Homes for the Holidays: Palmer Woods home tour

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

The calendar may say it’s closer to Thanksgiving, but inside Everton Swearing and Arthur White’s 1924 English cottage in Palmer Woods, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Holiday lights twinkle on the living room tree and mantel, a balsam and fir garland winds its way up the stairs to the second floor, and the nearby dining room table is set with century-old china, monogrammed napkins and place cards.

While the couple known for their entertaining generally “like to take it one holiday at a time,” according to Arthur, the house is decorated early this year in preparation for the Palmer Woods Holiday Home Tour & Soiree, which will welcome hundreds of people next weekend to five festive homes in one of the city’s most beloved and prestigious neighborhoods.

A Steinway grand piano is the site for holiday caroling and singalongs.

Labor of love

The couple moved to Detroit from Chicago for work in 2010. They fell in love with Palmer Woods because of its historic beauty and because it reminded them of some of the architecture in the Windy City.

Unfortunately, the 4,000-square-foot house with six bedrooms and five baths needed more than a little work and the couple were self-described “newbies” at the time. “It was pretty bad, the only thing that worked was the hot water heater,” Everton recalls of the state of the house when the couple purchased it. “We redid the electrical, plumbing, floors and redecorated everything.”

Despite its then-questionable condition, the home had one thing that reeled them in. Unlike many houses in the neighborhood, it hadn’t been overly “remuddled” through the years. “The original architecture was intact,” he explained. “The layout is completely original.”

That and the step-down living room sealed the deal for him, the director of sales explains. Arthur — director of external affairs for the Detroit Opera — was, not surprisingly, partial to the original music room off the foyer and its wrought iron and leaded glass doors.  

Built, they explain, for Louis and Clara Fisher Brown, the couple is only the third owners.  They’re quick to credit interior designer Loretta Crenshaw of Crenshaw and Associates for the home’s overall design and festive feel during the holidays.  They contacted her after seeing her work in a local showhouse and after neighbors recommended her when they signed on to host their first holiday home tour almost 10 years ago.

Loretta, Arthur and Everton take a break from preparations for the upcoming holiday tour.

They describe their “pre-Loretta décor” as “a lot of Crate and Barrel” and the three of them now laugh about their early days. “When she toured the house, she said we could do much better,” Everton remembers. “She said we can go as far as your imagination will take you.”  

They’ve been impressed by her ideas ever since. “With Loretta, anything goes,” Everton explains, adding that she’s taught them to be open-minded about so-called “design rules.” An example, he says, is the primary bedroom, which now includes a king-sized bed placed in front of a long bank of windows. The pair had been struggling with the layout and furniture placement, which only felt right once they moved the bed to its current location. “When you break the mold, you learn so much,” Everton says.

They kept that thought in mind more recently, when they redid the kitchen during the pandemic. Like many historic homes, it was a smaller space, so they painted it white and kept the fittings clean and classic. They went for drama in the adjacent butler’s pantry, which they outfitted with painted black cabinets and a smoked mirrored backsplash. “When Loretta suggested it, it sounded radical,” Everton admits, but they’re happy they listened. “We’ve come a long way,” Arthur adds. When they got tired of the settling cracks common to old houses, they decided to add beadboard to the ceiling, another change they don’t regret.

It's personal

Crenshaw says she took cues for the home’s decor, and the tree, from the couple’s interests, which include music, travel and entertainment. Look closely at the living room tree, and you’ll see items honoring Arthur’s musical past, including the trumpet he played, which now holds a place of honor on the tree along with a vintage full-size violin from an antique shop, a French horn and old sheet music. The main tree has migrated from the music room to the living room, but the theme has stayed constant. “For Arthur, it was all about the music,” explains Crenshaw. Personalizing your tree and honoring your own history, she says, makes the holiday even more memorable.

She shops for the home year-round, keeping her eye out for just the right thing and sending the couple pictures of antiques and furnishings, including Christmas decorations, that she thinks would work for them. “Sometimes I just show up with it,” she jokes. “They like a lot of decorations," so it takes a while to get everything done, she says, crediting Sharon Gamblin with helping her. Though she says Arthur now prefers to trim the living room tree himself. “He loves Christmas,” she says.  

Otherwise, she has her hand in almost every other detail, and the homeowners wouldn’t have it any other way.  “The fact is we are friends now,” Everton adds. “She knows what is perfect before we know it. She has never steered us wrong.”

The home has been on the tour once before, in 2013, a few years after they purchased it. They expect the reaction to next week’s tour to be similar to that one. “People are just blown away.”

More than a decade after buying it, they don’t regret taking on the house. “Moving here was the best decision of our lives,” Arthur says. They both love sharing their home with the community. “We’re just the caretakers for the next generation,” Everton says.  

If you go

The 2022 Palmer Woods Holiday Home Tour & Soiree on Dec. 3 will feature five area homes festively decorated for the season, including Tudor, English Cottage and mid-century modern residences that range from 1917 to 1953 and one built for Walter O. Briggs, owner of the Detroit Tigers. Tour and soiree tickets ($150) are in demand and almost sold out; $75 tour-only tickets are also being offered. Tours are organized in timed shifts; door-to-door shuttles and parking will be available from the starting at the 12th Precinct police station. For additional ticket and other information, visit palmerwoods.org.