dorr E. Felt died suddenly at his Chicago home on August 7, 1930, and was buried in Rosehill Cemetery. Shore Acre Farms was inherited by his children who kept the property until 1949 when it was sold to the Chicago Province of the Augustinian Order of the Catholic Church. The house was converted into a convent for a secluded order of nuns. In 1963, the order built the St. Augustine Prep Seminary on the property. The seminary was built to accommodate 240 students and included classrooms, eight dormitories, a gymnasium, library, and auditorium. The Felt Mansion housed the brothers and priests who taught at the school. In 1977, against strong opposition from the local community, the state of Michigan purchased the property for use as a medium-security prison. The seminary buildings were converted for this purpose. The Felt Mansion was used as a state police post and, later, as the base for WEMET, a drug enforcement unit. In 1991, when it was deemed no longer economically viable, the prison was closed. In 1995, Laketown Township purchased the property from the state. They are currently in the process of demolishing the seminary buildings and have plans to renovate the Felt Mansion and restore the water garden. It is hoped that the mansion can be converted to a self-sustaining enterprise, such as a small bed and breakfast/conference center.

Building Description

The Felt Mansion, a high-style building of Early Republican inspiration with brick walls that was built in 1927, was the summer home of Dorr Eugene Felt, a successful Chicago businessman and inventor. The house presided over an estate which, at its peak, was comprised of over 900 acres of sand dunes, woodlands, and working farmland bordering Lake Michigan, and was known as Shore Acre Farms.

Located in Laketown Township three miles north of the village of Saugatuck and two miles south of Holland, the house and its present three-acre site is surrounded by the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, which occupies 400 acres once part of the estate. The house stands on a short access road about a quarter mile off 138th Street near 66th Street. It occupies the top of a low sand dune providing a broad vista of the dunes and woodlands that spread to the west, or rear, of the house. The formal lawn is a landscaped design of water garden, hidden glen, and a flat grassy area framed by evergreens, arborvitae, hedge roses, and lilacs. Natural woodlands run down the steep slope of the dune to the north.

In 1944, the estate was purchased by the Province of Our Mother of Good Counsel, the Chicago Province of the Augustinian Order of the Catholic Church for use as a convent for a sect of cloistered nuns. In 1963, the site was chosen for use as a seminary and classroom buildings and dormitories were built on a low strip of land between Lake Michigan and the Felt mansion. In 1977, the 550-acre complex was purchased by the state of Michigan. The state converted the seminary buildings for use as a medium-security prison, the Dunes Correctional Facility, and reserved 126 acres of land for use by the prison. An additional eighty-bed prison structure was built by the state around 1988.

The Felt Mansion is a three-story, gable-roof, brick mansion of early Republican inspiration, patterned in a general way, it appears, after the large brick houses of the Middle Atlantic states. It has a rectangular, Georgian floor plan. The house has a north-south orientation, paralleling Lake Michigan. It sits on a concrete foundation and is constructed with steel beams and concrete and wire mesh lath. Its concrete slab roofs are supported by steel trusses and covered with rustic slate tiles. The six-bay main body of the house is flanked on its north and south elevations by slightly dropped four-bay wings. Arched windows on the first floor of both wings are indicative of a sunroom and solarium. The exterior yellow brick walls in common bond are highlighted by prominent limestone window sills and keystones. Decorative limestone panels with a garland motif are found between the first- and second-story windows of the main body of the house. The house displays many of the features typical of Early Republican houses including a strong sense of symmetry, three pedimented wooden dormers, a modillioned cornice with returns and dentils, sidelights around the front door, and palladian windows on its north and south elevations. There are three end chimneys: two at the back corners of the main body of the house and one at the southwest corner of the south wing.

The front entry is sheltered by a stately limestone portico. Triple Tuscan columns are grouped at each front corner and the frieze is strong and plain, simply accented with heavy modillions. The portico is topped by a limestone balustrade. The front portion of the balustrade was removed when the property was owned by the Catholic Church to make room for a concrete cross, which still remains in place. Over the portico is a round arch window that lights the stairwell landing. The front door is made of paneled walnut and is flanked by sidelights. An elliptical wooden panel carved in a sunburst pattern forms an arch over the doorway.

The fenestration is symmetrical and a variety of window styles are used in the house. This includes one-over-one, double-hung windows on the main body of the first and second floor; three-part wooden casement windows in the wings; and tall round-arch windows in the solarium and sunroom on the first floor. Concrete window boxes with prominent console bracket braces adorn the base of the windows at each end of each wing. Photographs taken soon after the house was completed show that shutters were once found on the windows of the main body of the house. They have since been removed.

A small, wood-frame addition with gable roof and clapboard siding was added to shelter a service entrance on the north elevation. There are two entry doors leading to the basement, a center door on the west elevation and a door accessed via an outdoor staircase on the north wing of the house. A steel fire escape was affixed to the south elevation soon after the house was completed to provide an emergency exit from the third-floor ballroom.

The west elevation, or rear, of the main body of the house is flanked by a long, curved balcony supported on a brick-faced concrete block foundation. The balcony has a limestone floor and balustrade. A series of french doors open onto the balcony. A small square room, centered on the main body of the house, projects onto the balcony and is topped with a limestone balconet.

On the roof line of the main body of the house, near the north chimney, is a small, open observatory surrounded by an iron railing. The observatory is accessed by an interior steel spiral staircase.

The interior follows the traditional Georgian plan with a centered hall and symmetrical room arrangement. The north wing housed the service areas including the dining room, kitchen, and servants' quarters. The south wing housed the family rooms including the living room and master bedroom suite. Distinctive details found throughout the house include wide-shouldered architraves that surround all doors and windows, decorative radiator covers, and wide cornice moldings.

The interior of the Felt Mansion is distinguished by the quality of its craftsmanship. The walnut-paneled foyer has oak floors, an inlay chair rail, ornamental stair brackets, and carved garlands along its cornice and makes a striking entry to the house. According to the recollections of Dorr Felt's grandchildren, who revisited the home in 1991, the woodwork in the foyer was finished by an automotive woodwork finisher who was brought in from a factory located near Felt's plant in Chicago. In the main body of the house, the dining room and a small, paneled library with a fireplace are found to the north while a morning room runs along the rear of the house. The north wing houses the kitchen, pantry, and a sun porch. The kitchen remains relatively unaltered. The counters are covered in metal sheathing and the drawer pulls and doorknobs are of milk glass. A large vent hood was added to the sun porch in the 1960s when the house was part of the seminary. In the south wing, a large solarium with a terra cotta tiled floor and round-arch windows is found at the front, while the living room runs along the back of the wing. The living room was altered when it was used as an office by the state police in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, drop ceilings were added and partitions were built for storage and office areas.

Access to the second floor is gained by the central front staircase or a back staircase located in the north wing. The second floor of the south wing houses the master suite, which consists of the bedroom, an anteroom with a walk-in cedar closet, a private sun porch, and a private tiled bath. On the south wall is a fireplace with tan marble front piece and wood mantle. Bedrooms for the Felts' children and guests comprise the body of the second floor of the house. According to Art Lane, a long time local resident of Saugatuck and former editor of its newspaper, the Saugatuck Commercial Record, these were divided into cells for use by the priests when the property was used as a seminary. Each is of a uniform size and contains a sink. The north wing contained sleeping quarters for the servants, as can be seen from its lack of ornamentation and detail. There were originally five bathrooms located on the second floor. Their decorative tile work ranges from an Arts and Crafts tan with deep blue trim in the master suite, to a light blue and white checkerboard pattern and a rose and pale green tile combination in the children's and guest baths. Almost all the original bathroom fixtures remain. Brass shower doors topped with a spindle design are found in two of the bathrooms and one shower stall still contains its original Powers brand shower fixture with thermostat and shampoo knob.

The third floor was used as a ballroom. It has a vaulted ceiling, oak floor, and french doors at either end. The original star-shaped chandeliers are still in place. At the south end of the ballroom is a restroom with seven toilet stalls and a long vanity shelf. At the north end is a series of storage and maintenance rooms, a stairwell, and an iron spiral staircase to the lookout platform on the roof. When it was used as a dormitory for seminary students, bookshelves were built into a series of arched recesses found along the walls of the room.

The basement housed an extensive laundry and pantry area. A series of shower bays were installed when the house was used as a dormitory.

Dorr E. Felt Mansion, Laketown Michigan West and south facades (1996)
West and south facades (1996)

Dorr E. Felt Mansion, Laketown Michigan East facade (1996)
East facade (1996)

Dorr E. Felt Mansion, Laketown Michigan East facade (1996)
East facade (1996)

Dorr E. Felt Mansion, Laketown Michigan West facade (1996)
West facade (1996)

Dorr E. Felt Mansion, Laketown Michigan North and west facades (1996)
North and west facades (1996)

Dorr E. Felt Mansion, Laketown Michigan South and east facades (1996)
South and east facades (1996)

Dorr E. Felt Mansion, Laketown Michigan Water garden from the east (1996)
Water garden from the east (1996)

Dorr E. Felt Mansion, Laketown Michigan Grotto (1996)
Grotto (1996)