Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) moved to Detroit in 1880, where he made a fortune manufacturing railroad freight cars. Together with his friend, neighbor and business partner, Col. Frank J. Hecker, Freer established Michigan Penninsular railroad car company and eventually master minded a merger of 13 railroad car companies into American Car and Foundry.
Beginning in 1887, Freer amassed a spectacular collection of contemporary American art and older Asian art, with a particular focus on works by James McNeill Whistler. Freer was a pioneering collector of Eastern art including paintings, sculpture, prints and ceramics from the Middle East, Indian, Korea, China and Japan. He was particularly interested in searching for harmonious aesthetic relationships between art of different cultures, mediums and periods.
The Freer House is a masterpiece of American shingle-style architecture. Designed by the noted Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre and built in 1892, it was enlarged to accommodate Freer's growing art collections with additions in 1906, 1910 and 1913. Considered one of Eyre's premier works, the house is Michigan's finest example of the shingle style. Working with Eyre and artists such as Thomas and Maria Oakey Dewing and Dwight W. Tryon, Freer designed and decorated his home to serve as setting for his interest in art.
Freer was a significant leader in the Detroit arts community, fostering its growth. He was an active supporter of the Detroit Museum of Art (today's DIA), the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (today's College for Creative Studies), the Detroit Club and the University of Michigan. He also championed Mary Chase Perry, founder of Pewabic Pottery, and commissioned Pewabic tiles and vessels for his home.
The Peacock Room was once the dining room in the London home of Frederick R. Leyland, a wealthy ship owner from Liverpool, England. In 1876 Leyland commissioned James McNeill Whistler to paint the dining room, resulting in a brilliant and moveable set of panels. Purchased by Charles Lang Freer in 1904, the room was then installed in the Carriage House on the grounds of the Freer House. Today, the Peacock Room is permanently on display at the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Freer's art collections remained in the house until his death in 1919, when they were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. Today they can be seen at the Freer Gallery of Art, prominently located on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C. Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian.
In 1920, the Freer House became the home of the Merrill-Palmer Institute. Today, the Freer House is the location for MPSI/WSU faculty offices and meeting room facilities. The Freer House is open periodically to the public for tours. Contact Rose Foster or William Colburn for the next open tour date at: 313-664-2500.