Renovating great-grandpa's old place
Detroit couple find, buy house ancestor lost in Depression
DETROIT They only knew about this once-stately Detroit residence — brick with bay windows and the spacious side yard — from family folklore. They did not know Detroit in its heyday.
But now Christopher Lee and Amy Feigley-Lee find themselves at home and heart-bound to a Detroit house once owned by Lee’s great-grandfather in the Roaring ’20s, but which was lost at the onset of the Great Depression.
And it all began with a photo.
Shot in 1926, the family heirloom depicts Lee’s great-grandparents, Daniel and Patrice Foley, hosting a family gathering in honor of the Catholic priestly ordination of the Rev. Dominic Ignatius Aloysius Foley. The photo also depicts Lee’s great-great grandparents, William and Johanna Foley. The clan is assembled in a spacious foyer in front of a distinctive stairway.
“That was the only photo we had of the inside of the house,“ says Lee. “When I came in and looked at the staircase, I knew this was the house.”
What was lost is now found and reborn as the couple’s home, where Feigley-Lee and Lee, both art instructors and artists, will welcome their first child in the coming weeks, a daughter with a name yet-to-be announced.
Lee, 32, bought the house for $8,100 in a county tax foreclosure sale in 2007. The house had been empty for at least five years. He tracked the house for years while he was in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art, after getting the address from his great uncle Bill Foley, now 83.
Lee learned that his great-grandfather Daniel Foley was a 1920s-era wheeler- dealer, a stock market and real estate investor, and a horse track regular. Daniel and Patrice Foley were raising 10 of their 11 children at the house, including Chris’ maternal grandmother, Eileen, when Daniel’s investments evaporated with the onset of the Great Depression.
They lost the house, and Patrice, an accomplished pianist, went to work in an office job by day and played the piano for pay at night.
The house is in a neighborhood just off Woodward, between the historic Boston-Edison district and Highland Park. Chris says it has been bypassed in civic-sponsored renewal plans.
Lee and Feigley-Lee are among the stream of artists and entrepreneurs flowing into Detroit in recent years, motivated by eye-popping cheap property prices and eager to participate in Detroit’s renewal and creative class.
Feigley-Lee, 33, a sculptor and instructor at Oakland University, grew up in Milford, Mich., and only visited the city for some major events. She enrolled in a graduate school program at Cranbrook Academy of Art, and lived in Ferndale until she met Lee. He also was a Cranbrook student and now is a photographer and OU instructor. He grew up in Detroit’s Rosedale Park, Huntington Woods, and in China, where his father was raised.
When Lee moved into the Detroit house in 2008, so did she.
“It was pretty normal to feel I’m over my head. I have had this feeling throughout the whole process,” says Feigley-Lee. “But I love it. I really do.”
What greeted her were collapsing ceilings, a leaking roof, buckling floors with three layers of linoleum, and a vandalized interior.
“There was dust flying everywhere, the roof was leaking and falling. There wasn’t hot water,” says Feigley-Lee. “The house was a wreck. It wasn’t livable.”
But they lived in it anyway, after fixing basics like electricity, heat and plumbing. They were aided by a $50,000 Michigan State Housing Development Authority loan.
The 3,500-square-foot house was built in 1903, with two layers of brick framing it. William Worden, the city of Detroit retired director of historic designation, says many houses in the city are worthy of preservation and perhaps historic designation.
“For neighborhoods to survive, people have to come in take care of the buildings,” Worden says. “You hope when people do that . . . they’re starting a trend and others will follow.”
They have good friends on the block, which includes vacant lots, well-kept mini-manses and rundown but still occupied homes. The Lees consider the neighborhood stable.
Their families were supportive and pitched in regularly.
“I was very happy to hear about it. I was a bit apprehensive, though. But fools rush in,“ jokes Lee’s stepfather, Bob Herman, a self-professed handyman who is business manager at Gesu Catholic Parish in Detroit. Lee turned to Herman, who is married to Lee’s mother, Cathy Lee, for some reconstruction help.
“The progress they’ve made is amazing. The upstairs bedroom shows what the potential for the rest of the house is,” says Herman. “But it will take some time to reclaim its former glory.”
While they’ve relished the hands-on process of renovation, the Lees know why others might be deterred.
“The homes are so big and they tend to require a lot of work,” says Lee. It costs nearly $600 a month for heat and electricity during the winter months, which the couple has spread out across the year.
“It’s taken us five years to get this far,” says Feigley-Lee. Plus an additional $50,000 out-of-pocket beyond the loan they received.
They pulled out 1970s-era cabinetry in the kitchen and replaced it with 1920s-era cupboards that Lee was invited to salvage from a vacant apartment building. They kept the original kitchen sink. The main upstairs bathroom is down to the studs, awaiting renovation and the original claw-foot tub now stored in what will be the baby’s room.
They’ve decorated with some hand-me-downs, some modern pieces and vintage Chinese furniture from Lee’s father, Winston Lee, a native of China who was in business information technology development and again lives in China.
While the house now shows the couple’s artistic eye for color, proportion and design, Lee says “it’s been less of trying to fit into artistic visions, and more just trying to make it a house.”
The oral history passed down has influenced how they use the house. One of the first floor front rooms was known as “the piano room” where great-grandmother Patrice Foley practiced her piano. When the couple moved in, they put Feigley-Lee’s great-grandmother’s piano there.
The famously photographed foyer space now looks like a family room with a modernist decorating edge, and a wood-burning stove that replaces a busted-down brick fireplace.
They’ve hosted some family dinners, but nothing of the size that heralded great-great Uncle Dominic’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood.
The couple hope to host another grand family gathering in the years to come, perhaps a big Christmas dinner or summer reunion. Either way, there’s a more imminent celebration in the offing for the baby, due May 19.
The couple also plan to hang up a photo of great-great Uncle Dominic’s ordination celebration. “My thought is the staircase,” Lee says. “It makes sense there.”