1885 Palmer Park log cabin slowly coming ‘back to life’

Maureen Feighan, The Detroit News

Andrea Sevonty was installing newly restored stained glass windows in Detroit’s oldest and only log cabin — built in 1885 for U.S. Senator Thomas Palmer and his wife, Lizzie — when a young man visiting the park where the cabin stands, Palmer Park, approached her earlier this week.

“He said ‘I’ve lived here my whole life and never knew those were there,’ ” said Sevonty of Sevonty Restoration in Detroit.

Barbara Barefield, left, of Detroit, who portrays Lizzie Palmer, takes a picture of Denise Ford, of Detroit, who portrays the family cook.

Concealed under brown plywood for decades, the windows were indeed a rare sight. One day out of the year, volunteers pryed the plywood off for a special festival and then put it back up the next day. But now, thanks to recent restoration work, the windows shine. And volunteers are hoping to keep the plywood off for good.

The windows — 24 on the first floor of the four-bedroom cabin, eight on the second floor — will be on full display Sunday at People for Palmer Park’s annual Log Cabin Day, a free annual festival that celebrates the unique 19th-century cabin just west of Woodward and south of 7 Mile with guided tours, music, displays and an ice cream social. It runs from 1-5 p.m.

“People are going to be able to come in this cabin and be astonished at the brightness and the beauty of the color,” said Barbara Barefield, a board member with the volunteer group People for Palmer Park, which has worked feverishly since 2011 to save the 132-year-old cabin and Palmer Park as a whole. “When we had log cabin day before, the windows were dingy and dark. You couldn’t see the beauty of the rest of the cabin.”

Volunteers raised more than $65,000 for the window restoration because they were in such rough shape.

“They were falling apart. They were cracked, rotten, missing pieces,” recalls Barefield. “We couldn’t safely have this cabin open on any kind of regular basis without getting the windows done.”

Now, “having the light come in is a huge breath of fresh air,” said Sevonty, who has been working with her team on the windows sinch March and expects to be finished by September. “It brings the cabin back to life.”

Visitors on Sunday also will get a chance for the first time to see the cabin’s second floor where volunteers dressed in period clothing will be spinning and crocheting.

The windows aren’t the only improvement. The city of Detroit also invested roughly $400,000 last year on the cabin, installing a new cedar shake roof, stabilizing the foundation and improving the chinking (or mortar) between the exterior wood logs.

“The last renovation was 1970 and the roof that they put on was the wrong roof so it deteriorated quite rapidly,” said an architect and planner Mark Tirikian for the City of Detroit. “We made sure that this time around that we put the correct roof on it.”

Much more stable and secure than it was even a year ago, “we know now that the cabin will be here for generations to come,” said Barefield.

That wasn’t always a certainty. The cabin was designed by architects Mason & Rice. Legend has it that Lizzie Palmer — whose family originally owned the property that would one day become Palmer Park — told her husband she’d lived in many kinds of homes, but never a log cabin.

“He said ‘OK, I’m going to build you one,” said Barefield.

Used primarily for entertaining, often with other lawmakers in the wake of the Civil War, the Palmers lived in the cabin for one full year when their main home on Woodward Avenue burned down.

But the cabin is deceiving. It’s actually a balloon frame Victorian-style home with a front hall and two parlor-style rooms off each side. The exterior, meanwhile, is covered in logs instead of bricks.

“It’s a faux log cabin,” said People for Palmer Park volunteer Jason Fligger.

Underused, city officials shuttered the cabin in the late 1960s. It’s biggest enemy over the years wasn’t vandals, but animals. Raccoons snuck through the deteriorating foundation, shimmied up the walls and built nests in the roof.

By the time volunteers reopened the cabin for events again in 2011, the smell of animal feces was so bad they had to use incense to mask it during previous log cabin days. Tirikian said the city’s first step in stabilizing the cabin was actually animal abatement.

“That was a huge task,” said Tirikian.

On a recent weekday, there’s no hint of animal odors as sunlight flickers through the stained glass windows, which are a combination of light blue, dark blue, pink, red and amber on the second floor.

Sevonty said 60 percent of the glass was still original when she started working on the windows in March, but the challenge was finding matching glass. At the time the cabin was built, Sevonty said the American stained glass industry was pretty new, so “we believe the glass was imported,” she said.

To find the right replacement, Sevonty says they found glass in Kokomo Opalescent Glass in Indiana.

“They worked with us to get really close color matches,” said Sevonty, who hand-cut every section of glass and lead.

As a protective measure, clear storm security windows also were installed over each window.

Time will tell how they hold up, but “we’re very confident that they’ll do the job,” Sevonty said.

But the windows are just one step. Volunteers acknowledge there’s a lot more work to do before the cabin can be open on a regular basis to the public, including restoring the floors, plaster work and millwork. And they’ll have to rely on fundraising. Two fundraising concerts are on Saturday in the cabin.

“The city’s portion is pretty much finished,” said Fligger. “They went through bankruptcy. They don’t have a lot of money. It’s on us now (with fundraising), but I think we can get there ...”

Barefield believes the cabin is a symbol of what Detroit needs to do throughout the city: preserve its historic treasures and “not just tear things down.”

“We have a beautiful city. And we need to take care of it,” Barefield said. “All I can do is beg everyone who comes to this park is to be guardians of this treasure. We all need to protect the beauty that is Detroit.”


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Twitter: @mfeighan

Actress Lynette Hunter Halalay uses an 1885-era spinning wheel to spin wool in the parlor of the 132-year-old log cabin built for former Senator Thomas W. Palmer and his wife, Lizzie Merrill Palmer, in Palmer Park.

Log Cabin Day

Sponsored by People for Palmer Park, this free festival from 1-5 p.m. Sunday will include guided tours of the 1885 cabin, live music, free Guernsey Ice Cream for the first 500 people, dancing and glass demonstrations from Sevonty Restoration. The cabin is just east of 910 Merrill Plaissance in Palmer Park. Two Concerts in the Cabin are being held Saturday. Go to peopleforpalmerpark.org.