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Indian Village residents celebrate Arts and Crafts home

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Sometimes you just know. When Dan and Colleen Robar were house-hunting in Indian Village in 1990, they walked into the brick Prairie Arts and Crafts-style house and were smitten before they left the front hall. The couple had been renting in West Village and looking for a place to call home and raise their growing family. At the time, Colleen was working at Detroit Monthly magazine and Dan was working for GM. “We always liked being downtown and couldn’t imagine living in the suburbs,” says Dan.

There was only one problem – the house was already sold. “Someone else had gotten to it first,” explains Dan. They moved on, but “told the real estate person that if it ever came up again, we’d buy it,”

Six months later, they had their chance. Luckily for them, they say, not everyone is cut out to be old house owners. “It was too much house for the other people,” remembers Dan. The couple wanted it so badly that they “barely negotiated,” Dan says, and happy paid $130,000 for the 3,500-square-foot home with four bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths.

A rare example of a Prairie Arts and Crafts style, the 1916 home marks its first century this year. Based on the classic Four-Square architectural model, it’s distinguished by its low-slung style and abundant (and enviable) built-ins, which Dan says were designed to open up the floor plan as much as possible. Like others in the neighborhood around it, the house has a long and rich history. Built for Louise Marxhausen Burghard, president of the Detroit Daily Abend Post, a German-American newspaper, it housed singer Mary Gail Roberts in the 1970s, sister of actor Max Gail (Wojo on the sitcom “Barney Miller”) and “Say Nice Things About Detroit” activist Emily Gail.

The years between are a little sketchy, the Robars say. They think it served as a rooming house during the war years, and was vacant in the 1960s. Luckily for them, no one had painted over the distinctive white oak paneling or “modernized” the Arts and Crafts details – among them, leaded-glass insets in the windows and glass-front built-ins in the living and dining rooms, now filled with examples of vintage pottery that Dan collects and the vintage-style pottery that he makes.

“Overall, the house was in really good shape,” Dan says. The couple restored the tile roof, stripped the fireplace’s painted tile and updated wiring and plumbing throughout. They took down dated wallpaper, researching Arts and Crafts paint colors and palettes. And while today they are firm fans of the home’s architectural style, surprisingly they didn’t know much about the style, other than the fact that they liked it, when they started out. Raised in Milford ranches, they “were not at all old house people,” Dan remembers. “We looked at the house as a big art project, or at least I did,” says Dan, who has a MFA in ceramics from MSU and now works as group manager for creative sculpting for General Motors. Colleen owns Detroit-based Robar PR.

And like all works in progress, they knew getting the house to where they wanted it would take time. They’ve worked on it on and off since purchasing it, renovating and redecorating as time, money and energy levels allowed. They recently completed the kitchen, a once-dated yellow and orange space circa 1972 that they say was “frozen in time” when they purchased the house.

Looking at it now, you’d never know it wasn’t original. Dan made the multicolored floor tile and built the oak cabinets in his basement workshop, taking inspiration from the Arts and Crafts tradition found throughout the house. The pair make yearly pilgrimages to a three-day conference held in February at Grove Park Inn in North Carolina, where they absorb ideas and meet other fans of the style. The event marks its 30th anniversary in 2017. “It all has to do with homage to the handmade, which is the basis of the whole movement,” explains Dan.

They’ve furnished the house with period pieces and reproductions that fit into that philosophy, from art by Detroit artists, vintage, period and period-inspired pottery by Dan and others, as well as rugs, paint and furniture. Other art was collected from travels. “We’ve lived all over the world, so our interiors are a little more global, but it’s still based on an overall respect for craftsmanship,” says Dan.

The 25 years they’ve owned the house have seen the Robars raise two now-grown children, live in Japan, China and Brazil, and take on a variety of work and remodeling challenges. Through the changes, the house has been a constant in their life. When they took the walls in the kitchen down during the renovation, they found the original owners’ names under the plaster. They added their names and sealed it back up, acknowledging and marking their place in the home’s long history.

“It’s not always easy to live in the city, but the benefits outweigh the negatives,” they say. “We love Indian Village, love our neighbors, and our kids are the better for having grown up here,” Dan says. They have never regretted making that $130,000 purchase all those years ago. “We figured it was a two bedroom in Royal Oak or this,” says Dan. “They were the same price.”

Buying the house felt something like destiny. “When I was in junior high, our art teacher took us to Pewabic and we drove through Indian Village,” remembers Dan. “I’m sure I drove right past this house.” They’re encouraged by the young people moving back into the city. “You can’t think you’ll get everything done right away,” they caution. “But if you’re patient, the rewards are great.”

Khristi Zimmeth writes the Trash or Treasure column for Homestyle. Reach her at trashortreas@aol.com.