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Nicole Curtis shares stories behind the houses

‘Rehab Addict’ star details rise from single mom to reality star — one house at a time — in book ‘Better Than New’

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
The new book by Nicole Curtis: "Better Than New: Lessons I've Learned From Saving Old Homes (And How They Saved Me)."

Lake Orion native and reality star Nicole Curtis is vocal about her three loves: old houses, old people and old dogs. She even sells T-shirts with the mantra on it.

But it took a while for Curtis, star of DIY’s “Rehab Addict,” to get into the business of restoring old homes. According to her new memoir, “Better Than New: Lessons I’ve Learned from Saving Old Homes (And How They Saved Me)” (Artisan Books, $27.95), which hits bookshelves Tuesday, the single mom spent years hustling as a waitress at Hooters, selling cell phones and working as a Realtor before she got her big break with a television production company. She sold them on the idea of creating a show about restoring old homes, but when the pilot sold, in many ways, it was a learn-as-you-go process.

For the first time, Curtis delves into the stories behind the many homes she’s renovated, including failed relationships and the birth of her second son, Harper, in 2015.

Detroit, naturally, figures prominently in the book. The Ransom Gillis mansion, Curtis’s third Detroit project, was rife with tension nearly from the start. Curtis wanted to restore it as a single-family home, while Quicken Loans, which sponsored the project, wanted it to be a multi-unit property.

Curtis writes that when she first returned to Detroit from Minneapolis, where she’d been living, she wanted to actually renovate an old firehouse, but couldn’t find anything that would work. Disappointed, but looking for another option, in 2013 she connected with a fan of her show, Rosie Mackenzie, who’d written her, begging her to restore a rundown 1929 Tudor duplex on Campbell Street North across from Mackenzie’s father’s house.

With permission from Artisan Books, The Detroit News shares excerpts from Curtis’s book:

We walked up the cracked walkway to the front door with Rosie talking a mile a minute about how much mother would have loved to see me there, and how much she wanted me to do the house. Her elderly father, Art, still lived across the street, so she was there daily. Old people and an old house. She was killing me with this stuff. The scene would only have been more complete if she’d had an old rescue dog with cataracts.

When I stepped into the living room, my stomach churned. Standing there, I could see the damage was extensive. The smell was actually a bit refreshing after the stench of the firehouses. Not rotting and horrible, but smoky like a campfire. The house next door had caught fire and fallen onto this one, spreading the flames. Downstairs, just past the dining room, the whole back of the house was missing. Upstairs, most of the roof had been burned away, and what was left needed to be entirely replaced. Almost half of the house was gone. Everything that was left intact had 20 layers of soot on it. The plaster walls were streaked where the water from fire hoses had made its way down.

At moments like these, I always look for diamonds in the dirt. The house had flashes of beautiful detailing. There were incredible plaster medallions on the ceilings and wonderfully detailed archways between rooms. The hardwood floors were charred, but they could be revived. The house needed new windows and doors, as it had none, but the bones were still OK. Ten minutes in that house after a long day of disappointment, and I had a good feeling. The truth was, that house — my soon-to-be Campbell house — had a lot of love surrounding it. I felt it, and more important, I needed it.

That summer, after selling HGTV on the idea of filming in Detroit, Curtis worked with a team of subcontractors (which were hard to find in the city, she writes) to restore the duplex from top to bottom, enduring high temperatures and frequent rain. But she says the project reignited her fire for saving old homes:

Despite all the challenges, it taught me a lot. At that moment in my life, as I threw myself into everything that needed to be done to rebuild a charred wreck, it felt parts of my life had burned. The reality of the battle I was in for in Minneapolis was just starting to hit home. Pro-development forces in local government were looking to make me a villain. Developers were pushing back against my efforts, and the local media was taking every opportunity to criticize my work in Minneapolis. The developers would eventually gather friends in Minneapolis City Hall and really come after me. That summer, I could already read the writing on the wall.

My passion for what I was doing in life, for the buildings I rehabbed and the people around me, had been flagging. But Campbell Street reignited that passion.

I knew that with a house half burned, you can either tear it all down or you can say, “Hey, I’ve got this good half left, and man, how about those plaster medallions?” I always take an optimistic approach on my houses, so that’s what I was doing with my life. It wasn’t “What’s missing?” It was “What do I have? Let’s build on that.”

After Campbell Street North, Curtis renovated a home she bought from the Detroit Land Bank Authority on East Grand Boulevard before turning her attention in 2015 to her biggest project yet: the long-abandoned 1876 Ransom Gillis mansion in Detroit’s Brush Park. Working with Quicken Loans and Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services, Curtis writes that she was told she’d have total creative control but “the lunacy” started almost immediately.

I had assumed that we would be rehabbing the house in its original form, as a single family dwelling. After all, that’s what I’m known for: returning homes to their former glory. Imagine my surprise when I was told it needed to be designed as a fourplex.

“What?” I said. “No. I agreed to do it as a single family. A fourplex is crazy.”

We went back and forth for several days, until finally the rep called me.

“Nicole, they’re absolutely refusing, but they’ll agree to do it as a duplex.”

I was worn out. I was a few weeks postpartum. I hadn’t slept, and I had been promised that would all be so “easy,” and it was turning out to be anything but. So I gave in, even though it meant I’d now be doing double the work: designing two kitchens, two dining rooms, two of everything. It was just the start of losing my “complete creative control.”

Curtis continued to have friction on the Ransom Gillis project, down to the day an open house was held when she asked media not to shoot pictures inside for staging reasons, but was overruled.

But I was determined to go out on a good note with Ransom Gillis. The Thursday after the open house I threw a big party for all the guys who had worked on the mansion and their families. They had given so much. We all had. Ransom Gillis was a three-week project and it had turned into so much longer. All of us who actually worked on the house had paid the price. We had missed birthdays, weddings and holidays. We had missed so much. I stated as much in a news release and again, the critics came out in droves. Isn’t that what I had signed up for? Hadn’t I been paid for that? I just shook my head. In the end, we celebrated a lot of hard work, and it was the best time we had on the whole project. Good, bad, or indifferent, the Ransom Gillis mansion renovation was a success.

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Twitter: @mfeighan

How the same bedroom in southwest Detroit looked before restorations began.
A restored Campbell Street North house bedroom.

‘Better Than New’ book tour

Lake Orion native Nicole Curtis is embarking on a 15-city book tour across the country, including three stops in Michigan. The book hits stores Tuesday.

Oct. 25: 7 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 2800 S. Rochester Road, Rochester Hills.

Oct. 26: 6:30 p.m. Schuler Books, 2660 28th St. SE, Grand Rapids. Call (616) 942-2561 for tickets.

Nov. 18: 7 p.m. Books-A-Million, 31150 Southfield Road, Beverly Hills.