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Past perfect: Couple combines home, antiques business

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Some houses come with strings attached. But few boast the “extras” that Bonnie and Terry Fleming inherited when they signed a purchase agreement in 2001 for a four-bedroom, two-bath 1863 farmhouse in Armada. “It was a package deal,” Bonnie explains with a laugh. “The house came with two goats, two sheep, two cats and an antique business…How could we say no?”

Originally built by the Chamberlin family, the yellow-painted house with its bright red barn stayed in the family for more than a century. A centennial farm sign still rests near the Flemings’ side door. Bonnie and Terry, both in their 50s, moved from a newer house in Washington Township. They purchased the home and business in part to let Bonnie stay home with their girls (Elizabeth and Emily, now in their 20s) and as an outlet for their burgeoning antiques business, which had been housed up to that point in a Romeo store. Bonnie, who had moved every two years as a child, was looking to feel more rooted and ready to embrace a more rural lifestyle. “We liked Washington Township, but eventually the fields around us began being replaced with subdivisions,” she explains.

The couple, together since 1984, have long loved the thrill of the hunt. “Terry and I started antiquing when we were dating and would spend weekends looking for treasures,” Bonnie says. They still have the first thing they bought together, a collection of 1930s-era Depression glass.

When they bought the house, the plan was for Terry to run the business while Bonnie continued her job at an area doctor’s office, but in the end it didn’t work out that way. Today, both work full time for the Lamb’s Tail antiques, which occupies their adjacent 1880s barn. Terry, who loves to work with his hands, crafts the custom farm and harvest tables and benches that now grace homes throughout metro Detroit. Bonnie is the buyer, stylist and office manager.

Their impressive woodworking and design skills are evident in their home, which has been a labor of love for the past 15 years. “Every room in the house has been updated,” Bonnie explains. “All of the wallpaper has been stripped from the horse hair plaster walls. We were the first family to paint the walls.”

Not surprisingly, 150 years had brought some changes. Built with an informal and a formal parlor, the 19th-century home now functions well for a contemporary lifestyle. The formal parlor serves as a family/living room, while the adjacent informal parlor houses the dining room. In the 1950s, a first-floor bedroom was converted to a kitchen near the side door; Bonnie and Terry recently returned the kitchen to its original spot near the side door, and converted the one-time kitchen to an office/pantry.

Like the rest of the house, the kitchen demonstrates their love of repurposed and rediscovered treasures. Bonnie bought the 1930s sink for just $25, and then waited eight years to use it. “The whole kitchen was built around that sink,” she says. And she doesn’t mind its dings, nicks or rust. “We love to decorate with things that have a history and are functional,” Bonnie explains. “Things do not have to be perfect; items with cracks and breaks are welcome in our home.”

Two doors were taken out to open up the space, which now features a custom island built by Terry. Vintage ceiling tins purchased from a Detroit picker add interest to the space and balance the newer cabinets. Also newer is the laundry room, now housed on the second-floor landing. The pair had to seek out older washer and dryer models because newer ones caused the house to shake, Bonnie says.

Decorative items and antiques featured throughout the house have been culled from throughout metro Detroit. The “Food and Drink Orders Taken Here” sign that hangs in the renovated kitchen came from an antique dealer friend; Terry paneled the office walls with horizontal siding made from reclaimed pallets from Rapp Orchards. “He had to cut each one to fit,” explained Bonnie. “It was quite the project.” Vintage black-and-white signs, including one from a Detroit River steamship, give the office eclectic vintage style. Leaning against the fireplace in the family room are molds used to make the plaster medallions and detailing of Grosse Pointe’s Rose Terrace estate, demolished in the 1970s. Over the fireplace is a railroad time clock purchased from a neighbor’s dad. “That thing weighs about 100 lbs.,” Terry jokes.

Scattered throughout the house are sepia-toned family portraits, sturdy farm furniture and vintage accessories. Bonnie admits to hoarding ironstone pitchers in anticipation of using them for her daughter’s one-day wedding; she’ll get the chance in August. She loves taking vintage items and giving them new life – the family room coffee table, for example, was cut down from a kitchen table.

Inspiration comes from magazines, television shows such as HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” and yearly trips to California. She says her house shows that antiques can be comfortably integrated into modern homes and that there are many rewards of living with the past. Younger customers are embracing vintage, she says, and she’s thrilled to see a new generation discover the look and lifestyle. “You pay so much less than at Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn and you’re getting the real deal,” she says.

She and Terry always have a long list of to-dos: next on the list is the backyard, including a new patio. “I’d love a water feature back there,” she enthuses, adding that she’s always gathering ideas. The end result is sure to feature the “vintage farmhouse” look she, Terry and their devoted customers love. “We try to repurpose as much as we can,” she says, pointing out that they recently salvaged the redone porch’s original planks, destined for use in farm tables. Empty wine bottles make an interesting garden bed border between the home and barn. “Beyond the fact that it’s a better price, better quality and better for the environment, it’s also a lot of fun.”

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

Bonnie’s “Golden Rules” of Decorating

¦Vintage items give instant personality and charm to a space.

¦Buy and use things that you love and enjoy.

¦Try to mix textures and heights.

¦There are no rules. “I have no formal training; I get things that speak to me.”

¦Use items for purposes other than what they were intended.