Detroit Garden Works owner embraces simplicity and serenity in Pontiac renovation

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Deborah Silver knew she wanted to buy the 1930s bungalow in Pontiac’s historic Seminole Hills  district before she even stepped through the door.

A room nicknamed the reliquary includes dried and preserved moss on the ceiling and a cupola lined with seashells and sea glass.

“A friend let me know that the house was on the market,” she explains. “I made arrangements to meet the broker, and arrived a little early. Though the house had a red roof, and trim the most intense shade of emerald green, what I noticed first was a set of four cast iron urns the likes of which I had never seen. I decided to try to buy the house before I ever set foot inside -- those urns were just so beautiful.”

It turns out the urns had been custom made for the house by the Wilson Foundry and Machine Co. and that the house had been built by A.R. Wilson as a wedding present for his son and daughter-in-law in 1930, a history the owner of Sylvan Lake's Detroit Garden Works, Branch Studio and Deborah Silver and Co. recounts on her blog, Dirt Simple. “I fell for them head over heels,” she explains. “I believe my four pots were more than likely the only garden urns ever produced at this foundry devoted to engine blocks for Jeeps.”

Smitten with the pots, she also loved the one-story home’s architecture, a style she calls “an amalgamation of arts and crafts and Spanish-style.” “The living room, which has no windows of its own, has a coved ceiling almost 11 feet high and its own flat roof. I loved that it was made from concrete block and finished in steel lath and plaster. It was a solidly built house and so quiet.”

Color it beautiful

She was less than enchanted, however, with the mauve and teal wallpaper throughout and the dated Formica in the kitchen, part of a 1970s-era redo. After purchasing the house she got to work, updating in phases as time, energy and budget allowed. She removed old wallpaper, painted each room in a saturated, intense color – dark terra cotta for the living room, butter yellow for the kitchen, and green with cherry red trim in the dining room, she points out. She replaced the boiler, added air conditioning and renovated the kitchen, with new wood floors routed in the shape of bricks and a stone inset, soapstone counters and new appliances. She even added a new cupola and tower to the back porch, a space she refers to as her reliquary or cabinet of curiosities, a reference to a way of displaying items that emerged in the 16th century.

Cabinet of curiosities

Overlooking the backyard, the one-time sunroom has a tile floor and is a fascinating space filled with things that intrigue and excite the couple. “I’ve always appreciated the beauty of the natural world, things like bugs and butterflies,” she says.  Nearby, a Mexican santos bought years ago in Italy, geodes, and vintage pottery sit on a stone and concrete table produced by her company, Branch Studio. A visitor could spent hours exploring the treasures displayed in the small space.

The room’s piece de resistance, however, is the cupola she spent 2 ½ months lining with 600 pounds of beach glass and shells, an homage to grottoes she had seen and admired in Europe. “Obviously I couldn’t have shells outside in Michigan, so I decided to do this,” she explains. Much like Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, she did the painstaking detail work herself. “I’d spend 20 minutes, then get off the ladder for a bit, then get back up,” she remembers of the project.

Lightening up

Three years ago, after more than 20 years in the house, she and her 15-year partner. Buck Moffat, decided their home needed a radical change.  “It was dominated by an intense and dark color scheme,” she says. “What we had seemed dated, and it was.  We were ready for our home to lighten up.”

The couple enlisted the help of designer Ann Heath Templeton, owner and principal of Duncan Fuller Interiors. “I was familiar with her work via my landscape clients, and I respected her eye,” Silver explains. “After an initial visit, she suggested that all the color I had put to the walls was at a time in my life when I did not have much in the way of art or sculpture. The wall color was the art. She convinced me that the time had come to create an interior scheme which would feature what we had collected over the years.”

Templeton suggested adding a whitewash finish to the oak floors, painting all of the rooms in a serene pale blue gray with white trim, and arranging the living room like a gallery space to showcase art the couple had acquired over the years.  While in most places she suggested lightening up, the designer also added punches of black – in the new stain in the kitchen’s wood floors, in the repainted vintage dining room table and chairs, in the 110 black-framed 1920s photographs of French gardens that now adorn the dining room walls. “Ann is a fan of using black to punctuate,” Deborah explains. “At first I was dubious, but I really like the result.”

Home for the holidays

Silver decorates about 40 client homes for the holidays, she says. When it comes to her own place, she likes to mix it up from year to year. “Naturally, I do emphasize the holiday/winter décor on the outside,” she explains.  “I light all of my pots, and I run those lights all winter. I see that outdoor lighting as a form of winter gardening. It has the added value of lighting up walkways and porches at a time of year when it is dark as much as it is light. Rob (her partner at the store, Rob Yedinak) does a terrific job of loading in a great selection of materials for the winter and holiday. The hard part is choosing which route to take. “

“I like doing the holiday inside different every year. I always have a holiday tree-but it could be bare branches in a pot, like this year, a grapevine reindeer decorated with a lighted collar, a lighted and decorated topiary form, or a traditional tree.” She enjoys considering the creative possibilities that the season brings. This year’s “tree” came from a Bradford pear that had died on her nearby property. “People shouldn’t feel obligated to represent a Christmas tree in a specific way.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t appreciate tradition. Throughout the house is a collection of compotes and other 1880s glass pieces in the Snail pattern that once belonged to her mom and was always used during the holidays. Today it can be found in Deborah’s butler’s pantry and holding pride of place when filled with fruit and used as a centerpiece on the dining room table.

After the frenetic season, her serene home feels especially welcoming at the end of a long day, she says. “We do a lot of winter and holiday decorating, so my landscape crew is busy until just before Christmas. I get through January and February by reading, planning for spring, drawing, and writing.  There is a way that the winter is a relief for me. The gardening season is non-stop and intense. I like a bit of quiet time. “

A real living room

Silver’s favorite room is the newly reconfigured living room, which features a space Templeton calls a “flop group,” consisting of six upholstered chairs arranged in a circle. “The living room wasn’t used like in so many homes,” the designer explains. “Now it’s the perfect place to read the New York Times or enjoy a glass of wine. It works in pajamas or in black tie.”

“We use it so much more than we ever did before,” Silver says of the space. “Just to pass through it is a pleasure. I love how our house is perfect for two, but it handles company with aplomb. I credit Ann for making the entire house work visually, and practically. It has a refreshingly contemporary look that does a great job of respecting the architecture. The house is light and airy, and the art has come alive. Both Buck and I are delighted with the result.”