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An Artist's Home

A labor-of-love renovation becomes an architect's legacy.

Project: Melchers Residence and Carriage House, Detroit, MI

Architects: McIntosh Poris Associates, Detroit, MI; Douglas McIntosh, principal in charge

By Martha McDonald

When Douglas McIntosh and Scotty James bought a dilapidated, historic 1896 Dutch Colonial home in Detroit, MI, for $160,000 in 2001, the plan was to restore it to its original condition. The house had been built by Gari Melchers, a well-known painter, for his parents. His father, the German-born sculptor Julius T. Melchers, did carvings for many historic buildings in and around Detroit.

Although it was rundown, the approximately 5,500-sq.ft., three-story house embodied quite a bit of history and architectural detail. Julius Melchers' hand could be seen in the carvings throughout the house and other details, such as original 17th-century Delft tile, were also found. Completed in 2006, the five-year restoration project involved everything from replacing all of the mechanicals and the roof to building a new garage/carriage house. It also involved quite a bit of sweat equity on the part of James and McIntosh, principal in charge at McIntosh Poris Associates of Detroit. Unfortunately, McIntosh died suddenly in 2006 just as the job was nearing completion.

"There are a couple of things going on in this house," says Michael Poris, AIA, principal, McIntosh Poris Associates. "Because Julius Melchers was a Mason, there are a lot of symbols relating to Masonry, such as the oval window in the front that is said to be the eye of the house. Also he sculpted for the house; there are busts of his wife and son and carvings in panels in the walls and on the front door. Much of that was still there."

"Scotty and Doug lived in the house during the restoration, most of the time without a kitchen, and they did a lot of the work themselves," he adds. "They wanted to be very careful about restoring it back to its original state. At the same time, they wanted to make it into a house that was livable for the 21st century."

All of the mechanicals, including plumbing, heating and electrical systems, had to be completely replaced. In addition, all four bathrooms were updated. "They tried as much as possible to leave whatever they could in tact while updating the house," says Poris.

One of the advantages the owners had was the work done by the previous owner, also an architect. Although he had not been able to do any restoration or renovation work himself, he had collected some historical information, photographs and original artifacts whenever possible. In some cases, if he wasn't able to get the artifacts back, he was at least able to pass the locations of them on to McIntosh and James, so they could make moldings for the house.

James and McIntosh did an enormous amount of work in the interior. On the ground floor, the layout of the rooms was not changed, but everything was updated. Three fireplaces with original 17th-century Delft tile imported at the time the house was built were restored. Also restored were 17th-century cast-iron backplates used in the original fireplaces to throw out heat.

But what sets this house apart from others built at that time in Detroit are the Julius Melchers carvings. These included the two busts, and carvings on panels throughout the interior and exterior of the home. These were all carefully restored or replicated by a New York City-based artist, Esteban Chavez. He also helped restore of the carvings on the exterior of the home.

Also on the first floor, the foyer, music room/parlor and dining room were designed to maintain the tones of the original home. The original butler's sink was restored, as were the pocket doors that cordon off the music room and the sitting room. The dining room includes Gari Melcher's original corner cupboards and one of the fireplaces with 400-year-old Delft tile. A century of paint was stripped from the ceiling, walls and ornamentation to reveal the original hand-carved details.

Quite a few of the furnishings are period pieces, such as the Art Moderne prismatic light fixture from the 1930s in the entry hall and a 1920s-era Steck player baby grand piano in the music room. The piano rolls are stored in a 17th-century carved Jacobean chest and two 1940s leather lounge chairs are also found in this room. Many of the furnishings for the house came from Materials Unlimited in Ypsilanti, MI, an architectural salvage and antiques store that James manages.

On the second floor, three bedrooms were turned into a master-bedroom suite, with a sitting room, dressing room with closets and a bathroom suite looking out into the backyard. The third floor, which Poris believes was originally a ballroom, had been converted into bedrooms and a bathroom over the years. It was turned into a family room/office with extra beds for guests. "Many of the homes built at this time in Detroit had ballrooms," Poris notes. "The automobile was just being introduced and Detroit was the center of the industry, so you had quite a few people with a lot of money. It was the Silicon Valley of its era."

The new owners also renovated a small mezzanine above the third floor into a sitting area. "The house is huge," says Poris. "It's 60 ft. tall, which meant there was room for this mezzanine area."

In addition, it meant that it was quite difficult to do the exterior restoration. Because the house was so tall, the work couldn't be done on ladders, so scaffolding had to be used, Poris explains. One of the biggest jobs was the roof. A number of old roofs were removed so a new cedar roof could be added to the house. The Yankee gutters, which had failed over the years, allowing water into the walls of the house, were restored. Rotted perimeter eaves and inverted soffits were rebuilt.

The exterior wood clapboard was stripped of 20 layers of paint and re-painted a Colonial yellow color with cream trim accented with green tones to highlight restored carvings. One unusual detail that was restored is an elaborate panel carved by Julius Melchers on the central roof dormer above the entryway. It features a bust of the Greek goddess Athena and a Masonic logo that incorporates three fish symbolizing sanctuary, warmth and hospitality.

If it wasn't enough to restore the home itself, the owners also had to rebuild one wing and to re-create the missing garage. The back wing that houses the kitchen was badly deteriorated. It was lifted off its original foundations and reinforced with structural steel. It now houses the new kitchen, the butler's pantry, a new powder room and a sunroom on the first floor and part of the master-bedroom suite on the second floor.

In the backyard, all that was left of the former garage was a concrete slab, so McIntosh designed a new carriage house/garage to replace it. The new structure coordinates with the style of the house and includes two single-car garages flanking a sunken garden. These are accessed via the alley behind the home and are connected to create an outdoor summer kitchen or alfresco dining room.

This carriage house features a carving that is not one of Julius Melcher's, but was taken from another home built during the same period. The house was being demolished to make way for a new home by McIntosh Poris. The carved front-entry portico was no longer needed, so McIntosh and James salvaged it and put it on their carriage house. "They called it the Taj Garage," Poris laughs.

A great deal of attention was also paid to the gardens. For example, the oval window at center of second floor was the inspiration for the symmetrical plan of the front garden. The curving oval pattern of mullions was replicated in a brick walkway that forms the edges of the garden beds. Tile from Detroit-based Pewabic Pottery was used in the centers of a brick basket weave pattern.

"This was their dream house," Poris notes. "They were going to renovate it and live there the rest of their lives. The street is like a time warp, like you are back in the '30s. The houses are all renovated. It's an oasis in Detroit. A lot of people don't realize that these exist, but more are beginning to learn about them."

The project recently received a 2007 AIA Michigan Honor Award. "This project is Doug's legacy," says Poris. "For us, the award reaffirms the importance of preserving Detroit's cultural history, which we feel is also symbolic of our long-term commitment to the city and its future."  



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