"The Theremin Played by Vera Richardson” Program Issued for Her Concert Series at the Dearborn Inn, c. 1935. (Object ID: 22.214.171.124).
Vera Richardson Played Out-of-This-World Instrument at the Dearborn Inn
Owosso, Michigan, native Vera Richardson (born 1891) was a musician of considerable talent, evident from an early age, and by age 10 she was singing and playing the piano publicly. Formative performances took place in the neighboring Shiawassee County city, Corunna, where she appeared as part of the entertainment assembled for club gatherings held in local residences. She attended Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) and was the pianist for her own graduation ceremony in 1914. She continued her education after college, including an advanced piano course in New York. In August 1919, she married fellow Owosso native Leigh H. Simpson, a high school teacher, and the couple settled in Detroit.
Though the young Vera was obviously gifted, her modest early years gave little indication of the unique path her life would take.
It wouldn’t be long into her professional career before Vera Richardson was known as a highly skilled musician and performer. In the June 7, 1922, edition of The Detroit News, the paper could barely contain their praise of her “in all departments of the difficult art of piano playing,” noting her “ready facility which makes a technical achievement seem quite simple,” adding, “life and vigor are in the tones she achieves,” and “a real sincerity makes her work vital.” She was backing singers for the WWJ broadcast, but listeners responded so strongly to her playing—lighting up the station’s switchboard with requests for more—that the pianist closed out the evening with three solo pieces.
In addition to her piano virtuosity, Richardson was also a composer, arranger, and recording artist, laying down piano rolls for the Duo-Art player piano in the mid-to-late 1920s. At an April 1930 event held at the Women’s City Club in Detroit, she seemingly concluded the performance by turning on a Weber Duo-Art baby grand, which started to play one of her own piano rolls—but she wasn’t done yet. For the conclusion, she sat at another piano and began playing as the automated Duo-Art rolled on. The audience, blown away by such an unusual duet, insisted on an encore. Once again, she obliged.
In the mid-1930s, Richardson began a weekly residency at the Dearborn Inn. Envisioned by Henry and Edsel Ford, the hotel incorporated design elements from New England inns built during the colonial period. A stone’s throw from the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, the inn opened in 1931 and quickly gained a stellar reputation for its elegance and colonial charm. It was in this environment that Vera Richardson performed her Sunday concerts, which were likely held in the hotel’s cocktail lounge. This time, though, it wasn’t her piano skills that she shared with the audience. Instead, the instrument she manipulated was unfamiliar to most. It was a device that didn’t exist in the not-too-distant past, and was seemingly from a world that did not yet exist. With just a wave of her hands, Richardson was able to produce otherworldly sounds, both beautiful and frightening.
The Theremin, Model AR-1264, Made and Marketed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1929-1935. (Object ID: 68.62.4).
The theremin was the world’s first electronic instrument. Invented in 1920 by Russian-born Lev Sergeyevich Teremen (better known as Leon Theremin), it is the only instrument played without ever being touched. The theremin consists of oscillators, housed in a wood cabinet, which stands on four legs. A vertical metal rod is to the right, a metal ring to the left. Once turned on, the theremin emits an electromagnetic field, so when a person enters that field the unit produces noise. Moving one’s right hand near the metal rod influences the pitch, while gesturing with the left hand near the ring controls the volume. When operated by a skilled player, the sound of the theremin is similar to such string instruments as the cello and violin, while the musical tone emanated can vary significantly. A piece might begin in a soothing or lovely fashion and then escalate into moods that are alternately haunting, suspenseful, or hair-raisingly alarming. During performance, the musician operating the instrument—depending on the spectator’s perspective—might resemble a conductor or even a magician.
RCA began manufacturing the instrument in 1929. Though the company boasted that “anyone can play” the theremin, it is actually quite difficult to master. So much so that even a musician as capable as Vera Richardson felt she could learn a thing or two about the instrument and returned to New York in the mid-1930s to study theremin development and technique with Leon Theremin himself.
The theremin was featured in the popular radio program, The Green Hornet. The instrument was used in the show to create an ominous buzz, representing a monstrous bee that sounded like it was about to fly right through the speakers. It marks the first time most of the public heard the theremin used in such a way—if at all. The thereminist, from day one in 1936 until the series ended in 1952, was none other than Vera Richardson.
Around the time of her Dearborn Inn concerts, she opened her music studio in Detroit. Located on Ferry Avenue west of Woodward, in the apartment she shared with her husband, she offered demonstrations of the theremin and taught piano. Richardson continued performing with the theremin, including such notable dates as her return to Owosso for a solo performance on July 3, 1936, as part of her hometown’s centennial celebration; and the October 25, 1936, appearance at the Women’s City Club, where she was backed by the Detroit String Ensemble. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, she had a radio show on WWJ, playing the organ and the Novachord, an early synthesizer. She was also the organist at the Detroit Institute of Arts every Sunday morning from 1935 to1950, and beginning in 1946 she performed monthly organ recitals at veteran’s hospitals across Michigan. Her last known public appearance took place on September 17, 1957, at a home in Grosse Pointe. Performing as one of four pianists at a “get acquainted tea” social for a local organization, the event was similar to her humble beginnings in show business over fifty years prior.
The cocktail lounge at the Dearborn Inn, c. 1930s, the area in the hotel where Vera Richardson likely performed her theremin concerts in the mid-1930s.
Vera Richardson Simpson died in September 1977 in Santa Barbara, California. She is buried near her hometown of Owosso, in Corunna, the same city where those youthful performances took place.
In July 1986, the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor received Richardson’s theremin from her estate. In January of the following year, the Vera Richardson Simpson Memorial Scholarship was announced. The scholarship was to benefit 18-to-22 year-old college students majoring in music. In this way, Vera Richardson’s legacy as a community-minded individual, musician and pioneering electronic music performer continued for new generations.
Bart Bealmear is former Research Support Specialist at The Henry Ford.
Edsel Ford commissioned Charles Hart, a New York-based architect affiliated with the Treadway Service Company to reproduce a group of late 18th- and early 19th-century houses for an addition to the Dearborn Inn. Dearborn-based landscape architect Marshall Johnson prepared this rendering. The aerial photograph shows the Inn from the southwest, one year before construction. Note the adjacent Ford Airport and the clock tower of Henry Ford Museum in the background. (Left: Object ID P833.63669E, THF107996; Right: Object ID 59.13.2)
This is the third of three blog entries on objects related to the Dearborn Inn in the collections of The Henry Ford. The first centered on a remarkable scrapbook documenting the original furnishings of the Inn, which opened in 1931. The second concerned Edsel Ford’s pivotal role in commissioning the Inn and hiring the L.G. Treadway Service Company to furnish and manage it.
By late 1935, Edsel Ford, in consultation with the L.G. Treadway Company of New York City, was hard at work on a plan to add additional accommodations. A promotional brochure published by Treadway sums up the need for expansion:
“The Inn eventually became so popular that additional guest rooms were necessary. As the architectural plan of the Inn would not, with good taste or economic soundness, allow an addition, it was decided, after a thorough survey of the problem, to build separate cottages, or houses, to accommodate travelers. To be in keeping with the traditional environment these should be, externally, exact replicas of houses famous in American history, and, inside, afford the same comfort as enjoyed by guests at the Inn. The scheme calls for several houses to be grouped harmoniously as a Colonial Village.”
The brochure goes on to state that the landscape was to be carefully arranged, “such as might have grown around the original houses.”
A series of telegrams between A.J. Lepine, Edsel Ford’s secretary, and architect Charles Hart documents the design approval process.
Landscape design proposalssubmitted to Edsel Ford for the “Colonial Village” at the Dearborn Inn.
Work on the “Colonial Village” progressed through the winter and spring of 1936. A series of landscape designs were submitted to Edsel Ford for his approval. In mid-March a meeting among Edsel Ford, architect Charles Hart, and landscape architect Marshall Johnson was held in Dearborn. Ultimately the designs, including swimming pools and a bath house, were scaled down to just five houses: the Barbara Fritchie House, from Frederick, Maryland, the Governor Oliver Wolcott House, from Litchfield, Connecticut, the Patrick Henry House, from Red Hill, Virginia, the Edgar Allan Poe House from the Bronx, New York, and the Walt Whitman Birthplace, from Huntington, Long Island, New York. Selection of these houses for a “Colonial Village” seems questionable when one considers that three of the famous individuals, Barbara Fritchie, Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, were active in the 19th century, long past the colonial period. Perhaps the selection of these figures relates to romantic perceptions of American history in the 1930s, combined with an interest in the broader “Colonial” past.
Correspondence between Charles Hart and A.J. Lepine, Edsel Ford’s secretary, suggesting purchase of the original Walt Whitman Birthplace for Greenfield Village.
A fascinating exchange between Charles Hart and A.J. Lepine, Edsel Ford’s secretary, in late April and early May, 1936, suggests that there was discussion between Edsel Ford and Hart about purchasing the original Walt Whitman Birthplace, located in Huntington, Long Island, New York, for Greenfield Village. The Birthplace was currently on the market for $30,000. Hart states that Edsel Ford asked him “. . .to hold up on this particular house until you had a chance to talk with your Father [sic] to determine whether he would be interested in the purchase of it for his Greenfield Village.” The response was that the house would not be “further considered, as it has been determined that the price is too high.” In this exchange, the bath house and pool were likely eliminated as well, because of the high cost.
Over the summer and fall of 1936 the five reproduction houses were completed at the rear of the Inn. The houses opened for guests in the spring of 1937. Interiors were filled with reproductions of 18th- and 19th-century furnishings, updated to the needs and comfort of the discriminating traveler of the 1930s: promotional brochures boasted that the houses were outfitted with radios, telephones, and private bathrooms in each suite.
The Treadway Company managed the Inn and the “Colonial Village” for just three more years, until 1939, when their contract expired. The Inn and the reproduction homes have endured and prospered over the decades. Today, visitors to Dearborn may experience these houses in much the same manner as guests in the 1930s. Fortunately for us, the Marriott Corporation, who manages the Village and Inn, have maintained the high standards set in the 1930s.
For more insights on the Inn and “Colonial Village”, take a look at Jennifer Czerwick Ganem’s Images of America: Dearborn Inn (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011).
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
Edsel Ford and Henry Ford II at the National Air Tour, Ford Airport, Dearborn, 1928. Sponsored in part by Ford, the National Air Tour brought pilots and visitors to Dearborn in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The need to house guests and participants was one of the factors that led to the construction of the Dearborn Inn. (Object ID P.O.8527)
This is the second of three blog posts on objects related to the Dearborn Inn in the collections of The Henry Ford. The first concerned a remarkable scrapbook documenting the original furnishings of the Inn, which opened in 1931.
In the first piece, I discussed the unique nature of the Dearborn Inn, intended as an airport hotel and as a “front door” for visitors to our campus, Ford Motor Company and the Dearborn community. What I did not address was who conceived of the Inn and oversaw the project to its fruition. That individual was Edsel Ford. While it is generally acknowledged that Edsel Ford was a pivotal figure in the management of the Ford enterprise, individual achievements are rarely accorded to him. In the case of the Dearborn Inn, it is generally considered to be the conception of Henry Ford. While researching the scrapbook, I ran across reminiscences in our archives of Ernest Gustav Liebold (1884-1956), who served as Henry Ford’s executive secretary and financial manager. Mr. Liebold oversaw nearly all of Henry Ford’s business outside of Ford Motor Company. Mr. Liebold categorically states that the idea for the Dearborn Inn came from Mr. Edsel Ford. He continues to briefly discuss the construction of the Inn, specifically the interaction of architect Albert Kahn’s office with the Ford organization. Finally, Mr. Liebold states the following:
“Mr. Edsel Ford brought in Treadway to operate the Dearborn Inn. He also had Treadway at his Inn up in Maine. (Edsel Ford owned a large summer home near Seal Harbor, Maine.) Edsel bought it shortly after Mr. (Henry) Ford bought the Wayside Inn (in Sudbury, Massachusetts). He had that as an inn of his own, and Treadway operated it. Treadway was brought here at the same time and given a contract, I think for five years.”
This statement led me to investigate the Treadway Inn and its history. According to The Motel in America (1996) Treadway Inns were America’s earliest motel chain. They were founded accidentally by Mr. L.G. Treadway. In 1912 he took over operations at the Williams Inn at Williamstown, Massachusetts. (This inn continues today.) It was an old coaching inn, dating back to the early 19th century. Under Treadway’s management, the establishment was attractive, comfortable, and provided good meals. Treadway’s innovation came in 1920 when he and the owners of inns in nearby towns, specifically the Ashfield House of Ashfield, Massachusetts, and the Dorset Inn of Dorset, Vermont, combined resources. Guests were recommended to the associated inns, and employee exchanges took place. The three inns found economies of scale by combining advertising and purchasing; the resulting increase in business and decrease in costs brought increased profits – the affiliation grew into a chain, with many other New England inns added over time.
Each inn maintained its own character, but they all shared comfort, good food and efficiency. They did not attempt to duplicate the hotels of big cities, but rather extend to all travelers old-fashioned rural New England hospitality. Once established, the chain made its headquarters, ironically, in New York City and always included the trademark, “The Real New England Inns” with a distinctive logo of a colonial innkeeper pointing with a cane in the left hand, lantern held high in his right.
While traveling from Michigan to his summer home in Maine, Edsel Ford likely encountered the Treadway chain. After experiencing “The Real New England Inns” it must have been a foregone conclusion for Edsel Ford to invite Treadway to manage the Dearborn Inn. According to articles in Ford News, Ford Motor Company’s in-house magazine, announcing the Inn’s opening in the summer of 1931, a number of the Inn’s staff was recruited from Treadway Inns throughout New England.
Reproduction 18th and 19th century furniture filled the public and guest rooms of the Dearborn Inn (Object ID 59.13.7).
The Dearborn Inn differed from typical Treadway Inns in a major way – it was a totally new construction. In keeping with their corporate identity, the Treadway staff sought to recreate interiors reminiscent of a New England inn, filling the public and guest rooms with reproduction 18th and 19th century furniture.
The Treadway firm managed the Dearborn Inn until 1939, when the contract with Ford was not renewed. A subsidiary of Ford known as Seaboard properties operated the Inn until 1983, when the Marriott Corporation took over.
This 1966 brochure for the Treadway Publick House, at the Old Sturbridge Village living history museum, documents a typical Treadway Inn property. It was described as “A 1771 Coaching Tavern,” and visitors had the option of staying in the Inn, Treadway House (a “Colonial Farmhouse”) or the adjacent, modern Treadway Motor Inn. (Object ID 90.281.40).
Following World War II, Treadway changed with the times and oriented itself to the automobile traveler. While maintaining “The Real New England Inns” trademark and logo, they added motor inns across the northeast and north-central United States. In 1971, the firm turned to franchising, reaching a peak of 55 inns by the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, like many aging motel chains, including competitor Howard Johnson’s, the firm sold many properties, eventually liquidating the entire chain. Today, only one hotel, in Oswego, New York, operates under the Treadway name. Many of the original coaching inns, like the Williams Inn in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the Publick House in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, continue to operate as independent inns.
For more insights on the Dearborn Inn and lots of great images, take a look at Jennifer Czerwick Ganem’s Images of America: Dearborn Inn (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011).
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
A Scrapbook Documenting the Original Interiors of the Dearborn Inn
One of the great attractions in Dearborn, inextricably linked with Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, is the Dearborn Inn. A unique historic institution, the hotel was conceived by Edsel and Henry Ford as their vision of a “real New England Inn” welcoming travelers transiting through the Ford Airport, located adjacent to the Inn, across Oakwood Boulevard. Within several years of the inn’s opening in 1931, the airport closed as Ford exited the aviation business. The inn, however, has endured and prospered, as a first-class hostelry serving visitors to The Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company and the Dearborn community. The building, designed by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn, was created as his update of an 18th- or early 19th-century New England inn, complete with all of the conveniences necessary for the discriminating traveler in the 1930s. Henry and Edsel Ford viewed the inn very much as the “front door” of Dearborn to the rest of the world, and they gave Albert Kahn and his designers free rein to create a singular structure.
The management of the inn was contracted to the L. G. Treadway Service Company of New York City, which operated a chain of historic inns in New England. The Treadway Company was responsible for the interior arrangements, subcontracting the furnishings to a variety of sources, local and national. Most of the furnishings were reproductions of 18th- and 19th-century antiques according to Treadway’s advertisements. Today, the inn is operated by the Marriott Hotel Corporation, which maintains the high standards of décor, ambience and service set during the 1930s.
I was first introduced to the Dearborn Inn in the summer of 2008, when I interviewed for my current position at The Henry Ford. Having come from a similar curatorial position in New England, I was familiar with real 18th-century inns, including the first inn of the Treadway chain. I was charmed by the 1930s “Colonial Revival” ambiance of the Dearborn Inn and the conscientious service that the Marriott Corporation maintains. When you walk into the elegant lobby and are warmly greeted by the staff, it seems like time stands still. Now that I am a five-year resident of the community, I continue to visit the inn on special occasions and make it a point to bring out-of-town guests there.
One of the many joys of working at The Henry Ford is the opportunity to make new discoveries in our vast collections. This is a story of one of these discoveries.
In the late summer of 2012, the Museum’s Chief Registrar brought a large loose-leaf scrapbook containing a variety of photos, ledger pages, correspondence, fabric samples, design renderings, and floor plans. All of the individual samples were carefully identified as to their location in the building, the name of supplier, and item or model number. Several pages are accounting price lists for each room. The samples were meticulously arranged, most as overlays, and glued into the cardboard pages. Nearly all of the glue on the samples had dried out over the decades and the samples were loose
Even after a cursory examination it was clear that this was a careful documentation of every aspect of the furnishings to the smallest detail. Over time, the pages were shuffled out of order, making a clear examination nearly impossible. Nevertheless, our Registrar believed that this scrapbook documented the original furnishing plan of the Dearborn Inn.
Examining the scrapbook was at once a delight and a challenge – after carefully arranging and rearranging the loose items, concurrently shuffling through pages, we stumbled on the index page, which was the “Smoking Gun” identifying the Dearborn Inn. We can only surmise the original purpose of the scrapbook, perhaps as an aid to staff in reordering furniture and fixtures, carpets, wallpaper and draperies that had worn or broken through heavy use in a commercial environment The text on the index page states, “This collection of pictures, cuts, drawings, samples and swatches is to be used in connection with the complete itemized inventory of Dearborn Inn equipment and furnishings (bound separately), [sic] and file of Purchase Orders and Invoices." To date, we have not located those documents.
Once we located the index, we quickly reassembled the scrapbook into its original arrangement and began the process of evaluating this treasure.
Possibly the most interesting item included is found on the second page, following the index: A bound copy of the trade publication Hotel Monthly from August 1931, includes a feature article on constructing and furnishing the Dearborn Inn. The index describes that it “contains valuable reference material”. The article goes into great technical detail on the construction, emphasizing the modern features found in the inn.
My favorite pages are two-page spreads illustrating the original lobby in photographs and the blueprint of the furniture arrangement. What is truly amazing are the fabric and wallpaper swatches. When one compares them with the black and white photographs, one gains a true sense of the colors and textures of the lobby. On separate pages are photographs of individual pieces of furniture. This partner’s desk and the chest of drawers are still in the lobby.
The use of reproduction antiques is best seen in the guest rooms. This is described as the “Mahogany Bedroom” and contains a group of 18th-century high style pieces including a slant-front desk and tea table and wing chairs. These are mixed with vernacular Windsor and "Hitchcock" chairs. The botanical wallpaper is reminiscent of an 18th-century print.
In all, the scrapbook is a wonderful record of a truly remarkable structure. The images presented here are the highlights, intended to provide a glimpse into a genteel past. As I mentioned, the inn remains a bastion of 1930s service, décor and gentility.
For a detailed history of the Dearborn Inn throughout its history, the best source is Jennifer Czerwick Ganem’s Images of America: Dearborn Inn. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts. The Dearborn Inn scrapbook has opened up exciting new areas of research. While documenting the scrapbook, Charles discovered new stories of the Dearborn Inn's past. He continues telling these stories in future installments.