Indian Village home tour: It takes a village
Two thick binders filled with before photographs record what the house on Iroquois in Indian Village looked like when Robin and Larry Smith toured it with their realtor in 2014. Empty for 25 years, the 6,800-square-foot home’s rooms were covered in dust, dirt and chunks of falling-in plaster and filled with furniture and other cast-off possessions left behind by a former owner.
“He was a hoarder,” Robin explains, adding that the estimate to haul everything out came to an astonishing $11,000. Even the real estate listing couldn’t find many positives about the home in its 2014 state. “Not move-in ready. Total rehab needed” it read.
A local website went as far as calling it the “disaster mansion,” they say.
The Smiths say it reminded them more of Disney’s Haunted Mansion. “The plaster and paint was falling in in the dining room, but the table was set with beautiful china covered in dust,” Robin recalled. They still have the dusty and unopened 1955 vintage wine bottle that was also on the table. “The house was almost dead. She was crying the day we arrived,” Robin explains. “There was talk that it was on the city’s condemned list and slated for demolition.”
It was a sad fate for the elegant and classic Colonial that had been designed by Smith, Hinchman and Grylls (now SmithGroupJJR) a century earlier for Richard Hudson Webber, nephew of J.L. Hudson and the second president of the esteemed J.L Hudson Company.
A noted philanthropist, Webber established the Hudson Webber Foundation, and, along with his cousin Robert Hudson Tannahill, was one of the early benefactors of the DIA. By the mid-1920s, Webber had moved to Grosse Pointe. Later owners included Big Band leader Leonard Smith and his wife Helen Rowe, a television personality, who reportedly lived there in the 1960s.
Neither of the current Smiths had grown up in an older home. They recognized the house’s good bones, however, and saw in the historic home and surrounding neighborhood the chance to fulfill their post-retirement dreams. Larry wanted a yard and a garage where he could indulge in his penchant for gardening and woodworking. Robin wanted to live near a city. Detroit offered them both.
Following Larry’s career as a geologist, the couple had moved around beginning in the 1970s, living in Tulsa, Houston, Argentina, California, London, Scotland and Kuala Lumpur. By 2014, they were looking to retire and stay in one place. They were living in the Middle East when they bought the house, which Robin found while surfing the internet. Despite its condition, its highlights – including an intact Pewabic fireplace in the living room and a reported Pewabic and Rookwood fountain and fireplace in the solarium – were hard to resist.
The Smiths admit they would have never considered Detroit years ago, but found stories about the city’s comeback hard to resist. Larry grew up in suburban Franklin, and for him, returning to Michigan was coming home. “We wanted to be a part of that positive change,” Larry explains. “And of course, there’s the affordable housing. We could never do this in Chicago or another big city.”
The couple purchased the Indian Village house in December of 2014, with the understanding that they would return from the Middle East and move into the carriage house the following October. Like many best laid plans, that didn’t quite work out. “When we arrived, there still wasn’t heat,” Robin says. They gave the contractors three days to make it happen and moved in.
They lived in the carriage house for the next year while contractors worked on restoring the main house. When asked to detail what they did to the house, they laugh. “It was a complete gut job,” Larry says. “It’s easier to list what we didn’t do.”
They opened up the floor plan, taking down walls to make spaces more livable. They renovated the kitchen’s original three small rooms, borrowing space from a former outdoor porch for an eating area. They renovated all the bathrooms, keeping the home’s original style while updating them. They restored what woodwork they could, replaced what they couldn’t. They painted, plastered and pampered rooms on three floors until they were once again habitable.
Once renovations were done, the couple filled the home with the treasures from their travels and years living around the world. “We had a 40-foot container in storage for nine years,” they explain. “We brought another 45-foot container back from overseas.”
Less than four years after buying the house, they’re ready to show it off on the Home and Garden tour, partly as a thank you to the neighborhood for welcoming them. “We couldn’t go outside for five minutes without someone saying thank you for rescuing the house and that they were glad we were here,” Robin says. “For a couple who have wandered the earth and had no real roots anywhere that was quite appealing,” adds Larry.
It wasn’t easy, they say, but they will never regret it having brought the house back from the almost dead. “There were days I could have mopped the entry floors with my tears,” Robin remembers. Larry agrees that there were difficult times, but adds that they knew what they were getting into and kept the end in sight.
“We didn’t go into this blindly,” he says. “We were definitely looking for an adventure.
If you go: Now in its 45th year, the historic Indian Village Home and Garden tour on June 9 and 10 will feature six homes built between 1895 and 1920. Gardens, churches, antique cars and an art lot will also be on display. The historic district includes more than 350 homes, most averaging about a century old, on Burns, Iroquois and Seminole Avenues from East Jefferson running one mile north to Mack Avenue. Tickets are $22.50 in advance; $25 on tour day. Visit historicindianvillage.org or call 313-922-1736 for additional information.