Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Freer, Charles Lang

Born in Kingston, New York on February 25, 1854, Freer became a leading industrialist and art collector.  In 1880, Freer and Colonel Frank Hecker, a railroad supervisor and friend of Freer, moved to Detroit to work at the Peninsular Car Works, which made railroad freight cars.  The Peninsular shops were on Ferry Street, between Riopelle and Dequindre, at the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad Junction.  In addition to cars, the Peninsular made wheels and axles for both cars and locomotives. 

In 1892, Peninsular merged with the Michigan Car Company, becoming the Michigan-Peninsular Car Company, with Freer and Hecker buying out the original investors.  Becoming extremely wealthy, Freer still worked hard and orchestrated the merger of a dozen additional companies. Freer was able to retire in 1899, at the young age of 45, by making the decision to sell his stock. Freer was now able to devote his attention to art.  Needing a home sufficient for a 19th century gentleman of means and taste, Freer hired Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre Jr., along with the aid of artists Dwight William Tryon and Thomas Wilmer Dewing, to create his home.

Freer’s home is located at 71 East Ferry Avenue in Detroit.  Eyre Jr. created the interior of the home with Freer’s art collection in mind.  After traveling to the Middle East and the Far East, Freer amassed a great amount of art and needed a place to house it.  In 1902, Eyre built Freer an exhibition room with red lacquered woodwork and another in 1911, with a Pewabic Pottery hearth. 

In the late 1880s, Freer began to actively collect paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler, an American expatriate. Freer would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, who, through his own interest in the arts and cultures of Asia, turned Freer's attention to Asian art.  Freer’s collection was given to the country after he felt that it should be shared with the public, and it became the beginning of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.  Construction began on the one million dollar project, all of which was paid by Freer.  Completion was delayed by World War I, and the gallery was not opened until 1923.

Written by Stacy Newman



The Charles Lang Freer House, prior to inclusion into Merrill-Palmer School, 1921

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