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Inside the former disaster mansion

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The new owners took on a multi-year renovation after the mansion had been abandoned for 25 years

In 2014, an Indian Village house was featured on Curbed Detroit for all the wrong reasons. Deemed the “disaster mansion,” the listing photos showed a house rotting away, abandoned, in dire need of help. Curbed noted, “This house is a sprawling mess, but it has the potential to be something amazing.”

While its new owners wouldn’t call it a mansion—it’s just a big house—it was basically a disaster when they bought it. Apparently, an eccentric lawyer lived there before with his mother. When she died, he up and left, with everything in the house still in it. There was even a place setting and bottle of wine left at the dining room table.

The old dining room sets a creepy scene. The new owners kept the bottle of wine as a memento.
Courtesy of the Smiths

It was abandoned for 25 years. Neighbors helped keep up the exterior. After the lawyer died, his trust put the house up for sale, and the disaster mansion was born.

The listing showed bright green paint on many surfaces, junk, dirt, and all kinds of mess.

Larry and Robin Smith bought the house as retirement approached. In retrospect, Larry says it was good to have a project like this to transition into retirement. The Smiths worked overseas, acquired the house in late 2014, and lived another six months working overseas while the house was prepped for renovation. When they moved to the city, they lived in the carriage house for a while when work was being done on the main house.

Looking through the old dining room into the foyer
Courtesy of the Smiths

The house had no heat, gas lines, or water meter. The basement had a variety of garbage—lead paint, lawn mowers, and 100 bottles of wine that, unfortunately, had gone bad. The wine rack, though, was restored by the new owners.

It took over 20 dumpsters to remove junk from the house, and another 11 to move furniture out.

Mold, water damage, and warped walls plagued the house. Much of the interior was rebuilt because so much of it was unsalvageable, says Larry. The wood paneling lining the grand foyer all had to be replaced. A large chandelier that once hung in the living room was redone and now hangs in the grand stairway.

The dining room was also rebuilt, and a hallway connecting the kitchen to the foyer was widened. An office was added for convenience. The kitchen itself was three separate rooms. Where the stove sits now, water damage had made its way through three floors. The entire kitchen was rebuilt, creating a large cooking, entertaining, and eating space.

Perhaps miraculously, tiling in the sun room remained mostly unscathed, although mold had crept into the room. The green and blue tiles are both Rookwood and Pewabic. Lighting and decor from the couple’s travels fill the space.

The historic home was built in 1914 and designed by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls for Richard Hudson Webber, nephew of J.L. Hudson. Another notable owner includes concert band leader Leonard Smith, whose trumpet opened weekly broadcasts of the Lone Ranger radio show for years.

The current Smiths took nearly two-and-a-half years to finish the house; it was livable by Christmas last year. The Smiths have also restored the exterior, adding new landscaping throughout and a new deck in the backyard. The neighbors are appreciative of the enormous effort its taken to bring this this incredible house back. The home will be part of the Indian Village holiday home tour—it’s right across the street from its restored neighbor.

Here’s a look around the former disaster.