A family treasure lost and regained
The large, framed black-and-white photo hangs above the stairway just off the foyer of Christopher Lee and Amy Feigley-Lee’s home north of Detroit’s Boston-Edison district.
In it, more than two dozen of Lee’s relatives are seated in front of the very same staircase, gathered in 1926 to celebrate the ordination of his great uncle, the Rev. Dominic Foley, as a Catholic priest. There are Lee’s great-grandparents Daniel and Patrice Foley, who owned the house, along with his great-great grandparents William and Johanna Foley, and several other great uncles and aunts.
Little did the family know the incredible journey they — and their 3,500-square-foot home, once referred to in Lee’s family as the “mansion” — would soon take. Lost in the Great Depression, it would be eight decades before the 1903 house found its way back into the hands of the Foley family after Lee bought it at a tax auction for $8,100 in 2007.
His and Feigley-Lee’s quest to restore this once grand home will be documented in the new reality series, “American Rehab: Detroit,” which premieres Thursday on the DIY Network.
Filmed more than a year ago, the show follows Lee, Feigley-Lee and their baby, Ruby, as they rehab the house that once belonged by his great grandfather room-by-room after it sat vacant for nearly five years.
“This was the pinnacle (for the Foleys) because they lost everything in the Depression,” says Lee.
Lee and Feigley-Lee, both artists who met in graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, describe the series as both fun and exhausting with a film crew following their every step as they completely overhauled the kitchen, added a downstairs bathroom, renovated the two upstair bathrooms, and worked on the garage.
Now, with the house essentially done, Lee says he’s sometimes struck by moments of awe, realizing he’s raising his daughter in the same home his grandmother Eileen lived in as a child.
“Bathing Ruby in there (the original upstairs tub), I’ll think ‘my grandmother was bathed in there,’ ” Lee says.
The house has certainly come a long way since Lee first bought it at auction in 2007 after it went into foreclosure for unpaid taxes. He’d heard about it through family folklore and eventually got the address from one of his uncles. He tracked it while he was living in New York and when it wound up for auction, he decided to buy it.
With no experience renovating a house — let alone a house that been vacant for years with extensive water damage — Lee admits he was completely naive about the process. Even his family had some reservations.
“My mom said, ‘You might want to start with a bungalow or something like that. You’ve never done this before,’” remembers Lee, 34.
But he bought the house anyway, and he and Feigley-Lee spent five years on their own working on the house, updating the master bedroom, replacing all the mechanical systems, and taming the yard.
“The yard was a complete jungle,” says Lee, who says they initially didn’t even have hot water.
Magnetic Productions reached out to Lee in 2013 about a possible reality show documenting therehab journey through an article in the Detroit Free Press about Lee’s efforts to save the house.
Agreeing to the show, Lee says, the couple worked with local designer Ellen Premtaj of Elle Interiors who worked as a bridge between the couple and producers. Financially, the production company also paid for many of the renovations because they wanted them done within roughly four months. The budget for the house was more than $138,000. A spokesman for Magnetic Productions wasn’t available to comment.
The completely renovated kitchen now features marble countertops, large maple cabinets, and an adorable built-in banquette, perfect for entertaining. A large white sink, original to the house, is still in place on one wall, which was important to Lee and Feigley-Lee, who wanted to keep as many original details as they could.
Upstairs, Ruby’s bathroom still has some of the original wainscoting, but the tile floor, damaged and unstable as years of a water leak, was replaced with marble. The walls now are covered in a fun patterned wallpaper, designed by Feigley-Lee and printed by Detroit Wallpaper Co.
“There was a little shard of wallpaper left in here, so I took that as inspiration,” says Feigley-Lee, 35, who says the shard was under layers and layers of paint and may have been original to the house.
One part of the house that might not have survived without the show’s help is the detached garage. It now has a sophisticated wood door.
“If the show hadn’t come along, we were going to tear it down,” Lee says. “It was in such bad shape... The floor of it was a foot and a half of dirt from all the plant matter that had decomposed over the years. We had to shovel that all out to get to the concrete.”
Their rehab journey — as documented on TV — concluded with a huge family party last year. Relatives came in from all over the country to see the house after its remarkable transformation.
“It was really fun,” Lee says. “A lot of people I’d never met before came. It was like a wedding.”
‘American Rehab: Detroit’
9 p.m. Thursday
The six-episode season will follow Christopher Lee, his wife, Amy Feigley-Lee, and their baby Ruby as they rehab the 1903 Detroit mansion once owned by Lee’s great-grandfather before he lost it in the Depression.