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‘This Old House’ to feature 2 Detroit restorations

PBS's long-running home improvement show will feature two Detroit projects on episodes that begin airing April 3

Maureen Feighan, The Detroit News

When you’ve completely restored what was once an abandoned house in Detroit from top to bottom, it’s hard to pinpoint just one favorite new spot when the work is done. Just ask Tamiko Polk. She has two.

Polk loves her new master bathroom with its spa-like tub and shower. She also loves her and husband Frank’s new all-season sun porch. Frank, a retired Detroit firefighter, on the other hand, loves what was once a first-floor library with a barrel ceiling that’s become his personal man cave.

“Gardner-White donated some real nifty furniture, a reclining leather couch and a cozy little TV stand fireplace. I just close the door and you can bake in there like a batch of cookies,” says Frank with a laugh.

Wanting to relax and bake cookies in a favorite spot is understandable when you’ve traveled the journey the Polks have. The couple, with the help of a television crew from PBS’ “This Old House,” spent seven months last year restoring their two-story brick 1,750-square-foot home in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood.

That journey will unfold on “This Old House” in early April as 10 episodes following the Polks and another Detroit project begin to air on Detroit Public Television.

It’s all about showing what’s possible in Detroit and its neighborhoods, says Frank Polk.

“What we’ve done here shows that when you have a group effort, a community effort, a family effort, it is possible to restore these old unique quality constructed homes in Detroit,” says Frank, who with Tamiko will be part of a sold-out panel discussion Friday about “This Old House-Detroit” at the University of Detroit Mercy.

“If you look at it from a one house at a time (perspective), it is possible for Detroit to have a comeback. But it takes all-hands-on effort.”

John Tomlin, a senior producer for “This Old House,” said the show wanted to come to Detroit after hearing so much about the city’s many abandoned homes. What they found, he said, was a place with housing stock unlike any other.

“Most towns and cities have an area where there is cheap housing or cheap apartments, and in Detroit it’s hard to find that,” says Tomlin. “It seems to me if you had a job in the 1940s or ’50s, you got a house. You didn’t get an apartment. You got a house, a house with a yard, and they were nice houses. That’s not true everywhere else.”

Divine timing

For the Polks, their restoration journey almost never happened.

Parents to three grown children, the Detroit natives were contemplating moving south to a warmer climate when Frank says the opportunity to buy their 1939 house in Russell Woods from the land bank presented itself, along with documenting their journey for “This Old House.”

“We said ‘Why not?,’” says Frank, who grew up watching the show.

But renovating a house that had been vacant for years wasn’t easy. It had extensive water damage. A poorly designed roof over a back porch, which had been added to the house, continued to leak water into the house. There were also issues with the front bay window.

“We didn’t realize it was an issue until we kept having water coming in,” says Tamiko.

Some of the challenges they encountered, says Tomlin, the producer, were unusual for “This Old House” because they don’t normally follow houses that have been abandoned.

“A lot of neglect, roof work and insulation – those are some of the unique” challenges the crew faced, Tomlin says.

While the Polks and their family did most of the labor — contractor Josh Engle eventually came on board — the “This Old House” crew was there to provide guidance and expertise.

“The show would be here in town for two to three days,” says Frank. “They weren’t necessarily here to do work. Everything they did was them pitching in and lending a hand.”

Still, having the show there gave the Polks accountability to keep progressing and not get lax, because they had to meet certain filming deadlines, Frank says. And general contractor Tom Silva also taught them several renovation techniques, including how to level the ceiling with a special process in the kitchen.

Silva “also did repairs on the roof, 3-D imaging on the archways, and a process on the hardwood floors that was kind of unique,” says Frank. When it comes to Silva’s and the rest of the team’s deep knowledge of how to restore old homes, “those guys are huge.”

During the restoration, the Polks tried to salvage historical features such as leaded glass windows in a front bay window, wet plaster moldings and other unique architectural details.

The biggest transformations viewers will see is in the kitchen, which was torn down to the studs. Now finished with an open concept, it features a large island, stainless steel Whirlpool appliances and shaker-style cabinets donated by Kurtis Kitchen & Bath.

“Everybody congregates in that area,” says Tamiko.

The entire project took about seven months to finish and the Polks, who lived elsewhere in Detroit during renovations, moved in in late December. Looking back on their experience, Frank says everything fell into place to make the project happen for “This Old House.” Tamiko was off work because her job with Chrysler had been shut down, which allowed her to be on site during renovations.

In the end, the Polks and the crew became a close-knit group.

“I think it was just perfect timing,” says Frank. “We look at it as if it was divine — the fact that none of it was really planned — everything just happened.”

Seeing what’s possible

With the Rehabbed & Ready project, Craig Fahle, director of public affairs for the land bank authority, said the land bank actually approached the show about working together. They showed producers several houses late last spring before they settled on the house on Keeler.

“Many of these properties are seriously distressed,” says Fahle. “We knew they could get it in on a schedule.”

Like many homes in the land bank’s inventory, the house had been vacant for about 10 years. It had a lot of damage, along with no power or plumbing.

The Rehabbed & Ready program invested $104,000 in the house and was listed for $77,900. It’s now under contract.

Fahle, like the Polks, hopes that “This Old House” viewers walk away with a sense of what’s possible in Detroit. And while he acknowledges that not all homebuyers have the funds to invest what many of these old homes require, he says there are refinancing programs such as Detroit Home Mortgage now available to help make renovating a Detroit home possible.

“This is housing stock worth preservation,” says Fahle. “... These houses you can’t find in some cookie cutter subdivision.”

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Twitter: @mfeighan

‘This Old House — Detroit’

■ The first of 10 Detroit-based episodes premieres at 7:30 p.m. April 3 on Detroit Public Television and repeats at 9 a.m. April 9.

■ Besides following the restoration of two Detroit homes, the show visits the original site of Motown Records and the Henry Ford Estate in Dearborn. The team also meets with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, explores the contaminated water crisis in Flint and visits three urban farming initiatives.

■Friday’s sold-out community conversation about “This Old House — Detroit” at University of Detroit Mercy will air as a special on DPTV at 9 p.m. March 30. A digital series about the Detroit episodes is available now on