Celebrity rehab of 19th century Detroit mansion on fast track
Inspecting the tile near a fireplace inside Ransom Gillis mansion in Detroit’s Brush Park on Thursday, HGTV star Nicole Curtis bent down, slid her hand over the stone and marveled that it was still in place.
“How is it still here?” said Curtis. “Who knows?”
Few original details remain in the long abandoned 1876 mansion, but that isn’t stopping Curtis and the leaders at Quicken Loans from giving this iconic Detroit home a new beginning. Renovation work is moving full-speed ahead after Quicken and Curtis announced their plans late last month to completely renovate and restore the Ransom Gillis mansion as part of an ambitious mixed housing development for Brush Park.
During a media open house on Thursday, Curtis, a vocal preservationist and star of HGTV’s “Rehab Addict,” showed off the first and second floors with their exposed brick walls. Rooms are already beginning to take shape with two-by-fours.
“This home really represents Detroit,” said Jay Farner, Quicken Loans’ president and chief marketing officer. “This is the house I remember my parents driving me by, to look at, and they’d say, ‘Wow, look at what Detroit was.’ ”
Now, “to be bringing this home back, it’s going to be inspirational,” said Farner.
Nearly a dozen workers wearing orange vests and hard hats worked on the house on Alfred on Thursday, removing bricks, working on the newly poured front porch and stabilizing the chimney. Most of the plywood has been removed from the mansion’s well-known turret, which will be eventually filled with plated glass windows.
The mansion — named after a wholesale dry goods merchant and designed by architect Henry T. Brush in a Venetian Gothic style — has “gone through salvaging, it’s gone through fires,” said Curtis, who first toured the mansion three years ago but couldn’t afford renovating it by herself. “This house has really been through the worst of the worst. And anyone who has driven by it, just short of a decade ago, it was completely falling in. So the fact that we’re standing in this room is a miracle on its own.”
The project is the first part of a multi-phase mixed use development by the Brush Park Development Co. to rebuild an 8.4-acre tract of land in Brush Park, including restoring three other mansions and building new housing.
The Ransom Gillis mansion will be converted into two residential units — a 2,500-square-foot south unit with three bedrooms and 21/2 baths and a 1,900-square-foot north unit with two bedrooms, a den, and 21/2 baths.
The plan is to keep the house as historically accurate as possible but also include modern amenities, such as air conditioning and a second-floor washer and dryer, says Melissa Dittmer, Bedrock Real Estate Services’ director of architecture and marketing.
The restoration — filmed for the next season of Curtis’ show, likely to air in November — is her third Detroit project. But unlike the other houses she’s renovated — a duplex on the west side and a 100-year-old Tudor on East Grand Boulevard — very few original elements are left of the Ransom Gillis house.
Of the mansion’s 11 fireplaces, only one has its original marble facade.
“We weren’t really left with many architectural details here, except for a vision and pictures from the past,” said Curtis.
The timeline for renovations is fast. With 20-40 people working on site each day, Curtis said they hope to finish by the end of August. “We’re really working around the clock because we really want to get it done,” says Curtis. “It’s no small task.”
Farner wouldn’t put a price tag on the renovations. He said they’re also still determining if the two units eventually will be sold or leased.
“I don’t know if we even know what the final investment will be,” Farner said. “If this was just about an investment, you’d go out and build a new house somewhere. To restore the home is going to be much more expensive. But what this home represents for all of us, it’s worth the extra investment that we’re all making to get it done properly.”
That means installing a new slate roof and stained glass in the upstairs master bedroom, and properly restoring the turret.
“We’re really pushing a new level of historic preservation here, but it’s because of the collaboration,” said Dittmer.
Farner said the development will bridge with Mike Ilitch’s new hockey arena. And it’s not just about restoring a house, he and Curtis say. It’s about bringing back to life a significant part of Detroit and bringing people back to the city.
“This is a home that is very special to Detroiters, but not only Detroiters, but preservationists and historians across the country,” said Curtis. “All eyes are on this project. ... This is something the city needed. It’s a step in the right direction.”