This is a research article on the Saravilla Bed and Breakfast in Alma, Michigan. It also contains background and biographical information on Ammi Willard Wright and his family members, as well as how they influenced the city of Alma.
The Gilded Age and the Saravilla
Few structures in the city of Alma, Michigan represent the opulence and influence of the Wright family as well as the Saravilla Bed and Breakfast. This building also stands as a testament to the extreme wealth and ostentatious lifestyle of Gilded Age America. Although originally designed as a summer house for Sarah Wright, the Saravilla has remained a potent symbol of the Wright's legacy for the past 100 years. Apart from some temporary additions and renovations, the home has endured as a pristine historical landmark that enriches the cultural underpinnings of the community.
To fully understand how the Saravilla has influenced the community of Alma, it is first necessary to understand Ammi Wright. Ammi Willard Wright’s ancestors came to America in the early sixteen hundreds from England, where they settled in what would eventually become Massachusetts. Ammi’s father, Nathan Wright, was born in Vermont in 1786, where he worked as a farmer and stonemason. Later, Nathan married Mary Lamson, with whom he had ten children. The seventh child, born on July 5th, 1822, was Ammi Willard Wright (McMacken 2).
Ammi Wright began his life working for his father on the family farm. At age 15, Ammi ran away from home with his brother to work at a farm in Ackworth, New Hampshire. However, after two years at this farm, Ammi decided to return home, where he was given a position managing his father’s team of work horses (McMacken 5). Again, Ammi grew weary of his life on the farm and, in 1843, went to Boston. After only a year in Boston, Ammi returned to Vermont, where he began to manage drays hauling goods and produce. This occupation lasted until 1847, when Ammi began to manage hotels for Jeremiah Barton, father of Harriet Barton, whom Ammi would marry in 1848. Ammi moved back to Boston in 1849, where he leased the Central Hotel (McMacken 6). Ammi’s first child, Ammi Barton Wright, was born in 1849, on April 16th (McMacken 23). It wasn’t until 1850 that Ammi arrived in Michigan, where he began to amass his fortune (McMacken 13).
Upon arriving in Detroit in 1850, Ammi found himself with little money, a baby boy, and a pregnant wife. Without a job and with another baby on the way, Ammi moved his growing family to Saginaw in 1851, where purchased property at Pine Run. Ammi began clearing his land for farming, but his real goal was to become involved in the lucrative lumbering business (McMacken 13). On June 9th, 1851, Ammi’s second child, Sarah Caroline Wright, was born (McMacken 14). In 1853, at age 31, Ammi began his lumbering business. Within a year, Ammi was able to move his family from Pine Run to Saginaw City, one of the largest cities in the region. Here in Saginaw City, Ammi’s third, fourth, and fifth children were born (McMacken 15). Arthur Paine Wright, the third child, was born on November 10th, 1857. Sarah Hale Wright, the fourth child, was born on February 2nd, 1862. The fifth and final child, George Nathan Wright, was born on August 7th, 1868. Sadly, only Sarah Hale would survive until adulthood. Sarah Caroline died in 1856, Arthur Paine died in 1861, Ammi Barton died in 1870, and George Nathan died in 1889 (McMacken 23). Business continued as usual for Ammi and his partners until 1865, when a massive conflagration burned down his saw mill in Saginaw City (McMacken 20). Finally, in 1875, Ammi’s influence came to Alma, where he opened a general emporium. Again, death struck Ammi’s household when his wife, Harriet, died on June 30th, 1884. Thus, Ammi began his new life in Alma; thousands of dollars richer than when he came to Detroit in 1850, yet with only a single member of his original family remaining (McMacken 21).
Saravilla’s roots lie in Sarah Wright, born on February 2nd, 1862. Sarah Hale had been the child who fit best into the realm of the wealthy, constantly going to or hosting parties, purchasing expensive items, and living off her father’s wealth. However, the seeds of the Saravilla’s construction were sown when Sarah Hale Wright married Doctor James Henry Lancashire, known by his middle name, on October 4th, 1883 (McMacken 19). When Sarah married Henry Lancashire at age 21, Ammi allowed them to stay in his house so he could keep them close. Sarah continued to stay by her mother’s death bed until Harriet died; two months later, Sarah’s first child, Harriet Lancashire, was born (McMacken 27). Sarah and James stayed in Saratoga with Ammi until 1886, when they moved to Saginaw. In 1887, Sarah’s second child, Ammi Lancashire was born. Three years later, in 1890, Sarah’s third child, Helen Lancashire, was born (McMacken 120).
Perhaps because she enjoyed the “high life” of Saginaw, Sarah staunchly refused her father’s pleas to move with him to Alma. However, in 1894, Sarah succumbed to her father’s entreaties and the Lancashires moved into a rental house in Alma. One of the conditions that Sarah set upon her coming to Alma was that her father pay to build her a “summer cottage”. Little did Ammi know the cottage he envisioned was destined to become a massive landmark in Alma that would last through the generations (McMacken 123).
When Ammi agreed to build a summer cottage for Sarah, calling it a belated wedding present, he had planned a relatively small structure, not the mansion that Sarah had in mind. The two continuously argued over the designs of the house until, in1895, Ammi left Alma to go on a tour of Europe. When Ammi returned, he found that Sarah had gone ahead with her changes. The construction of the house began in 1894 and continued, on and off, for many years. In 1895, after the bulk of the construction was completed, the house was christened Saravilla and the Lancashire’s moved in. However, Sarah’s renovations on the house continued until 1902 (McMacken 125).
The physical structure of the Saravilla was, and still is, very imposing. It remains a testimony to the influence and affluence of the wealthy during the Gilded Age of America. The house was situated on a 4.5 acre lot on North State Street, bordered by a stone wall along the city park. The lawn and gardens were well maintained by the Lancashire’s gardener, while the buggy house and carriages were cared for by another servant. From the driveway, cement walks, much more expensive than the usual plank walks, led up to the porches and doorways (McMacken 125).
When entering the foyer, guests were struck by the enormous wealth displayed openly. The walls were papered with hand painted, gold leafed Parisian wallpaper. To the south of the foyer was a well endowed library, complete with built in bookcases and reading benches, as well as a large, ornate fireplace (McMacken 126). West of the foyer were the dining room and kitchen. The dining room was even more lavish than the library, with a massive mahogany dinning table, elaborate wall lamps, and a stained hardwood floor. The kitchen was also well equipped with the latest cooking implements and a well stocked larder. To the north of the foyer was the sitting parlor, which was the only fully carpeted room in the house (McMacken 127). The second and third floor mainly comprised the sleeping rooms for the family. Harriet and Helen shared a room that was joined to Sarah’s room by a large dressing room on the second floor. Sarah’s room was located in the southeast corner over the library and had a built-in cabinet, bookcase, and fireplace. Henry’s room was on the second floor of the turret, where he had a semi-circular window seat and a built-in fireplace. Also located on the second floor was a massive master bathroom with an enormous marble bathtub. This bathroom was so large the house had to be extended over the verandah to accommodate it. Ammi Lancashire was the only child who slept on the third floor, in a room on the north side of the house that allowed him easy access to a darkroom, where he practiced his hobby, photography (McMacken 128). The basement held most of the service rooms, such as the laundry and drying room, as well as the vegetable, wine, and coal cellars. The basement also housed the boiler, which heated water to warm the house (McMacken 124).
With her luxuriant and grandiose summer mansion completed, Sarah was able to resume her “high-society” lifestyle, with lavish parties and frequent group meetings. Sarah was more than willing to open her house for all the community events that needed her personal touch. Whenever the local football team was victorious, the Lancashire’s hosted a party in their home. Additionally, Sarah encouraged many ladies groups to have their meetings in her parlor and library. Even the children were allowed to have their friends over for any occasions; birthday parties, boy scouts, or for no reason at all. These activities gave Sarah the ability to bring her idea of “civilization” to the rural countryside of Alma (McMacken 129).
Despite her pleasure with Saravilla, Sarah was determined to continue her renovations. Therefore, in 1902, Sarah had a three story addition built onto the north end of the house. The addition allowed the creation of a massive ballroom on the first floor, separate sleeping rooms for Harriet and Helen on the second floor, and a new billiards room on the third floor. The ballroom was used as a larger parlor for entertaining, but the rugs covering the floor could also be rolled up to allow dancing. This addition also evened out the contours of the house after Sarah’s insistence on the construction of the massive bathroom on the second floor (McMacken 130).
Although the house itself was massive, the Lancashire’s also built a one-third scale house for the children in the backyard. This miniature house held all the amenities of an actual house, including a workshop for Ammi and a kitchen for the girls. With all the privileges this house offered, most of the community expected the Lancashires to live there permanently; however, it remained a simple summer home to them (McMacken 127). Then, when Ammi Wright died in 1912, the Lancashires decided they no longer desired to stay in Alma and resolved to sell the house (McMacken 231). Due to its massive maintenance costs, the house took a while to sell, but in 1919, the Saravilla was sold and the Lancashires moved away. (Saravilla Bed and Breakfast)
After the Lancashires sold the house, it traveled through many hands before finally becoming the Saravilla Bed and Breakfast. The next owners were Charles and Edrah Rhodes, who owned the house from 1919 to 1930. Charles was a local pharmacist who had investments in the Republic Trucking Company, but he used the Saravilla as a simple residence. In 1930, the house was sold to the Gleaner Life Insurance Company, which used the Saravilla as a retirement home for its members. They owned the house from 1930 to 1945, when they sold it to Mary Kennelly and Mary Bowman. These two purchased the house with the intent of turning it into a nursing facility. When this proved to be unsuccessful, they decided to build a three-story, 18 bedroom, 9 bathroom addition onto the northwest side of the house and run a hotel. However, this failed as well and they decided to sell the house in 1951. The Saravilla was purchased by the Michigan Masonic Lodge in 1951 and used as lodging for the Mason members. The Masonic Lodge owned the Saravilla until 1971, when they sold it to Thel and Bobbie Woods. The Woods purchased the house with the intent of converting it into apartments, but were thwarted by a failure to get zoning approval. They sold the house to Donna Kimmel in 1975, who intended to create a child foster care facility. However, Kimmel was also unable to get zoning approval and sold the house in 1987. The Saravilla then passed on to Dr. Todd and Shirley Harburn, who purchased it with the intent of creating a bed and breakfast. To this end, they hired a local Amish family to take down the most recent addition and restore the house to its original state. However, the Harburns moved from Alma in 1989 when Dr. Harburn had a change in employment. In July of 1990, the Saravilla was bought by Jon and Linda Darrow, who immediately began renovations. In January of 1991, the Saravilla Bed and Breakfast opened for business, though renovations continued until 2006 (Saravilla Bed and Breakfast).
As the Saravilla has passed through the years, it has undergone extensive change. However, the Darrows were careful about maintaining the Saravilla as a historical site. Jon and Linda came to Alma from Mount Pleasant in 1990, with the singular purpose of converting the Saravilla into a bed and breakfast. Previously, Jon had worked as an administrator at Central Michigan University and Linda had managed rental property. When they purchased the house in 1990, it needed a considerable amount of repair, so they began work immediately. As they completed the construction on each room, it was made available for guests, with the first sleeping room available in January, 1991. In 1993, the Darrows constructed a sunroom and a small garden on the West side of the house, attached to the billiards room. Since 2006, the Saravilla has remained mostly unchanged (Darrow, Linda).
As a bed and breakfast, the Saravilla has brought a very beneficial business to the community of Alma. Guests stay at the Saravilla almost every day throughout most of the year. The homely atmosphere, home cooked breakfast, and friendly nature of the Saravilla distinguishes it from a typical hotel or motel (Darrow, Linda). The Darrows have made seven rooms into sleeping suites. The largest is the Ammi Wright Suite on the east side of the second floor. Next is the Turret room, located on the south side of the second floor. Third is the Lancashire room, sitting on the east side of the second floor right above the foyer. Adjacent to the Lancashire room is the Highland room. On the north side of the second floor are the Spitler room and the Orchard room. Finally, on the far west side of the second floor is the Garden room (www.bbonline.com).
Despite its various owners throughout the years, from Sarah Lancashire to Jon and Linda Darrow, the Saravilla has remained an important historical landmark in the community of Alma, as well as a testament to the wealth and influence of Ammi Willard Wright. Additionally, the Saravilla has continued to be used as a meeting house for various groups throughout the community. Dave McMacken, a local Gratiot County historian, has hosted an “Evening in the Park” program at the Saravilla on multiple occasions (Darrow, Linda). Furthermore, the citizens of Alma continue to view the Saravilla as a place of splendor and authority. This structure, whether viewed as a mansion or a bed and breakfast, is nostalgic of an age when wealth was both a means and an end unto itself. It remains a symbol of the Gilded Age of America and the tenacity, power, and ability of the entire Wright family.
Darrow, Linda. Personal interview. 9 November 2010
McMacken, David. Built on Pines. Alma, Michigan. Alma Public Library, 2003
“Guest Rooms”. Saravilla Bed and Breakfast, 5 November 2005. 10 November 2010 http://www.bbonline.com/mi/saravilla/rooms.html
Saravilla Bed and Breakfast.United States: n.p., n.d.
If any of this information is found to be inncorrect, please inform me so that I may rectify it.