HGTV star Nicole Curtis is on a fact-finding mission.
As restorations continue full speed ahead on the iconic Ransom Gillis mansion in Detroit’s Brush Park, the Lake Orion native says she and her team of subcontractors are on track to finish before her new season airs Nov. 5, but she’s still trying to find out more details about what the mansion looked like originally.
Luckily, she’ll meet some key sources this weekend: the home’s last owners.
Curtis, a vocal advocate of preserving old houses and star of the hit show “Rehab Addict,” says she’s been in contact with the Essa family, Chaldean immigrants who bought the house in the 1930s. They ran a small grocery store built into the front of the house for nearly 30 years. The store shut down in the 1960s.
“They’ve been great with information and photos from throughout the years,” says Curtis, whose aunt actually works with one of George Essa’s sons. “That’s been one of the most exciting things for me ... Really, what I’m interested in is the layout and what the rooms were used for.”
The meeting comes roughly two months after work began on the Ransom Gillis house on Alfred Street. Built in 1876 in a Venetian Gothic style, it speaks to another time in Detroit’s history and may be most well-known for its regal turret on one side. Designed by architect Henry T. Brush, the house is named after its original owner, a wholesale dry goods merchant.
Abandoned since the 1960s when the Essas sold the house to the Woodward East Project, according to “63 Alfred Street: Where Capitalism Failed” by John Kossik, the house is now being converted into a duplex and is part of a larger plan to rebuild a portion of Brush Park by the Brush Park Development Co. The transformation will be featured in eight episodes for Curtis’s show.
Few original details of the mansion remain, but Curtis says she was able to get back four original turret columns. Workers installed them Tuesday.
“When the turret crashed in 2000, somebody came by and they were afraid someone was going to take them as salvage, so they picked them up, stored them all these years, hoping somebody was going to redo it,” says Curtis, who was on her way Tuesday to New York to edit episodes for two days before returning to Detroit.
Curtis, who doesn’t own the Ransom Gillis house, but says she’s more of an adviser for the project, says her goal is for the house to be “as original as we can get.”
“We’re doing all real stone on the turret parts,” says Curtis. “Everything has to be specially made. Our staircase has to be turned. Everything I do is solid wood.”
Curtis says she still plans to hold a public open house when renovations are complete — a tradition she does with every finished project for her show — and it’ll likely be held before the new season begins in November.
“I’m feeling really good about it” about where things stand now with the Ransom Gillis renovations, she says. “Of course, nothing is ever going to be exactly where I want it to be because I want it to be exactly as it was in 1876.”
“We’re staging it with all antiques,” says Curtis, who says she’s been finding a lot of pieces from Craigslist. “... The house will be furnished with local antiques.”
At the same time Curtis is renovating the Ransom Gillis house, she’s also juggling two other projects — her grandparents’ 1952 ranch in Metro Detroit and a third project, which she didn’t disclose. Her grandparents’ house, which her grandfather actually built, is “definitely” her most personal project to date, she says.
“The cool thing is I have footage of my grandpa and my grandma building it,” she says. “My Gramps is a huge home movie guy.”
Meanwhile, Curtis says she’s still on the lookout for ceiling medallions, cove mouldings, anything else original from the Ransom Gillis mansion.
“I love just having pieces of the home for people to see,” she says. “I can always add it in. I always make corrections to my plans as I go along just to make sure I have it right.”
And while she declined to talk Tuesday about the incident over Labor Day weekend in which she was robbed, Curtis says she still believes in Detroit.
“I’m still in the city every single day,” she says.
9 and 9:30 p.m. Nov. 5