ORT held its ninth annual Camp Hermelin fundraiser Sept. 17 at the Bingham Farms home…
Doreen Hermelin reflects on 42 extraordinary years as she prepares to sell her Bingham Farms home
A party full of pomp and circumstance for the president of the United States, evenings under the stars, dinners for hundreds of guests, the sounds of children splashing in the pool, musical performances, community fundraisers and private family moments — both painful and carefree — echo in the rooms and halls of Doreen Hermelin’s Bingham Farms home.
The 17,500-square-foot mansion on 15.5 wooded acres where she and her late husband, David, raised their five children and graciously hosted lawmakers, leaders, performers, family members, friends and even total strangers, is up for sale after 42 years. The asking price is $8.2 million, but the memories and the magnitude of what the space means to Metro Detroit’s Jewish community are priceless.
“I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve used it,” Hermelin says, seated on a comfortable chair in a room that was the site of many community events. “But it’s a lot of house.”
Thinking back to 1975, Doreen remembers trying to talk David out of moving to the Bingham Farms estate in the first place. She was worried about the children and didn’t want them to be too far away from their neighbors and friends. The house, with its eight bedrooms, seven full bathrooms and four powder rooms (plus two more full baths in the pool house outside), stone walls, fireplaces, skylights and towering built-in bookshelves, was about a third smaller at the time.
Ultimately, the family did move and David, a larger-than-life real estate developer, philanthropist and entrepreneur who served as U.S. ambassador to Norway, had endless ideas.
“He loved projects,” Doreen says. “He loved to build. Every time he wanted to build something — he’d do it.”
“David and I were both people people. He loved people. I love people and I enjoy having them at the house.”
— Doreen Hermelin
When they first bought the house, they had to convert space upstairs into bedrooms to accommodate their five children; they also added a staircase near the center of the house.
Their first addition, appropriately called “the big room,” is a large, open meeting space with a bar and floor-to-ceiling picture windows that flood the room with natural light. One wall contains a giant TV, concealed by two doors; others are adorned with stunning artwork, including an abstract expressionist painting by the late Helen Frankenthaler.
The artist, who wanted her work to be seen by many, was initially hesitant to sell to the private collectors. A gallery director and David assured her more people would likely see the painting in the Hermelin home than in some museums. They were right. Over the years, thousands of guests have mingled in that room at important meetings and grand events.
“My husband, God bless him, he loved everybody and loved the Jewish community,” Doreen explains. “I used to tell him, ‘OK, I’ll do as many events as you want — you do the speaking and I’ll do the cooking.’”
David took her up on that offer and turned it into another building project. He added an industrial kitchen with an enormous island one year while Doreen was away on vacation. She returned home to find the brand new kitchen, with everything from soup to nuts, and it came as a complete surprise.
“I was out of town and he put in a new kitchen,” she says. “He designed it without me.”
Doreen says she always kept the kitchen kosher specifically to host the Jewish community.
Years later, they added a fitness center and indoor swimming pool (she says she tried to talk him out of the indoor pool, too). They made the pool room multifunctional. It can be transformed into a meeting space by placing large panels over the water to create a floor.
Unfortunately, David never got to enjoy the pool room much. It was built two years before former President Bill Clinton named him ambassador to Norway. Not long after returning home from Norway in the winter of 1998, doctors delivered the devastating news that David had a brain tumor. It turned out to be glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He passed away two years later at age 63.
“He faced his sickness the same way he faced his life,” Doreen says. “He was always positive.”
Today, positive memories and David’s designs linger in every corner of the house, including the garage. That’s where the event “Rub-a-Dub” famously was born.
One year, David and friend Norman Folbe thought it’d be fun to buy 100 scratch-off instant lottery tickets each and see what they might win. Word spread and soon more than 100 people, each with 100 lottery tickets, joined the party.
A police officer knocked on the door, asking if David had a gambling license.
“Right at that moment, someone hit a $10,000 winner and everyone in the room went nuts,” Doreen says. “They ended up taking David away in handcuffs and putting him in the back of the police car. The group ran outside throwing themselves on the car and telling the officer, ‘You can’t take him away.’ David was urging them to stop and saying, ‘He’s just trying to do his job.’”
It all turned out to be an unforgettable practical joke — set up by a friend. The event has since moved out of the garage; it became an annual fundraiser for ORT.
The Clinton Years
Then there was the time President Bill Clinton visited the Hermelin home; three times, to be exact. The most recent occasion, in 2015, was a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But the first big event was a fundraiser that took place before Bill Clinton was even a presidential candidate.
“We had the whole place decked out with red, white and blue decorations,” Doreen recalls. “We had red, white and blue straw hats. Everyone was taking snapshots. We had musicians. David always wrote songs for everybody and he did everything in costume; it was always costume.”
Twenty-five couples attended and all gave Clinton a very large donation, Doreen says.
After winning the election, Clinton returned for another epic celebration. A March 1996 Jewish News article found in the Detroit Jewish News Foundation’s William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, written by Danny Raskin, describes the party this way:
“The president came to the Bingham Farms home of David and Doreen Hermelin last week surrounded by Secret Service men and Buddy, the Secret Service dog. Simone Vitale’s band played instrumental light jazz … David Hermelin did his wondrous thing again with lyric parodies of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ ‘Grand Old Flag,’ ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah’ and ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’”
According to the report, “Star Trax provided valet parking and Cloverleaf Market brought the Silverado Merlot and chardonnay wines.”
In return, Doreen says the Clintons repeatedly invited them to the White House for “dinner and a movie,” but David always refused unless all 25 couples who had attended that first fundraiser were invited, too.
“Bill Davidson took us all on his plane to Washington,” Doreen recalls.
Photos from that visit include handwritten notes from the former president. One reads, “With best wishes and gratitude for your friendship over the years.”
The Hermelins were good friends to many individuals and organizations over the years; opening their home to support so many causes it’s difficult to recount them all.
Searches of the DJN Foundation’s Davidson archive turn up a 1992 mention of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin speaking to a group from the Jewish Federation’s Young Adult Division, a 1988 gathering featuring actor Elliot Gould that raised more than $30,000 for Shaarey Zedek’s Sisterhood, a 2001 performance by Itzhak Perlman to benefit the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a 1990 tennis exhibition by Israeli youths, a 1978 visit from a dean of Haifa University, a 1986 parlor meeting with an Israeli biophysicist who helped treat victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the list goes on.
One evening when six senators were visiting, Doreen says her son Brian, then about 10, was letting a friend on a bicycle pull him on a skateboard. Brian fell off, hit his head and suffered a concussion.
“All six of the senators went up to see him,” Doreen recalls. “They were good politicians.”
There were events to benefit the Cancer Society and Karmanos Cancer Institute, AIPAC and the Michigan Parkinsons Foundation, a seminar on estate planning, a high tea and also Camp Hermelin. Since 2008, the annual summer event on the grounds has included s’mores, arts and crafts, flag football, dance, bounce houses and more. Hundreds of children attend from different summer camps each year. The event is a family-friendly fundraiser for ORT.
“David and I were both people people,” Doreen says. “I love people. He loved people. I love people and I enjoy having them at the house.”
Love Of Art
Doreen’s other great love is art, as evidenced by her extensive collection that consists of contemporary, abstract and traditional works from local, national and international artists. It’s an eclectic mix. Some pieces are quirky, like a stack of small, medium and large wooden tables that seem to each balance on one leg in mid-air; others are humorous like a “guitar playing the drums” made by attaching a guitar neck to a chair with wooden arms and bent forks wrapped around a set of drum sticks. There are paintings of all sizes, sculptures, ceramics, even two papier-mache ladies sipping tea.
“I was an art major. I did watercolors, pastels and fashion drawings,” Doreen says. “So for me to have a place to hang art was the best thing I could imagine. When we really had walls to fill, for me, it was like a gift.”
No surprise, she plans to share that gift with the community Oct. 19 during the first-ever docent-led tour of the Judaica and Jewish artists in her collection. The event, which includes a strolling dinner buffet and drinks, will benefit the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan (see sidebar).
“The house is filled with art and Judaica from across the street and around the world,” explains Wendy Rose Bice, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan. “The Jewish Historical Society is beyond honored to have the chance to share the stories of Doreen and David’s collection and family.”
With the Hermelin home up for sale, this could be one of the final events in its long, storied history. The website Zillow.com describes the property as a “1939 grand estate that has been enhanced by innovative additions making contemporary living and entertaining a dream.”
While Doreen can certainly use the room to host her five children, their spouses and 16 grandchildren for holidays and other family gatherings, she says she’s ready to downsize. She hopes whoever ends up buying the house will keep it intact and continue to make it accessible to the community.
“Everyone’s been welcome,” Doreen says. “I like my house to be comfortable. I wanted my kids to make themselves at home and everybody else to make themselves at home.”
And so many people have. In a way, the guests have become a special collection in and of themselves.
“This amazingly generous couple lived their life and created a residence that is at once both a warm and inviting home,” says Rose Bice. “There isn’t a significant Detroiter, Jewish and non-Jewish, who hasn’t broken bread here.”
Photography by Brett Mountain
Have you ever been in the Hermelin home for a community event? Have any memories to share? If so, send your recollections to Story Development Editor Keri Guten Cohen at email@example.com by Monday, Oct. 16, and we will share them all on our website: thejewishnews.com. Thanks.
Tour The Collection!
Each intricate creation — from ancient Roman glass vessels carefully balanced on a windowsill to a silver Secret Pitcher Hidden Synagogue teapot — has a story. Doreen Hermelin has something to add about each one.
On Thursday, Oct. 19, beginning at 6:30 p.m., 10 docents will be on hand to give an exclusive tour of the Judaic art and Jewish artists in the Hermelin family collection. The evening includes a strolling dinner buffet and drinks and ends with a conversation with Doreen. Tickets begin at $118 per person. The event will benefit the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, fitting since the first major fundraiser for the organization (an evening honoring Philip Slomovitz, founder and editor of the Jewish News) took place in the Hermelin home back in May 1991.
“Doreen knows the story behind every piece in the collection, where every piece is kept and how that piece should be showcased,” says Barbara Cohn, event co-chair and Jewish Historical Society board member. “She has graciously opened her home and shared her stories. It has been so inspiring to work with her and I have learned so much from her about contemporary art.”
Just pulling up the long, winding private drive to the Bingham Farms home is sure to be a treat for art lovers. There are large, interesting sculptures placed strategically around the grounds. Most of those sculptures are from Israel, Doreen says.
All in all, the collection consists of pieces that reflect Doreen and her late husband David’s love of contemporary artists, Detroit and Michigan artists, Israeli art, Jewish ritual objects and pieces from Norway.
“David and Doreen both felt it was important to purchase art from living artists and support them,” adds Cohn, who curated the tour. “Their home is truly a repository of our Jewish heritage and history.”
For tickets and more details, visit michjewishhistory.org or call (248) 432-5517.