In her new monthly column, “Detroit Archives,” Aisha Sabatini Sloan explores her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit.
A few weeks ago, I met up with my mom and her friend Judy at a Detroit brunch spot, the garden of the Whitney Mansion. Billed as “an oasis in the heart of Detroit,” the outdoor courtyard is the site of wedding receptions and concerts. A bustling crowd of diners clapped politely as a revolving line-up of indie and jazz singers performed in a corner of the garden, their backs facing Woodward Avenue. Built in 1894 by a lumber baron who was celebrated, I guess, as “the wealthiest man in Detroit,” the ornate mansion has been restored to its original splendor. On this morning, the garden was abloom with smiling people and their garden-themed summer wear. The maître d’ had a podium. Our food arrived overlaid by fancy covers.
After we ate, we walked around to the front of the mansion. “I remember the homeless woman who lived there,” Judy said, tracing the lines of the nook that woman had made for herself on the porch. Judy and my mother had worked together at the Whitney Mansion in the late sixties. Gawking mansion-goers drifted in and out of the ornate doors.
Upstairs in the bathroom, Judy and my mom pointed out the architecture of their memories, bisecting the bathroom stalls with their pointer fingers to show where the wall of their office used to be. Downstairs, they gestured at the restored fixtures, at the parquet floors, the paintings on the wall.
“This is where I pierced your ears,” my mom squealed, pointing to the spot where Judy sat while my mother pushed a needle through her lobes to meet “a potato or an apple” on the other side. The two of them giggled as they moved from room to room. “I wonder if we can go in the solarium,” Judy kept wondering out loud. They stood in the place where a switchboard used to be. Sometimes, Judy would relieve the phone operator, pulling chords and pushing buttons to connect callers. “Don’t you remember that Lily Tomlin sketch?” She said, bringing the old technology back to life through her best Tomlin imitation. “One ringy dingy?”
We encountered a tour group gaping at a gigantic safe on the wall. The tour guide gestured vaguely at its mechanics. “I know how it works!” Judy piped up, and the guide ushered her forward to pantomime how the wall-size safe door would have been opened. The tour group seemed intrigued, and Judy and my mom warmed to their audience. They explained that they worked here for the Visiting Nurse Association. “The FBI interviewed me in that room over there,” Judy said, pointing in the direction of the plant-filled, sun-drenched solarium.