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Wednesday, May 8,2013

Xanadu at Medovue

English Inn tour peels back secrets of a 1927 country estate

by Lawrence Cosentino
When choosing her jewelry for the night, the lady of the house could reach under the vanity and press a hidden button, revealing a secret panel in the bathroom. It was probably also used to hide hooch during Prohibition. 

“Secrets of the English Inn,” the Historical Society of Greater Lansing’s next fundraising tour, serves up one small surprise after another, like a 15.9-acre tray of  hors d´oeuvres..

How stressful was it to run an automotive manufacturing company during the Great Depression? How hard did the era’s 1 Percenters party? On May 15, the English Inn’s cast iron gate will creak open to reveal a little-known local Xanadu called Medovue, the Eaton Rapids home of Irving Reuter, a top General Motors executive in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. (The answer to both questions, incidentally, can be found in Reuter’s shower, studded with five powerful heads to riot-hose him awake each morning.)

Now a restaurant, pub and bed-and-breakfast, the well-preserved 1927 complex has all the Honduran mahogany, stone fireplaces, gazebos, pergolas and Tudor Revival trappings you’d ever want to gawk at. Its checkered history, however, is the real attraction. To thicken the texture, the estate has had two other lives; it was the home of Archbishop Joseph Albers of the Roman Catholic Diocese and it was a Cold War-era school for gifted children. 

Reuter was a gifted gadget man who perfected and patented key electrical parts, such as generators, starters and ignition coils, for Remy Electric, later swallowed by GM. His life got more complicated as he shot up through the ranks, becoming general manager and president of Oldsmobile Motor Car Co. in 1925. He didn’t want the job, but an impressed board of directors coaxed him into it. When Reuter met his future wife, Janet, she was studying as a singer in Europe, but soon she was sucked into her husband’s slipstream.

As soon as the Reuters moved into the Medovue estate in 1928, they started hosting the area’s business elite, and ended up in the Michigan and American Who’s Whos. 

Their guests schmoozed, dined and slept in a richly appointed, 19-room mansion with several outbuildings, two of which have been converted into lodgings. The original dining room is paneled in Honduran mahogany, cut and placed so the grain matches from panel to panel.

What sticks in the mind about Medovue isn’t so much the predictable grandeur of another wealthy Tudor pile as the numberless details hidden within. There’s a wrought iron gate inside the front door that enabled the owners to leave a vestibule bathroom open for weary travelers from Eaton Rapids to Lansing. Open the broom closets and a light automatically goes on, as it would in a refrigerator. English Inn managing partner Erik Nelson marvels that the mechanism still works after nearly 80 years. 

“It’s in constant use, and everything still fits perfectly,” Nelson said. “We’re still discovering new details in the house and grounds.”

In 1996, Nelson´s parents, Gary and Donna Nelson, bought the English Inn from Dusty Rhodes, who had turned it into Dusty´s English Inn, before opening Dusty´s Cellar in Okemos. 

Under all that impressively fitted and finished stone and wood is a floor of iron and concrete. A few years ago, when the kitchen floor was torn up to install a commercial kitchen, they had to use jackhammers to replace the planks sunk directly into the concrete.

Kenneth Black, one of Lansing’s top architects, designed a substantial addition to the main house in the ‘50s. Contrary to his modernist reputation, Black out-Tudored the original. He later recalled that he and George Hagamier, the contractor, were standing on the front lawn, talking about the work, when Janet Reuter stuck her head out of one of the four casement windows on the second floor and yelled, “Get off my grass, you dumb sons of bitches.”

But oh, she loved lavender. One of the house’s six bathrooms, with its floor-to-ceiling Pewabic tile, will make you feel the most lavender you’ve ever felt in your life. The Pewabic tiles get whimsical in another bathroom, checkered in yellow and black, with fish blowing bubbles on the top edge.

But the detail that stops the show is invisibly tucked into Janet Reuter’s dressing room.

One vanity drawer is half as deep as the others, the better to conceal a clunky, cylindrical battery pack, a bit rusty but still bright red. A button under the vanity top, powered by the battery, activates a hidden panel over the fireplace in the bedroom, where her jewelry was kept.

It must have been a high life, but Irving Reuter burned out on it pretty fast. By 1936, he was headed out the door of GM, having managed both the Pontiac and Opel divisions as well as Oldsmobile. (He spoke excellent German.) The Reuters shoved off and divided their time between Asheville, N.C., and Florida. They started a foundation that doled out tens of millions of dollars to scores of charities, including Habitat for Humanity.

Records show that one Charles S. Holden owned the estate until the Catholic Church bought it in 1940. A 1939 brochure refers to Medovue as Rhodora Acres, doubtless after a woman that was important to Holden.

Visitors can ponder a paradox of human vanity on the second floor, where, as a gesture of modesty, Archbishop Albers used the smallest room he could find: Reuters’ walk-in closet for his bedroom. The cross he put on the ceiling, directly over the bed, is still there. 

Beginning in 1957, the estate had a brief interlude as the home of Youth Unlimited, a school for about 30 gifted youngsters staffed by faculty from Albion College.

Gov. G. Mennen Williams called the project “the number one project of its kind in America today.” A clipping from the Jackson Citizen Patriot in Nelson’s file called the program “one of the answers to the Russians’ Sputnik.” The project had long folded by 1996, when  the Nelsons bought it. 

Through the years, the massive Tudor pile absorbed these comings and goings without any signs of shock. Black, who designed the cozy oak bar room, once asked Albers what he did with it; he told Black he put some candles on the bar, painted the letters “IHS” on the front and used it as an altar. Now that it’s back to service as a pub, there’s a lingering air of benediction.

“We still take confession,” Nelson said.

Secrets of the English Inn
6 p.m. May 15
677 S. Michigan Road, Eaton Rapids
$50 including hors d’oeuvres
Fundraiser for the Historical Society of Greater Lansing
lansinghistory.org
(517) 282-0671

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