Corktown workers' cottage chock-full of luck, history

  • 1850 workers' cottage is one of oldest surviving homes in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood
  • Cottage will be one of 9 homes featured on June 7 Corktown Home & Garden Tour
  • Home to hundreds of tenants and owners over the last 150 years

Most people pull weeds when they garden. Detroiter Blake Almstead and his partner, Josh Clark, pull historic artifacts out of their backyard.

Living in one of the oldest surviving homes in Detroit's oldest neighborhood, Corktown, Almstead and Clark have unearthed dozens of treasures from their backyard over the last five years — 1850s clay pipes, bottles, porcelain doll parts, medicine bottles, ink wells. One of Almstead's latest finds was a small ceramic jar once used to hold potted meat, likely from the 1860s.

"We find tons and tons of things," says Almstead, president of the Corktown Historical Society, who keeps a collection of their findings on a kitchen counter. "...If it rains too much, little pieces of plates or lumps of coal will come out of the ground."

Before indoor plumbing, when something broke or was garbage, it would go in the outhouse. "There was no waste management. You'd go in there and bury it," says Almstead.

More than 150 years after it was built, this 1,200-square-foot clapboard workers' cottage is an ode to Detroit history. Home to hundreds of workers over the years, it's been modified for modern living — a furnace replaced coal ovens, a bathroom replaced the outhouse — but it still maintains its quaint charm. It's one of nine homes on the June 7 Corktown Home & Garden Tour (see box for details).

Several original details are still intact: the iron turn doorbell, wide plank pine flooring, and some windows. On one wall near what was once the front parlor is hand-stamped wallpaper, likely from the 1870s.

It's amazing that despite everything that Detroit has been through, this "little wooden tinderbox," as Almstead describes it, is still here, he says.

"It's a piece of preserved history," says Almstead, a creative director for a Detroit tech company who grew up in Connecticut and came to Michigan to attend graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

The small workers' cottage is so old, in fact, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when it was built.

A map drawn by New York cartographer Henry Hart in 1853 doesn't show the small cottage because it fell just outside Detroit's city limits at the time, according to Corktown historian and blogger Paul Szewczyk. But a mirror image cottage located just feet away shows up on the map, says Szewczyk. The earliest known city directory listing for the cottage is in 1874.

Until the 1950s, the cottage was used as a rental by dozens of workers — laborers, sales agents, telegraph operators, according to Szewczyk, who studied census records. One family, the Sultanas, immigrants from Malta, lived in the house from 1929 through 1941. The 1940 census showed they had seven children.

"This tiny little house and so many people have called it home," says Almstead.

Clark, a Metro Detroit native, remembers first seeing the little cottage during drives to Corktown in high school.

"I was in love with the simplistic lines of the house — the white panted clapboard, long windows," says Clark, an interior designer. "It's always looked like a cozy little house."

And it is cozy. Just down a quaint hallway is the living room. Each room branches off the living room like the spokes of a wheel. Doors lead to a front parlor, which Almstead and Clark are converting back into a parlor after it was used by previous owners as a bedroom. Two other doors lead to a bedroom and another bedroom now used as a walk-in closet.

Throughout the house are a fun mix of antiques and accents. Old lanterns from a barn in Maine are mounted to the wall in the living room. An antique pub sign from England that Clark found at a Michigan antique store hangs on an opposite wall.

"The pub sign has always been my favorite antique in the house," says Clark. "When I traveled to England I went to the pub that it was from originally. My approach to antiquing is really just looking for things that really speak to me."

But not all of the decor is old. The sofa is from IKEA. An animal print rug under the dining room table adds a modern touch.

"You collect over time," says Almstead. "You mix and match and you make it work. Josh has an incredible eye."

In the dining room, one of the first things Almstead and Clark did was replace the electric light fixture with a campaign style chandelier that uses candles. Clark says he was inspired by an Indiana bed-and-breakfast he visited years ago with his parents that used only candles in the dining room.

"Ever since then I always wanted just candlelight in a dinning room," Clark says.

Almstead and Clark plan to do some updates to the kitchen, redoing the floor and bumping up the ceiling to give the room more light. Above the kitchen ceiling now is a storage space and window. They also plan to hook up a 1918 Detroit Jewel stove that's been in Clark's family.

"We'd love to eventually have French doors coming out here" to the backyard, says Almstead.

Almstead says the last time the cottage was on the home tour a few years ago, a gentleman in his 70s visited who was a tenant long ago.

"He hadn't been in the house since 1941," says Almstead, "and he rang the doorbell and he started tearing up because he hadn't heard that sound since then. He said the bathroom was his bedroom. It was neat to hear from someone who actually grew up in the house."

The man also recalled going outside with his brother to get coal for the house. Freezing, they'd sometime set a small fire in the coal shack to keep warm. One time, the shack caught on fire and the entire structure burned down. But the cottage was unscathed.

Almstead says the fact his tiny 1850s house is still standing is a testament to its good bones, preservation efforts and luck. And he and Clark plan to do their part to ensure it continues to stand.

"We're just caretakers," says Almstead.

(313) 223-4686

Corktown Home & Garden Tour

Sponsored by the Corktown Historical Society, this year's tour will run from 12-5 p.m. June 7. There are 14 stops, including 9 houses, two churches, and two historic storefronts. "This is probably our biggest tour," says Blake Almstead, tour chair and president of the Corktown Historical Society. Tickets are $15 and available the day of tour at the Michigan Gaelic League, 2068 Michigan Avenue, where there will also be Detroit artists and vendors selling their wares. Like last year, a historic baseball game will be held at 2 p.m. at the site of the old Tigers Stadium at Trumbull and Michigan Avenue. One cool stop on this year's tour: the first floor of Trumbull Squared, a model until made out of recycled shipping containers on Trumbull just north of I-75. Shuttles will be available and Detroit Wheelhouse will provide bike tours. For more information, visit