Home sweet barn: Dexter family converts 1930 barn into a home for 7

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Talk about kismet.

When contractor Jef Forward saw that Cottonwood Barn, a former wedding venue in Washtenaw County, was for sale, he suggested to his wife they buy it and convert it into an office for his business, Forward Design Build Remodel. Then he got a phone call.

It was from Jeremy and Molly Stewart. They’d already bought that same barn and wanted his firm’s help converting it into a home for their family of seven.

“They called me on exact the same day,” Forward remembers.

That was two years ago. Today, Cottonwood Barn maintains much of its unique charm — in particular the large open ceiling and main floor — but with Forward Design Build’s help the space is now a custom-made home for the Stewarts. 

Where brides and grooms once got ready before saying “I do” on the lower level are now kids’ bedrooms, and the main floor “bays” are separate nooks — a dining area, a sitting area, a home office — so the family can comfortably to hang out together and apart. And that’s been especially helpful with everyone the family all at home over the past few weeks.

Jeremy and Molly Stewart wanted to maintain the character of Cottonwood Barn. That meant leaving the first floor open and not adding insulation to the interior. The chandelier, which was in the barn when they bought it, is from an old hotel in Miami.

“They just spread out and don’t fight,” said Molly.

Jeremy Stewart said he and Molly’s goals were to make a barn livable and retain its rustic charm. And that’s Forward’s firm has done.

“We wanted to keep it like a barn,” said Jeremy. 

It was originally built in 1930 as part of a large farm in the Dexter area owned by the Mast family, one of the city’s founding families. At one point, it also part of a horse-riding camp for underprivileged kids. 

But after several years a wedding venue, it was listed for sale. At the time, Jeremy and Molly and their five kids — Lily, 14; Layla, 12; Joey, 9; Jake and Luke, 6 — were living in North Carolina at the time, but planning to move back to Dexter, where they’d lived before. They struggled to find a house big enough.

“There’s not a lot on the market for a big family,” said Molly, who said they wanted to move to Dexter for the school system, especially for their youngest son,  who has special needs.

The couple remembers the first time they saw the 8,500-square-foot Cottonwood Barn listed in a real estate ad, they were sitting in a diner in Asheville.

“I was like, ‘We should move into this barn that used to be a wedding venue,’ as a joke,” remembers Molly.

Molly showed Jeremy the pictures and suddenly it wasn’t a joke anymore.

“I was like, ‘This isn’t just a barn. What is this place?’ It was a beautiful wedding venue,” said Jeremy. “We talked about it and the idea of having the big space, a nontraditional home, that appealed to us.”

Molly’s parents, who live in Saline, looked at it and gave it the thumbs up. The Stewarts bought it sight unseen in late 2018. When they finally saw it in person for the first time, they weren’t nervous. “We were so excited,” said Molly.

Rustic bohemian

One of the biggest issue Forward’s team had to tackle was insulating the space but keeping the amazing ceiling, which includes a stunning chandelier that was already in place when the barn was a wedding venue. It’s from an old hotel in Miami that previous owner Dan Waitz found.

“The overall challenge was maintaining the character of the barn and not have drywall interior overtake the rustic elements,” said Forward, who serves as president and creative director of his firm, which is based in Ann Arbor.

Rather than adding insulation inside, which would’ve affected the shape, exterior insulation panels were installed, Forward said. A crane lifted 12-inch panels into place onto the roof. 

Bays, separated by wood support beams that were already in place, divide the main floor into a series of living areas. Those had to be kept in place for structural reasons.

“We couldn’t modify them at all," said Forward. "That was a big thing with the building department. We couldn't touch any of the structure here because we would’ve had to have a structural analysis of the barn."

On one end of the main living area is a master bedroom suite with a stunning bathroom. And a staircase leads to an upper level play area for the kids.

“We don’t have a traditional basement so I envisioned a basement space with a game table, a TV and a big couch,” said Molly. “They play up there.”

The Stewarts worked with Ann-Marie Clark, a project designer with Forward Design Build and an interior designer, to design the kitchen. It has a Moroccan influence with contrasting colors between the cabinets and island. The tiles are handpainted and custom designed.

The decor, meanwhile, reflects Jeremy and Molly’s travels to Europe, Asia and Morocco before they had children. The kitchen has a Moroccan vibe with hand-painted, custom-designed tiles that project designer Ann-Marie Clark found. The custom cabinets by Das Holz Haus have a rustic white finish while the island has a custom orange color. 

Scale was really important in the entire project, Clark said. With such a big area, “the space really needed volume,” she said. That included the fireplace that was installed. Originally, they’d contemplated putting a smaller fireplace in the corner, but Clark lobbied for something bigger. It now stretches all the way to the ceiling.

“We needed to go big and really enhance the scale,” said Clark.

First floor fun

On the first floor, or downstairs, is where Cottonwood Barn’s wedding past has really been modified for family living.

What was once the bride’s room is now one of four bedrooms. A catering room is mudroom with nooks for each child by Young Cabinetry and a perfect shower (where a commercial sink once stood) for the family’s dogs. And a coatroom was converted into a laundry room.

What was once the catering room at Cottonwood Barn is now a mudroom for the Stewart family. The nooks were created by Young Cabinetry. A commercial sink is now a dog wash area.

Separate men’s and women’s bathrooms, meanwhile, with multiple stalls,  are perfect for a family with five kids. A handicap stall in each was converted into a shower. Plaques with different horse names hang on the door of each bathroom stall.

“When it was a horse property, these were the names of the horses,” said Jeremy. 

What the Stewarts’ kids like most about their new home of six months is the space — space to roam, space for ample bedrooms, space to throw dog toys on the main level if they want.

“We love the extra space, and are so grateful we can spread out,” said Molly.