Old house, new look: 1840s Birmingham farmhouse goes contemporary inside

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Cathy Frank of Birmingham is straightforward about her style: She likes contemporary things.

So when a job opportunity led her and her husband, Stephen Smith, to move back to Birmingham after a decade in Chicago and the couple found an old 19th century farmhouse in 2016, they knew they wanted to update the interior. The house was built in 1840 but Cathy has a more contemporary aesthetic. Still, there were limits to what they could do.

White walls in Cathy Frank and Stephen Smith's Birmingham foyer provide the perfect backdrop for their art.

"We couldn't change much on the outside, because of historic restrictions, but we could gut the inside," said Cathy.

To create just the right look, the couple turned to contractor Ben Heller and interior designer Carrie Long of Carrie Long Interiors. The two crafted a home that looks modern, bright and artsy but not so contemporary it clashes with the exterior.

"I love how artistic and fun she wanted to make the space," said Long. 

The 3,300-square-foot house with three bedrooms and 3 1/2   baths, now completely renovated, has a streamlined, chic look. Before renovations, "It was outdated, dark and cut up," said Cathy.

"Carrie and Ben were able to really come up with a design that not only opened it up and brought in a lot of light, but made it much more contemporary," said Cathy.

The footprint is essentially the same and some rooms weren't changed very much, such as the dining room. But most of the first floor was completely gutted and reconfigured.

To give Cathy the look she wanted, Carrie aimed to create clean lines with simple, elegant and timeless details. She didn't want it to look like a remodel.

"It's like the perfect modern farmhouse," said Carrie.

A house moved

The house has a unique history of its own. After it was built in 1840, it was moved at some point from its original location to where it stands now. But given how old it is, rooms were small and light was minimal. The house also was added on to several times.

"It was a lot of little tiny rooms," Long said.

What was once three small rooms with no windows is now one larger airy kitchen.

 Taking a historic home and giving it a contemporary look without making it feel "disjointed" was a challenge, admits Long.

She didn't want it to look like "a complete remodel," she said.

Instead, the goal was to give it "more of a refresh and rejuventaion," said Long.

To open up the first floor -- again without changing anything on the exterior -- three rooms with no windows were combined and reconfigured to create one larger, airy kitchen.

"It was a huge change with light," said Cathy.

In the great room, the stone fireplace was replaced with a more modern walnut surround and limestone hearth, the scale of which fits the room better, said Long. To create more texture in the room, Long added a rug custom cut and colored by Stark.

"The furniture was solid colors but still had strong textures. With the size of the rug and the size of the room, we wanted it to have more pattern and more life," Long said. "And we thought the circles played nicely with the selection in the foyer. It's modern but not cold."

The color palette is refined. Most of the walls are China White by Benjamin Moore "to keep it light and bright," said Long, with some gray in the dining room and master bedroom. The furniture is in gray tones so Cathy and Stephen could use of the furniture they already had.

The white walls really allow Cathy and Stephen's art to stand out. There's a piece by American artist Joseph Piccillo and framed photos from Stephen's photography collection are scattered throughout the house. A horse sculpture also stands in the front foyer.

In the great room, a stone fireplace was replaced with a contemporary walnut and limestone hearth. The light fixture was custom made by Carrie Long Interiors.

Where the house really shines is in the details -- not just the art but light fixtures and bathroom tile, which come from Cercan Tile and Ciot. Carrie Long Interiors created the modern light fixture in the great room, a mix of wood, metal and acrylic. The light fixture in the foyer is from Visual Comforts.

With the bathrooms, Cathy didn't just want another bathroom with all marble. 

"I wanted something different and a little quirky," said Cathy.

Upstairs changes

Upstairs, the layout also was reworked and reconfigured to make it smoother, especially in the master suite, which includes a redone master bathroom and larger closet. The laundry room also was moved upstairs.

"The whole upstairs was refigured," said Cathy. 

Outside, the house may not sit on Lake Michigan as Cathy and Steve's previous home did in Chicago but it abuts the ravine in Birmingham and has a two-tier backyard.

The patio got an update with aggregate concrete and they added some landscaping to give the couple some more privacy. The couple worked with Matt Mosher of Mosher Design Co. on the landscaping. 

Stephen Smith stands in the front yard of the couple's home. He likes that the house is within minutes of downtown Birmingham.

And it's very close to downtown.

“We are a minute from downtown Birmingham," said Stephen Smith. And "there is a natural habitat with flora and fauna of the forest and the Rouge River. This required a close collaboration with our designer and contractor to smoothly create our unique home.”

Even without a lakeside view, the couple has something just as special -- a great view on the ravine and can walk to work. Cathy says her favorite part is the airy kitchen and her great room that overlooks the backyard.

“The challenge in coming back here was to find something that I thought was special to look at and that we definitely have,” said Cathy. “A lot of people don’t even know there’s a ravine in Birmingham. And we have that and we can walk to work. We’re literally in downtown Birmingham. It’s an unusual marriage of those two things.”

mfeighan@detroitnews.com