Living her dream: Old house lover updates 1917 home

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Karen Brown still cringes when she thinks about the condition of the Boston-Edison home when she purchased it 20 years ago. "It was in terrible shape," she says of the 1917 residence. "The pipes had burst and there was water everywhere." But her parents lived in the neighborhood, she had long dreamed of living in a historic house and she could see past the home's sad state to what it could be with a little patience. "This is the only one I looked at," she said.

Growing up in Detroit on nearby Euclid, Brown would take rides around the neighborhood, ogling the vintage structures and dreaming of one day living in one herself. But life took her to San Diego, where she lived for 17 years before getting divorced. When her father became ill, she decided to bring her two sons, Mikal, now 25, and Miles, 22, back to the Motor City. The time had come, she decided, to live her old-house dream.

"The funny thing is my sister came with me and absolutely hated it," she says of the tour she and her sister took of the five-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot home, built for Lincoln Scafe of the Lewis Drug Company and later owned by Walter Haass of the law firm Race, Haass and Allen. "When I whispered 'I want it,' even the Realtor was surprised."

It was a trial by fire. She dealt with the water issues first, then the holes in the wall and the collapsed ceilings. She admits there were times she worried about what she had gotten herself into. "I had absolutely no practical experience with older houses other than knowing I loved them," she remembers. Over the next two decades, she learned about old plumbing, electrical and plastering. With the help of a handyman who would come every day, she peeled off five layers of wallpaper that a former resident had painted over, working first on the homes' structural issues before turning to decorating and other "fun" elements.

She painted the home's exterior, adding that at least those color choices were easy. "In historic districts, they keep track of the original paint colors, so I was allowed two authentic choices, beige or gray." Identified as "vernacular architecture with Craftsman style influences," in the neighborhood tour guide, the two-story home has stucco and a double cross-gabled roof along with an asymmetrical façade.

Buying the house was the first, but not last, investment she made in the city she loves. In 1998, she opened Savvy Chic, a small Eastern Market store dedicated to the home that sold a combination of antique and new furniture and accessories. "Everyone thought I was crazy, and that there was not enough foot traffic but I knew that if I did it right people would come." Today, Savvy Chic has expanded three times and doubled its space from its original 800-square-foot storefront, growing from a home interiors/antiques store to include fashion and, even more recently, a coffee house.

Brown's home and her store are examples of her philosophy of supporting the city she loves and mixing the old and new. "I'm very eclectic," she explains. "I think things that show age and aren't perfect make a house feel more welcoming and homey. I'm not perfect and my home isn't either. I believe dings and imperfections add character." She describes her style as "traditional with a twist," and enjoys adding both modern elements and things that are unexpected.

Vignettes throughout both locations show her merchandising and display talent. She changes her home and her store seasonally, relying on new pieces to spur ideas and keep interiors fresh. "I can see one thing that I use as a jumping off point for a whole new look," she says. Last Christmas, she came across a vintage photograph of a skier that became the genesis of her holiday interiors, a look featured on Boston-Edison's holiday home tour. "I built the whole thing around that photo," she says. She admits to dreaming about decorating and shopping. "Ideas come to me when I'm sleeping," she says. "I'm a very visual person."

Being featured on the home tour was the impetus for many of the more recent improvements. "I'm always working at the store and had limited time to work at home," she says. "But people have asked me for years to let them see my house, so the tour was a big reveal."

Recent changes included updating the baths (which include adding modern mosaic tile to the walls while keeping the home's historic subway tile) and, most recently, the small service kitchen, which she says she gave a new look for about $200 with paint, wallpaper, an industrial cart that doubles as an island and stylish industrial lighting. "My overall goal is to keep the integrity of the house but update it," she says.

Tour goers understood that the house is a work in progress, she says. "When they got here, almost everyone said they didn't want to leave," she says. Brown attributes that, in part to her relaxed attitude about decorating, and about life. "I want my home to be livable, not one where you can't sit on the furniture or you have to take off your shoes," she says.

She doubts that her home, which she shares now with boyfriend David DeVries, will ever be done – and that's okay, she says. At the moment, she's busy planning a new outdoor living room and dreaming about re-landscaping both the front and back yard, "I'm always growing and changing, and my house is too," she says. "It keeps life interesting."

Khristi Zimmeth writes the Trash or Treasure? column for Homestyle. You can reach her at

Behind Boston-Edison

Listed on the City, State and National Registers of Historic Places, the Boston-Edison Historic District reflects the city's rich past. Made up of more than 900 single family homes built between 1903 and 1940, the district is spread out along four streets, encompassing West Boston Boulevard, Chicago Boulevard, Longfellow and Edison between Woodward and Linwood. According to the Historic Boston-Edison Association, the area between Woodward and Hamilton, known as the Voigt Park subdivision, was platted and incorporated into the city in 1891. The city annexed the area between Hamilton and 12th, known as Boston Boulevard subdivision, and 12th St. to Linwood, Joy Farms subdivision, in 1915. The heyday of area building was 1916 to 1925, possibly because to the building of the nearby Henry Ford Hospital in 1915. One-time residents read like a city Who's Who, including Henry Ford, four of the seven Fisher brothers, S.S. Kresge, B. Siegal and Horace Rackham.