Early Detroit's "Near East Side"
The house, built in 1836, was located at 253 East Fort Street, between Russell and Rivard Streets. Although this section of Fort Street is gone, the home's original location would have been along the south side of today's Navarre Place in southern Lafayette Park.
When it was built, Detroit was little more than a frontier outpost. The town was experiencing a population boom, as the Erie Canal in New York opened new and easier transportation routes. In 1836, Detroit boasted about 3,000 residents - more than double the 1,200 who lived there in 1828.
As Detroit's downtown grew, residents began to build on the outskirts of the downtown. The area just to the east of downtown was popular with a first wave of German immigrants as early as 1825. Free blacks including William Webb and William Lambert, both successful business owners and organizers of the town's Underground Railroad network, also lived in the area.
By 1850, some 21,000 people lived in Detroit, and neighborhoods circled the downtown area.
In April 1848, Ulysses S. Grant, a young Army officer, was assigned to Detroit as the regimental quartermaster for the 4th Infantry. He arrived alone from his previous post in Sackets Harbor, New York. His wife, Julia Dent Grant, was with her parents in St. Louis.
Grant secured the rental of a small, Greek revival house on the city's southeast side and wrote to Julia about it:
"My dearest Julia … I have rented a neat little house. … In the lower part of the house, there is a neat double parlor, a dining room, one small bedroom and kitchen. There is a nice upstairs and a garden filled with the best kind of fruit. There is a long arbor grown over with vines that will bear fine grapes in abundance for us and to give away. There are currants and plum and peach trees and in fact everything that the place could want to make it comfortable. I will have a soldier at work in the garden next week so that by the time you get here, everything will be in the nicest order."
The neighborhood was modest, but comfortable. Neighbors included military families, blacksmiths, shoemakers, laborers and peddlers. The area was popular with western European immigrants.
When Julia arrived in Detroit in summer 1849, she thought their residence was "a sweet, pretty house." In her memoirs, which she wrote in the years after her husband's death in 1885, Julia noted:
"Our house was very snug and convenient: two sitting rooms, dining room, bedroom, and kitchen all on the first floor. This last was so convenient for me to make my culinary experiments. The grounds were quite large, extending around the house on all sides, and at the back was a nice carriage house and stable for Nelly Bly, the Captain's pretty, fleet, little mare of which he was so fond and so proud."
Julia was more outgoing than her husband, and she ensured they were involved in Detroit society. They attended parties, dances and dinners. On quiet evenings at home, Ulysses would read to Julia.
Ulysses became more animated when he raced his horse, Nelly Bly, up and down Fort Street, to thunderous applause. Grant was an excellent horseman, and often beat his competitors in races.
Julia became pregnant with the couple's first son, Frederick Dent Grant, while in Detroit. She traveled to her family home in St. Louis to be near her mother in the fall of 1849 to have the baby. Ulysses, on temporary leave, joined her in St. Louis in the spring of 1850.
When they returned to Detroit in early June 1850, they did not move back into the house on Fort Street. Instead, they boarded with at least two other military families in homes in the same area. In June 1851, Grant was transferred back to Sackets Harbor, New York, and he, Julia and young Fred left the city.
The Home after the Grants
Had it not been for Ulysses S. Grant's rise to acclaim, first as a Civil War General and later as President of the United States, the modest "neat little house" they rented in Detroit decades earlier would have been demolished as early as the 1890s.
However, Detroiters remembered Grant, and the house became an unofficial memorial. When Grant died in 1885, Detroit residents draped the home in black bunting and fabric for mourning. The house also began to show up as an attraction in city maps - all while remaining a private residence.
Meanwhile, the working-class neighborhood around the home became one of the most diverse in the city of Detroit. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the neighborhood became home to new waves of European immigrants, including significant Greek and Jewish populations.
Detroit historian and benefactor Clarence Burton may have been one of the first to suggest the house be saved as a museum. In 1896, the simple wooden structure was past its prime and the city was considering tearing it down. Burton's recommendation saved it from the wrecking ball - temporarily.
By the 1920s, the neighborhood was one of the only areas where city officials and white residents allowed African Americans to live. Shut out from shopping and services downtown, the residents of the area - called Black Bottom - built their own thriving residential and business community. The south side of Fort Street, where the Grant Home was located, was along the southern border of Black Bottom.
In 1936, the Michigan Insurance Company, at the urging of its president, saved the house from a first wave of urban renewal. The company funded the home's relocation to the Michigan State Fairgrounds at Woodward Avenue and 8 Mile Road, where it was finally made into a museum.
By the early 1950s, the Black Bottom neighborhood - including Fort Street - were marked for "slum clearance," part of a robust and nationwide mid-twentieth century urban renewal plan that disproportionately targeted black neighborhoods. Detroit's Black Bottom was demolished, and Lafayette Park was built in its place. The section of Fort Street on which the Grant house was located was completely removed and later replaced with the second phase of the Lafayette Park development.