The huge Glencoe Hills apartment complex is a familiar sight to passersby zipping down Washtenaw between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Stretching north to Clark Rd., it’s now growing even denser, with several new buildings under construction. Yet, hidden deep within the complex, a cluster of historic buildings survive, from the site’s past as a Detroit lawyer’s country estate.
The original “Glencoe Hills” was the work of James McDonald, who earned bachelor’s and law degrees from the U-M in the 1870s. Twice widowed, he married his third wife, the former Christine Jewell, in 1904.
In the 1920s, the McDonalds joined a number of other wealthy Detroiters who were taking advantage of the new freedom afforded by automobile travel to build homes in what was then farmland around Ann Arbor. (Others included the Inglises, whose house is now the U-M’s guest residence, and the Earharts, whose mansion on Geddes is now the administration building of Concordia University.)
McDonald called his estate Glencoe Hills. The name alludes to a tragedy that took place more than 300 years ago at Glen Coe in Scotland, when thirty-seven members of the MacDonald clan were murdered by soldiers acting under the orders of King William III. The attackers stayed with the MacDonalds as guests for more than a week before turning on their hosts and killing them as they slept–an act of treachery that author George R.R. Martin cited as an inspiration for the gory “Red Wedding” in his fantasy series Game of Thrones.
James McDonald’s Glencoe Hills was far more peaceful. He first built a small cottage on Clark he named Drynoch, where he lived during the construction of the estate. He laid out winding paths that connected Clark to Washtenaw, built a barn and stables for some twenty-six horses, and began a two-year landscaping project that included building rolling hills, planting dozens of fruit trees and flowering shrubs, and creating two diminutive “kissing” lakes.
The main house, completed in 1929, is a three-story colonial style mansion with two enclosed side porches and a pillared oval front porch. Inside were hardwood floors, tall ceilings, knobs of crystal, and elaborate cabinetry. A walk-in safe was installed in the basement.
The work was done in time for McDonald to host the final reunion of the U-M Class of 1876 at Glencoe Hills before his death in 1934 at age eighty. Christine outlived him, remaining active in state Democratic politics and the Daughters of the American Revolution.
After her death, the property passed through a number of hands before the Glencoe Hills apartments were built in the early 1970s. Amazingly, the mansion, a small house across Glencoe Hills Dr. originally used by the McDonalds’ staff, and the barn and stables were spared.
The McDonalds’ mansion was divided into rental flats, but otherwise remains much as they built it–the cabinetry, flooring, and many of the fixtures remain. And the landscape the McDonalds shaped still makes the complex one of the most scenic and attractive in the area.