Built a century ago for Hiram Walker II, the stucco-clad Arts and Crafts style home on Burns in Detroit’s prestigious Indian Village boasts eight bedrooms, Pewabic tile and a tin-lined fur-storage closet. But there’s a strong possibility that something outside the house will get the most comments when the house is featured on the June 10 and 11 area home tour.
Jason Thompson, who purchased the 8,700-square-foot house in 2010, is an Indiana native who attended the University of Detroit in the 1990s with a concentration in history and architecture. His plan was to be an architect. “At U of D, I always heard about Indian Village but it was financially unattainable then,” he remembers. Fast forward almost 20 years and Thompson has a graduate degree in preservation planning from Cornell and a job offer with his company back in Detroit after years in Washington, D.C., where he rehabbed a row house.
“I love old things, including houses,” he explains of his decision to purchase a house in the city. He narrowed it down between the area around the Detroit Golf Club and Indian Village. Prices at the time were low, and he was ultimately attracted by the village home’s spacious feel and its long history. “I bought at the bottom of the bottom of the market,” he explains.
Luckily for him, the eight-bedroom, four-bath historic home was in good shape overall. “The only things I had to do were cosmetic,” he remembers. “It was move-in ready.”
That’s not to say he and his wife, Kristen, whom he married in 2016, haven’t been busy since. Recent projects include painting the kitchen cabinets; summer plans include a new roof. Piles of sawdust and stacks of wood in the garage are evidence of his DIY skills and interests. All will be on display when the home is one of six spotlighted on the tour (for more information, see sidebar).
Like most of the neighboring residences, the Thompsons’ home displays vestiges of a bygone age — an enviable two-sided wooden ice box between the kitchen and the butler’s pantry, a German silver sink, leaded and stained glass windows in the hall. Unlike some, however, it also has more modern feeling amenities, including four large second floor bathrooms, abundant storage and oversized living areas with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in a lot of natural light. There’s even a central vacuum system that dates to 1917 and a working elevator.
Thompson expects the wood-lined elevator to be a highlight of the tour for many. When he purchased the house, representatives from the Otis Elevator Co. came to inspect it, usually about a 10-minute job, he says. Instead, they spent three hours marveling at the vintage machine, he says, saying that it was the oldest operating residential elevator that they knew of. “They wanted to buy it and put it in their museum,” Thompson says. “It services all three floors and the basement.”
The spacious rooms and room for entertaining are some of the things Thompson liked best about the house, he says. He enjoys having his extended family for the holidays, adding that the dining room can accommodate up to 28 people.
Thompson admits to being a little intimidated at first by the neighboring homes and the area’s long history. “There’s a Dodge house, there’s a Ford house,” he says. He’s enjoyed learning about his home’s previous owners and their ties to early Detroit. “Hiram Walker II, who built the house in 1917, married Elizabeth Stroh and they lived here until 1922,” he says. Hiram Walker II was the grandson of capitalist Hiram Walker, best known for his distilleries in nearby Windsor, Ontario. According to the Historic Indian Village Association, the house was built for $30,000 and designed by architects Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, also responsible for a number of the city’s best-known buildings, including the Guardian Building (where Thompson’s current office is), Hudson’s downtown department store, nearby Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian and the Buhl Building. “William Herbert Murphy, who was a co-founder of Cadillac with Henry Leland, also lived in the house in the 1920s,” says Thompson. The years after that are less documented.
The city’s history has long interested Thompson. Evidence of that can be found throughout the home. A huge, pull-down school map from the 1930s over the living room sofa encourages visitors to seek out the house and street on the grid of the city. An oil painting of early Detroit over the nearby fireplace showing the Parke-Davis building was found — surprisingly — in Indiana. “I go to antique stores a lot,” he explains. “I often go back to Indiana and come back with a pickup truck full of stuff.” Vintage furniture and accessories complement his collections and fit with the home’s period appeal.
Maps, posters, photographs and Detroit-focused memorabilia can be found throughout the house, but visitors comment most on the garage room Thompson calls “the lounge.” I’ve always been loyal to where I live,” he says. “I’ll buy anything that says Detroit on it.”
Thompson built the room and bar himself to accommodate his ever-growing collection. “I needed a space to put all my Detroit stuff,” he explains. Better Made Potato Chips, Stroh’s, a huge St. Antoine street sign, Parke-Davis “comfort powder,” a vintage-style postcard that says “Everybody is Doing It in Detroit. Why Don’t You Get Wise,” — and more fill the room’s walls and shelves. You could easily spend hours looking at the remnants of the city’s past and reminiscing.
He’s looking forward to sharing the home and its distinguished history. “It seemed like a good way to celebrate the home’s 100th anniversary,” he says. Saying yes also had another added — if unexpected — benefit, he says. “Being on the tour also motivated me to get a lot of projects done,” he added with a laugh.
The Historic Indian Village Home and Garden Tour, held Saturday and Sunday, will feature six Arts and Crafts homes built between 1914 and 1917 as well as gardens, churches, antique cars and an art lot. The second largest home tour in the state is in its 44th year. The historic district includes Burns, Iroquois and Seminole from East Jefferson running one mile north to Mack and features more than 350 homes, most averaging about a century old. Advance tickets are $22.50; $25 the day of the tour. For tickets and more information, visit historicindianvillage.org.