Historic North Corktown house gets renovation

Paula Gardner

Detroit — A house like 3420 Harrison might have faced demolition in any Michigan suburb. Fires, bad roof, missing windows, and unrelenting decay may have left no other option.

The house is in a neighborhood that is drawing interest, but is separated from the rest of Corktown and its popular stretch of Michigan Avenue.

But this house is in Detroit, which holds thousands of other vacant houses. That’s a problem in the city, where one of its solutions is to find buyers — and avoid tearing too many down.

Some people see what these houses can be. And they have the stamina to make it happen.

That’s why 3420 Harrison is not just still standing. The house, built in 1890 in North Corktown, is finding a new life at the hands of Bill and Nsombi Aro.

The Detroit Land Bank Authority gave it a chance in spring 2016 with the city’s so-called “owner of last resort” listing it for a starting bid of $1,000 at auction.

When they saw it, Bill Aro said, “I said it was too far gone.”

But it spoke to Nsombi Aro. “She went ahead and bid on it,” Bill said.

Over the course of several months, the Detroit couple has nearly completed the renovation of the 1,400-square-foot house built in 1890 and plans to put it on the market to sell when its finished.

MLive reported reported the Aros weren’t the only bidders for the house: They went two rounds with “CutePuppy” on the Land Bank auction site, before scoring the winning bid. The final purchase price was $1,300, made within 5 minutes of the auction’s end time on April 24.

And with that bid, they reached a new milestone in their history of doing small-scale restorations in the city.

“This was in the worst condition,” Nsombi said.

The dramatic change in this house comes from the restoration, not a re-envisioning of the space. This isn’t a home where eventual buyers will find the ubiquitous “open concept” floor plan within a historic facade. The list of new features is short. A half-bath was added to the first floor, among some reconfiguring of rooms off the dining room. An unfinished attic space is becoming a large bathroom, complete with clawfoot tub salvaged from a previous restoration.

“Other than that, it’s the way it was,” Nsombi said. The couple lives in a historic home in Woodbridge. They met when both were engineers, but their careers evolved into home restoration. Now they manage their own small rental portfolio while Nsombi looks for new projects.

“He’s into saving structures,” she said. “It’s sad when buildings are gone when they could have been salvaged.”

But she looks for what’s worth saving in a home. It won’t be solely marketability, or ease of work. The right home has to speak to her, with its look or its history.

The house on Harrison did just that. They heard about it from a neighborhood Realtor, Margaret Palmer. It was an easy drive from their house, and they liked the area.

When the Aros saw the house up for auction at 4320 Harrison, Bill said “it was too far gone,” but Nsombi bid on it, saying it spoke to her.

North Corktown is separated from the rest of Corktown — along with the popular stretch of Michigan Avenue that includes destinations like Slows BBQ and Two James Distillery — by I-75. But the popularity of the area is spreading north. Of the real estate listings in mid-December, only two have structures: One is a three-unit rental selling for the land value, and the second is a $1.8 million loft.

That listing snapshot may surprise people who drive through. The North Corktown streets still show wide swings of home condition, along with swaths of vacant land with many lots used for urban farming. Residents include those who recognize what it’s becoming — and those with ties to its past. Corktown is Detroit’s oldest surviving neighborhood.

The Aros’ house on Harrison has its own history as part of a neighborhood that was home to many waves of cultures and backgrounds among the people making their home in Detroit. One neighbor has been around long enough to recall that, in 1947, a black serviceman bought it — and the National Guard spent a month there, in response.

The Aros support themselves through their real estate, but even with the original condition of the house on Harrison, they don’t see a lot of risk.

They self-finance, Nsombi said, so there are no lender requirements. The restoration costs their efforts and investment into materials and workmanship. They’re watching expenses closely, believing they’re within a profitable zone.

But that’s not all that motivates them.

“Even if we break even, we still did a public service,” Nsombi said of the restorations. “It’s an effort that I would want to give anyway.”

The choices the couple makes for the home reflect what they would want if they’d choose to live in it. They’ve decided it’s not an option, but they’re proceeding with the vision of what would make it their home.

Like many historic homes, Nsombi said, it will “draw a certain kind of person to it.”

The house is smaller than it looks, at about 1,400 square feet today. But it lives bigger, without wasted space for hallways.

That size is part of what made the renovation appealing, Nsombi said, since she said it was in the worst condition of any home they’ve worked on. “I thought: Who’d want this ancient house?”

It was a valid question, particularly with the fire damage.

But today, as they quickly move toward a finished product, it doesn’t take much to picture the house as a home again.

The Aros have dry-walled and installed new windows. They’ve replaced all interior doors. Some moderate reconfiguration means the first-floor bathroom is no longer too close to the kitchen, and a study now occupies the space. Laundry is added to the first floor, along with a pantry.

Much of the flooring, including the old pine planks upstairs, needed to be replaced. The expansion of the unused attic space included the addition of a skylight as they rebuilt the roof. An alarm system was installed following a couple of break-ins and materials thefts.

The dumpster in the vacant lot next door holds evidence of how much debris the couple found, including an estimated nine years worth of trash that had just been thrown down basement steps.

The upstairs floor trim survived better than downstairs, Bill said, so he’s able to use it. Beyond that, there’s not much left inside to show that the house was a home for a century.

A deco-style vanity remains upstairs in a bedroom. And a card for a Hastings Street pharmacy was found, prompting reminiscence about what used to be the main commercial street in the city’s Paradise Valley district, home to many African-Americans from the 1920s until it was demolished in the 1950s.

Once the house on Harrison is completed, the couple can bid on more Land Bank houses — and they see themselves doing that. Nsombi is looking in other areas, feeling inspiration in certain houses and their potential.

They’ve already recognized with a Midtown renovation that remaking a rundown house “can change perceptions of what a whole neighborhood is like,” Bill said.