Detroit Revival - Airbnbmag
Adam Hollier and his wife, Krystle, bought a house blocks from where he grew up. Vacant, it needed new everything. Photos by Alice Gao. - Detroit, Michigan
Adam Hollier and his wife, Krystle, bought a house blocks from where he grew up. Vacant, it needed new everything. Photos by Alice Gao.

BY AMY HAIMERL

A new wave of homeowners is revitalizing Detroit's forgotten mansions and making the city shine again.

THE FIRST THING ADAM HOLLIER WILL TELL YOU IS that he has an incredibly supportive wife. When he floated the idea of buying a Detroit money pit for their family home—their first home together—she didn’t call off the wedding.

“Krystle’s first response was no,” says Hollier, laughing. “But then it was like, deep breaths, deep breaths. ‘Okay, if this is really what you want to do. . . .’ ”

It was 2009. Hollier was just 24, recently returned to Detroit and newly engaged. He had left the city to study at Cornell University and then get his master’s at the University of Michigan, but he quickly realized he couldn’t abandon his hometown. He wanted to be a part of shaping its future. To start, he wanted a house, preferably a fixer-upper, something he could make his own. And that’s when he saw the house: a 7,800-square-foot mansion with a six-car garage and a carriage house. It didn’t matter that it was vacant and in foreclosure. It didn’t matter that water was leaking through the red-clay-tile roof. It didn’t matter that it would need all new electricity and plumbing. The carriage house gutted. Plaster fixed. Kitchen modernized.

He knew he wanted it—because he’d wanted it forever. Hollier’s parents live just three blocks away, and he spent his childhood walking past the 1922 Italian Renaissance home in Arden Park, a tiny mansion-filled neighborhood in the city’s North End. The son of a social worker and a Detroit Fire Department captain, he dreamed of one day owning such a home.

“This house informed how I viewed houses,” says the 31-year-old, who is now the director of government affairs for the Michigan Fitness Foundation. “I love red Spanish tile and a long symmetrical style. And that is because of this house.” And so he made a deal with Krystle: While she finished her final year of clinical research in Rochester, New York, he would make the house her home.

She agreed. And for just $65,000 cash, the mansion on Arden Park Boulevard was theirs.

Author Amy Haimerl restored her own home in Detroit. "We essentially paid for three good walls and a dream." - Detroit, Michigan
Author Amy Haimerl restored her own home in Detroit. "We essentially paid for three good walls and a dream."
The 1892 Hecker House has been restored and is now owned by Wayne State University. - Detroit, Michigan
The 1892 Hecker House has been restored and is now owned by Wayne State University.

EIGHT YEARS LATER, Hollier is still working on the house, slowly upgrading the electrical, repairing plumbing, and building a new deck, his pride and joy. His family is handy—his brother now owns a similar home just a block away—and they enjoy working on each other’s properties. But the neighborhood is no longer just a DIY affair: An executive for Neiman Marcus Global moved in down the block. There were four vacant homes there in 2009; today there are none.

Adam and Krystle's story is just part of a larger Detroit story—one of revival after decades of struggle. It's a story I've taken part in. In 2013, my husband and I bought a 3,000-square-foot Georgian Revival. The price was a mere $35,000, but the house had no plumbing, heating, or electricity. Her south wall was collapsing and most of her windows were missing. We essentially paid for three good walls and a dream. The home’s restoration took two hard years, an adventure I write about in my book, Detroit Hustle. But today we have a home we love.

Despite success stories like the Holliers'—and mine—Detroit's neighborhood revival is a work in progress. Still, for lovers of great architecture—and great American cities—it’s profoundly encouraging.

Architecturally, Detroit is perhaps most famous for its grand and opulent commercial buildings, like the 1929 Guardian Building and the sumptuous art deco Fisher Building. But its mansions were just as imposing. During the 1920s, the city was flush with cash and people ready to spend it. There were the lumber barons, the stove scions, the early bankers and the automakers, and everyone was betting on Detroit. They built large, stately homes all over the city as it rapidly expanded from approximately 29 square miles at the turn of the century to 139 square miles by 1926.

The 1915 Kresge mansion - Detroit, Michigan
The 1915 Kresge mansion
The 1892 Hecker House - Detroit, Michigan
The 1892 Hecker House

The mansions anchored the broad city and left the landscape littered with homes bearing their names. In Boston Edison, just west of Hollier’s neighborhood, is the Fisher mansion, which comes complete with its own pipe organ. Charles T. Fisher built it; he founded the Fisher Body Company and later sold the business to General Motors. Nearby there is not one but two Kresge mansions, testaments to the wealthy retail family whose empire would become K-Mart. By comparison, Hollier’s home seems like it was for the hoi polloi: Grand it may have been, but it was built by a mere doctor.

“Detroit has a treasure trove of beautiful historic neighborhoods,” says Amy Elliott Bragg, of Preservation Detroit, which has been championing the city’s architecture since 1975.

But starting in the 1950s and accelerating into the ’70s and ’80s, Detroit’s economic fortunes plunged so drastically that the grand old neighborhoods were left behind as residents fled. “Several of the mansion districts close to downtown were affected particularly early on,” said Robin Boyle, a professor of urban studies and planning at Wayne State University. “Other areas that were slightly further out and more mixed, such as Palmer Woods, were more secure and I think built a more diverse population. That is where the African-American middle class moved in and have maintained more of a legacy.”

Today, Detroiters like Hollier are rehabbing homes and refurbishing the city’s legacy. But there is still a lot of work to be done. After sitting empty, many of these houses require significant investment. Local real estate agent Austin Black II (who recently bought his own home in historic Sherwood Forest) says it’s normal for people to spend $300,000 or $400,000 to buy one of these houses and then another $300,000 to bring it alive. Of course, not all homes need that much work or cost that much, but finding a move-in-ready home that requires little more than cosmetic upgrades is like finding a unicorn in your backyard.

“At these prices, it’s still an awesome deal because of where the buyers are coming from,” he says. “The house they are moving to is far superior than the one they are leaving.”

The Charles T. Fisher Mansion - Detroit, Michigan
The Charles T. Fisher Mansion
The Fisher Building testifies to the wealth that shaped Detroit - Detroit, Michigan
The Fisher Building testifies to the wealth that shaped Detroit

For Katherine and Cole Allen, it was a matter of upsizing. They were ready to move from their two-bedroom condominium into a larger space, maybe one where Katherine could also have her design studio. So when Cole saw a mansion in the Boston Edison area with a design studio in the attic, he knew it could be perfect.

“We didn’t want a total fixer-upper, and this house was the right amount of kept up,” says Katherine Allen “It’s been occupied its entire 100 years.”

They moved in and started fixing the 7,500-square-foot property, which was built in 1916. They removed the asbestos and took precautions against mold and mildew in the basement. Then they coaxed all the bathrooms back to life.

“Several weren’t working,” Katherine says. “You’d turn on the water and then you’d have water running into the basement. Once we were having people over and had to cancel because sewage was backing up in the basement.”

But after 18 months, they have the house in sound condition and are turning to design projects, like how to meld Katherine’s more modern style (“I love glass and sharp hard lines”) with the house’s historic details.

They’ve also begun opening their doors to Airbnb guests to show it—and their Boston Edison neighborhood—off. “Boston Edison is amazing,” Katherine says. “It was built at the time that US architecture was all about revival of different [styles], so you can see all the European and other influences.”

A word of caution before the romance of Detroit captures your heart: Many banks have still not embraced the dream. They can be unwilling to lend money to home buyers if they don’t think the homes are worth what they cost to fix up. Often, owners like the Holliers and Allens are either doing the work themselves or somehow finding the cash elsewhere.

To help these new homeowners, Preservation Detroit’s Amy Elliott Bragg and a few friends started Brick + Beam, which acts as both a rehab-community confessional and DIY tutorial. Classes offer lessons in how to fix old windows or repair plumbing, while the meet-ups offer the support of people who can commiserate. “We want to see more rehab,” says Bragg. “We see it as a more viable option to demolition. We don’t want the old tired idea that the way to revive a neighborhood is to tear down vacant buildings.”

For Hollier, it comes down to believing in his city and investing for the future. “Have you done that thing where you think about buying a stock and then forget?” asks Hollier. “And then later you think, If only I’d bought Microsoft five years ago. That’s what this is like. I meet so many people who say they walked through my house, but it seemed like so much work. Or say, ‘You got a great deal; I wish I could get a great deal.’ Well, you’ve got to take the risk.”

It also helps to have a supportive spouse.

Read more about Detroit and other stories of rebirth

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