An 1897 Corktown home brought back from the dead

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

It’s one thing to design for someone else’s space. For Detroit interior designer Heather McKeon, it was quite another to suddenly be putting her mark on her own home, a home she and her husband Matt spent months bringing back from the dead in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, Corktown.

“It was much more emotional,” says McKeon.

And daunting. But eventually it all came together and today, the McKeons' 1897 home, which was featured on last year’s Corktown Neighborhood Tour, is a lovely airy mix of what Heather calls "eclectic but purposeful" design. The tour returns June 2. 

“Each piece in the house either has a history of where we got it or provokes some sort of memory, or where we want to go,” says Heather. 

The 1,800-square foot house has a mostly white palette but exudes a sense of warmth with vintage art, textured pillows and unique rugs. Nearly all of the rugs and pillows are from a store in Detroit's West Village called The Good Rug.

Still, McKeon, who does mostly commercial design for Patrick Thompson Design in Detroit, says she had to go through many design "rabbit holes" before she found just the right look. Combing through the online bulletin board website, Pinterest, she'd start with one inspiration image for the house that would then lead her in a completely different direction.

And turning the house into a home took a tremendous amount of work — and money. The house had been abandoned for 30 years by the time the couple bought it in November 2016 for $99,000. In fact, it had been empty for so long it was on the city's demolition list at one point.

One of the McKeons' biggest hurdles was getting it reconnected to city water because it had been cut off from Detroit's water system for so long. They needed to install a new tap,  "but we could not find a contractor to do it," said Heather.

All told, the couple spent roughly nine months and $160,000 rehabbing their home. And expensive as it was -- the couple went through the Detroit Home Mortgage Program to rehab the house, for which Heather says they're very grateful -- it was worth it, she says.

"At the end, it brought back a house," says Heather.

The house has three bedrooms and one and a half baths. Heather says historic records show it was originally built for $1,200 for a train engineer and his family.

Just inside the front door is a staircase with a banister that leads to the second floor. Heather says they contemplated stripping the banister but instead decided to simply sand it down and redo just the handrail. 

"It has a weathered look," Heather said. "I thought it looks great. There's a story to it."

A vintage class photo is part of the wall collage that hangs above Heather and Matt McKeon's living room.

In the living room, a small wall collage sums up the couple's aesthetic in many ways. There's a piece of art that the couple got in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Matt was born, along with a vintage painting of a man and a framed class photo that Heather bought at a church rummage sale.

"We're all over the map," laughs Heather.

The galley-style kitchen required some of the most planning. The couple worked with Whiskey Kitchen in Royal Oak. The green cabinets add a nice contrast against the white walls throughout the house. The counters are marble.

Heather says she and Matt were encouraged to go with quartz but they really wanted marble. Two years after moving in, the counters already have a patina to them, she says, but she likes that. 

A bold green hue in the master bedroom was inspired by a wool fabric that covers the headboard.

Upstairs, the master bedroom features the boldest paint in the house, an accent wall painted a dark green. Heather says she was inspired by a beautiful wool felt that was used to upholster the headboard.

And other of Heather's favorite rooms in the house is the upstairs full bathroom, which the couple essentially created from scratch since nothing was left but the plumbing fixtures. It now has a large claw foot tub and a shower designed to flow right into the house's eaves.

"I love our bathroom," notes Heather.

There's some work left to be done. The couple may change the vinyl siding on the exterior and install a composite instead. They're also considering possibly building a garage in the back, maybe even with an attached apartment.

Looking back on the couple's restoration journey, Heather says she'd do some things differently. She'd avoid those Pinterest "rabbit holes." She'd also avoid visiting the house every day during the construction process — the couple rented a house within walking distance — to check on progress.

But now settled into a home they brought back from the dead in a neighborhood they love, McKeon is content with how it's all come together.

"We're starting our own story in the space," she says.

Corktown Neighborhood Tour

  • 12-5 p.m. June 2
  • Starts at the Gaelic League Irish American Club,  2068 Michigan Avenue in Detroit.
  • Tickets are $15. The tour is presented by the Corktown Historical Society.

Twitter: @mfeighan