Down a quiet, tree-lined street in Grosse Pointe Farms, the Midwest ends and the Italian countryside begins.
Kiwi vines work their way up the red brick facade of a beautiful house that looks like something out of the Italian Renaissance. The terra cotta tile roof slopes downward. Boxwood hedges shaped like a rinceau, or stylized vine, invite visitors around the circular drive and to the front door.
And it's exactly as Helen Dean, the wife of Detroit businessman Charles A. Dean, envisioned in the early 1920s.
Helen Dean, who loved Italy, actually went through two other sets of plans for her family's new home before architect Hugh Tallman Keyes got it right: He designed an Italian Renaissance-style house with large, light-filled rooms that flow one into the other, beautiful painted walls, eight fireplaces, and a breathtaking front foyer.
"There were a lot of homes in the U.S. in the '20s that were done this way because Americans would go to Europe, they'd tour these palazzos, see these amazing interiors ... and say 'I want that,'" says current owner Sergio Mazza, who met the Deans' daughter. "...This was really her mother's house. This was her (Helen's) house and her vision."
It is a vision Sergio, who grew up all over Europe, South America and Canada as the son of an IBM executive, and his wife, Lora, a Metro Detroit native, can appreciate. Twelve years ago, the Mazzas, who have four children ages 17 to 31, relocated to Grosse Pointe Farms from Greenwich, Connecticut, to be closer to extended family.
Drawn to the 8,800-square-foot house's "sheer beauty," they also liked its flowing, open floor plan — which is unusual for an older home.
"A lot of really old homes are not very livable for modern lifestyle," says Sergio. "This one really is ... This house really lends itself to modern living because all the formal entertaining rooms are at the front of the house and we tend to really live our daily life at the back of the house."
For the Mazzas, that means being able to entertain and host charity events — their biggest drew 300 people — without disrupting family life.
"We can have a party for 150 people here in the front and the kids can be doing their thing" in the back, says Sergio.
But with their youngest child set to graduate from high school in a matter of weeks, Sergio and Lora are ready to turn over their eight-bedroom, eight-bathroom Tuscan-inspired villa to a new homeowner. And in a trend growing in popularity, especially in the luxury home market, they'll auction — yes, auction — off the house on May 30 (see box for details).
They hope whoever buys it next will care for it like a fine antique.
"It has a lot of character, a lot of personality, and a lot of history," says Lora.
Indeed, history abounds. Many of the house's decorative elements are copies or adaptations from the Palazzo Davanzati, a mid-14th century palace in Florence, Italy, says Sergio, who researched the house's history extensively.
Beautiful, hand-drawn cartoons, or murals, cover the walls in a front powder room and library. The paintings in the powder room depict scenes from a Medieval poem, similar to those found in the master bedroom of the Palazzo Davanzati.
Down a short hall, the 50-by-28-foot great room gives new meaning to the term "great." The 13-foot-high plaster ceilings are painted to look like wood with an elaborate, European-inspired motif, again inspired by the Palazzo Davanzati. Used previously as a living room only, the Mazzas decided to use one portion as a living room and the other half as a dining room.
Instead of a mantel for one of the two fireplaces, an altar canopy imported from Europe called a baldochino in Italian defines the fireplace.
The furniture throughout the house is a mix of Italian antiques, pieces from the Mazza's previous home and his mother. It's true to the style of the house "and true to our history," says Sergio.
Windows line each side of the great room. One side overlooks a formal garden with a terra cotta patio — "we call it our secret garden," says Lora — the other side overlooks a meadow where their kids used to play.
Not all of the house is still original. The kitchen — once two rooms, a kitchen and butler's pantry — was turned into one large kitchen and completely redone. A large island runs down the center. One element remains from the previous owners: a beautiful glass tile mural by Edgar Yaegar that spans much of one wall. It's "an extraordinary piece," says Sergio.
Still, even the new elements maintain the house's old world charm. Leaded glass kitchen cabinet doors mimic the design of windows near the front, each with a stained glass family crest in the center.
High on a wall above the staircase in the main foyer hangs a fun family portrait painted by local artist Sergei Mitrofanov. It depicts the family of six on a gondola boat in a Venetian canal with Sergio dressed as a merchant and their oldest son as the gondolier.
"It's the family. We did this tongue-in-cheek," says Sergio.
Now, as Sergio and Lora prepare to auction off their house and head to Sedona, Ariz., where they're building a prairie-style home nothing like what they have now, they want their Italian treasure to be properly maintained. And they have faith an auction is the right approach.
"People love this house in the community and they want it to be well-cared for," says Sergio. "The best way to make sure it is well-cared for is to get someone who can really appreciate the house, understands its value, will bid what it's real value is, buy it, and then take care of that investment."
It was the home auction heard around Metro Detroit last year. When furniture mogul Art Van Elslander, founder of Art Van Furniture, decided to auction off, rather than sell, his 17,900-square-foot Grosse Pointe Shores mansion, people took notice. Home auctions are actually growing in popularity, especially in the luxury home market, says auctioneer Beth Rose, founder of Beth Rose Real Estate & Auctions, who is handling the auction of the Mazzas' Ridgeland Estate at noon May 30. What's the appeal? Marketing is a big reason, says Rose. "I cause the market to react," says Rose. "Through some pretty aggressive marketing and media, we're able to take a property and put it in the spotlight." Rose says the time frame also is attractive. "We can sell a property in 30 days," Rose says. On May 30, prospective buyers will bring a $50,000 cashier's check as a deposit for the Mazzas' home; no minimum bid is required. In 12 minutes, the auction likely will be all over. Rose wouldn't give a minimum price she expects for the house, but says she has full faith that "this home that this is going to bring the right value." "My job is to make sure the right buyers and the right demographic is here," she says. For more information, go to michiganauctioneer.com and click on "Auctions."