Demetrius! Where are you?
Author: James Mann
Looking down from the wall in the front entrance of the museum is a portrait of Demetrius Ypsilanti, for whom the city is named. There is a story behind how the portrait came to be there, a story filled with acts of kindness, mystery and some more mystery. You see, there are at least two other portraits of Demetrius, but no one is sure where the other two are now. Actually, there might be one or two other portraits as well, but no one can say where these are now, so the mystery deepens.
The first portrait of Demetrius to arrive in the city was a gift of the Greek counsel in New York City, who in the 1880’s had inquired as to the origin of the name of the city. On learning the city was named for the hero of the Greek War for Independence, he presented a portrait of the hero to the city. This portrait was hung in the council chamber of city hall, then on Cross Street. This was considered to be a safe place for the portrait. Then somehow the portrait disappeared from the chamber. What became of the portrait, no one could say.
In the 1890’s Prof. Strong of the Michigan State Normal College, had some correspondence with a Mr. E. D. Barff, Jr. of London, England. Mr. Barff noted the name of the community from which Prof. Strong was writing from, and informed Prof. Strong his father Mr. E. D. Barff had been the British consul at Zante, Greece, during the Greek War of Independence. There he had been a friend of Lord Byron, and was acquainted with the leaders of the struggle. The elder Barff was something of an artist, and had made portraits of the leaders. These included a portrait of Demetrius. He took great pains to procure a good likeness of the subjects.
Prof. Strong suggested that a photograph of the portrait of Demetrius would be valued by the city. He further suggested he would take on the trouble and expense to see the portrait placed in a place where it would be permanently cared for. His personal feeling was the best place would be the Ladies Library Association building on North Huron Street, which had recently be donated by Mrs. Starkweather.
Mr. Barff sent a photograph of the portrait to Prof. Strong, who had originally planned to present either a crayon drawing or an enlarged photograph of the portrait to the association. He found that an untouched photograph would be too pale and either a touched up photo or crayon would miss the likeness. In the end, Prof. Strong presented to the association the photograph taken directly from the drawing. Where is this portrait today? No one can recall seeing it. It seems to have disappeared.
The portrait in the entrance to the museum is by local artist Edward I. Thompson, who in 1934 made every effort to get a good likeness of Demetrius. He even used a step ladder to get up close to the bust of the general in front of the Water Tower, so he could take pictures of Demetrius from every angle. Then he went home and painted the portrait of Demetrius. After that, he then painted a second portrait of Demetrius and then a third.
One of the portraits was displayed in the council chamber of City Hall, now on North Huron Street. At this time the council chamber was on the first floor of the building. Gertrude Woodard was so impressed with the portrait, she had a hand-rubbed walnut frame made for it. Then the council chamber was moved to the second floor of the building. The portrait, however, was moved to the third floor. At some point, Family Services Agency moved into the space on the third floor, and Demetrius gazed down on all the activity. When Family Services moved to 212 North Adams Street, the portrait went with them. The portrait was evidently placed in storage and forgotten until it was discovered in 1963.
To add to the mystery, a second portrait was found in the attic of City Hall, at about the same time. This one was “elegantly framed in carved oak, which was subsequently hung in City Hall,” reported the Ypsilanti Press of November 13, 1963.
Then on April 30, 1966 Mr. and Mrs. James Vourlites walked into the office of the Ypsilanti Greek Theater with a gift. It was the third portrait of Demetrius by Thompson.
“They told Greek Theatre President Clara G. Owens the painting had hung in their living room for years after they got it from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend….” reported The Ypsilanti Press of May 1, 1966. The portrait was on display in the offices of the Ypsilanti Greek Theatre at 203 West Michigan, noted the report. What became of the portrait after that is not known.
The offices of government moved from North Huron Street to its current location on South Huron and Michigan Avenue in 1979, and the portrait of Demetrious went with them. This time the portrait was stored in a closet there. Found by Tim Conway in 1982, the portrait was turned over to City Historian Foster Fletcher. The painting measures 2 ½ feet wide and 3 feet long. “Fletcher said to make sure it’s not misplaced again, General Demetrius Ypsilanti will be hung over the fire place in the museum’s front room—where they can keep an eye on him,” noted the Ann Arbor News of March 20, 1982.
One mystery solved, but others remain. What became of the other two portraits? Where is the one donated by Mr. Barff to the library? What became of the one given by the Greek counsel so many years ago? Is anyone interested in organizing search parties to find out?
(James Mann is a local author, historian, volunteer in the YHS Archives and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)
Photo 1: This might be the image of Demetrius provided by Mr. E. D. Barff of London, England and presented to the Ladies Library Association by Professor Strong. It may be the image in the Ypsilanti District Library in the Michigan Room of the Whittaker Road Branch.
Photo 2: This might be an image of the portrait of Demetrius presented by the Greek counsel in New York in the 1880’s. The portrait was displayed in the chamber of the city council for many years before it disappeared. What became of the portrait is not known.
Photo 3: This image of the Ypsilanti brothers, Alerandros and Demetrius was presented to the city by Prof. Frank Ross of Eastern Michigan University. It is now on display in the library room of the museum above the thermostat.