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Judge Robert S. Wilson House, (Wilson-Wahr House) 1835, 1843

Judge Robert S. Wilson House, (Wilson-Wahr House) 1835, 1843 image

126 North Division Street

Judge Robert S. Wilson House, (Wilson-Wahr House) 1835, 1843

Often described and pictured in books on architectural history, this is Ann Arbor's most famous house. Rexford Newcomb, in his Architecture of the Old Northwest Territory, 1950, praised its perfect proportions, and Fiske Kimball traced the model for its "four sturdy Ionic columns, rising through two stories, with graceful flutes and capitals," to the original Temple of the Wingless Victory at Athens (American Architecture, 1928).

An Historic American Buildings Survey in 1934 noted that the original kitchen was located "in the basement under the dining room ... the hearth and Dutch oven being still intact. A stair led from the old kitchen at the rear of the present library, which was evidently the original serving room, and the main hall extended back to that point." The house probably was erected in three stages with the middle section the first to be built, possibly as early as 1835. The kitchen and servant quarters at the rear were probably added in 1850.

Probate Judge Robert S. Wilson built the famous temple portion in 1843 in a setting of extensive grounds and gardens. His career took him to Chicago and in 1850 he sold the estate to John A. Welles, a newcomer from the East. Welles' son Henry joined in the merchandising and land speculation enterprises of his father, moving into the house with his four daughters after the death of his wife in 1855. Henry was city recorder in 1851-52 and treasurer of the University from 1858 until his death in 1860. The Welles girls, Clarissa, Sarah, Mary Fiske, and Susan Holly, and their cousins, the children of Silas and Helen Welles Douglass, were active in society in Ann Arbor and Detroit and made frequent trips to the East Coast and Europe. A Welles wedding was the occasion for installing the unusual wood-paneled ceilings of the first floor of the mansion.

Times change, and in 1892 the house with a smaller garden was auctioned in a tax sale on the courthouse steps with bookseller and publisher George Wahr making the high bid. He and his wife, Emma (Staebler) Wahr moved into the home but they disliked the inside well, thinking it unhealthful. The Wahrs excavated in the garden a few feet to the south to begin a new house at 120 North Division Street, and while construction was under way, Emma took a trip east where she visited the Lee mansion in Virginia. As she approached the Lee house, she was struck by the realization that the visual effect of their Greek Temple mansion in Ann Arbor would be destroyed by building the new house so near to it. Although she telegraphed her husband to stop construction, for perhaps the only time in their lives together he failed to accede to her wishes. The Wahrs moved into the new house, leasing the mansion next door to sororities and fraternities. After twenty years, they filled the noisome well and returned to the mansion where Emma Wahr, an avid collector of antiques, displayed her treasures. Much of her notable collection was sold at auction in 1974 after the death of her daughter, Natalie Wahr Sallade. The Sallade family still occupies this mansion.

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Photos used to illustrate Historic Buildings, Ann Arbor, Michigan / by Marjorie Reade and Susan Wineberg.