Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Memories of the Olds Estate, Grosse Ile, MI

1931 R. E. Olds parked by Chateau Elba, home of Barry Gillan and Chad Novak.

by Frank Kootsillas
Detroit River view of Chateau Elba.
After December 7, 1941. Grosse Ile was thrust into the spotlight with the expansion of the Grosse Ile Naval Air Station. This was completely covered previously (elsewhere), by Tammy Travis-Taylor of the Grosse Ile Historical Society.

However;  in 1942 an important addition to the to the Navy Base was the R.E. Olds estate. It was transformed into the U.S.O. It was built in 1916 by R.E. Olds, he was the automotive pioneer who built the REO and the Oldsmobile of which later was brought into the General Motors camp in the early 1900's. This estate was used as a “summer home” by Mr. Olds until 1929, the year of the depression.  It has changed ownership several times but it is still known (by many) as the Olds Estate.

Aerial view of Chateau Elba.
The estate covered the extreme southern tip of  Elba Island-a stones throw from the Naval Air station. The mansion, a massive three story structure contained thirty rooms and a grand ballroom on the (third) floor. The palatial grounds included, Koi-ponds, gardens and featured a marble veranda overlooking the river,  making this the largest and most luxurious U.S.O. in the country. (Today, the ponds and gardens have been restored and expanded.)

The U.S.O.  was staffed by the local Red Cross chapter. Navy buses transported service personnel to and from the Navy base to the mansion.

A friend of my father was the caretaker of the Olds Estate. My father went there several times to help him during the transformation in 1942. One day my dad took me with him-which proved to be an error in judgment on his part.

Restored Chateau Elba Grand Ballroom
On the property of the estate there resided a large blue Peacock, his name was “Pete”. He strutted around the grounds with a regal flair. On that day, I slipped away from my father's watchful eye. I wanted to befriend this beautiful creature. Unknown to me at my young age-Peacocks are a “solo act” and do not need “friends”. This became apparent to me when Pete avoided my friendly gestures. It turned into a dance of sorts-keeping a distance of ten feed apart. It turned into a trot-and then a slow run, zig-zagging across the expansive lawn. It even turned into a marathon with Pete leading by an even larger margin. The chase led to a small parking area paved with “cinders”! It had the same consistency of broken glass! Of course I fell-ending the chase.. When I saw my bloodied hands I screamed for my father. He and the caretaker came to my rescue-took me inside and cleaned up my hands.  It appeared that “Old Pete” had his own defense strategy....................!   I never chased “Pete” again!

Today, Chateau Elba, home of Barry Gillan and Chad Novak, is one of the most beautiful estates on Grosse Ile, MI. Barry took ownership of the estate in 1984. Since then, Barry and Chad have continuously maintained, extensively restored and renovated the estate, both inside and out. Video above - a charity fundraiser recently held at Chateau Elba. - RB

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