Historic log cabin found in Detroit — and then demolished

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — Preservationists were giddy when they found a rare log cabin just north of Hamtramck that might have been built before the Civil War. Then the Detroit Land Bank Authority demolished it.

The historian who hoped to move the cabin to the park in front of Hamtramck's City Hall is furious. The Wayne State archaeologist who examined it is suspicious. The land bank is resolute.

As for the cabin, it's in a landfill in Northville.

"We did all this work," says Greg Kowalski, chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Museum. "They just went ahead and demolished it right out from under our noses."

Archaeology professor Krysta Ryzewski, here on a 2018 dig, received a tip about the cabin last year. It was hidden by a house built around it.

"The whole street is filled with houses slated for removal, and they chose this one first," says associate professor Krysta Ryzewski, who received the original tip about the cabin late last year. "Something's fishy with that."

"It’s not that we would ever want to take down a historic structure," says land bank spokeswoman Alyssa Strickland. But there are taxpayer investments to protect, the preservationists' plans were incomplete, "and it's important that we follow procedure."

Only the third known log cabin left in Detroit, it stood at 2038 Halleck Street on a decimated block between I-75 and Goddard. Of the 66 lots on the street, 17 hold occupied homes, 17 hold burned or boarded shells, and 32 are empty.

Until Feb. 22,  the cabin could be found between a yellow tear-down to the west and two empty spaces to the east, though only a few people knew it was there. It was swaddled inside a century-old but unremarkable bluish-gray house that was slowly rotting amid scrub brush, trash and spindly trees.

The cabin was a 16-by-20-foot rectangle, with sturdy flat-cut logs turned gray by age. Most of it had been cloaked by clapboard outside and drywall inside when the house was built around it, but Ryzewski found scraps of hand-painted floral stenciled wallpaper that had been adhered to the interior.

"That was really unusual," she says. "It means this was not just your ramshackle expedient lean-to. It was a home someone took a lot of care to build."

It was a treasure, Kowalski says, "a real piece of history. And it was just treated like a piece of garbage."

Kowalski took an interest because what's now Halleck Street, named for largely forgotten Union general Henry "Old Brains" Halleck, was part of Hamtramck Township until Detroit annexed it around 1915.

He had measured the width of the streets for the 1.6 miles between the cabin and the park: 27 feet, enough to accommodate a trailer hauling a historic cabin. He'd prevailed upon his city council to pass a resolution of support.

He had plans to use the cabin as a meeting place and teaching tool and to raise $60,000 for the project. Periodically, he would call a contact at the Detroit Land Bank with a fresh plea for clemency.

The land bank, along with the Detroit Building Authority, oversees the demolition program. Soon, the city plans to take exclusive charge. But it was the land bank, in fairness, that warned him — once a house is on the demolition list, removal is difficult.

Kowalski sent over his grant proposal and a copy of the resolution, and on Monday, Feb. 18, "I talked to them again," he says. "They said it's still under consideration ... blah, blah, blah.

"Then boom, it was gone."

Ties to everyday people

From her porch across the street and three doors down, Carolyn Shepherd watched the demolition for a while. But she's seen plenty of them before, so eventually, she went inside.

Shepherd, 65, says she has lived on the block her entire life. She knew the last owner of the house, Mary Johnson; knows daughter Schelle Johnson used to cut hair on the peak-roofed second floor; and estimates that it's been abandoned for at least a decade.

She did not know the 1,145-square-foot, two-bath house was wrapped around a historic log cabin.

"I been in there," she says, but she saw no signs and the Johnsons never gave any indication they were aware.

An 1892 photo shows the James Smith log house, built sometime after the land was purchased 1829, in what was then called Greenfield Township.

In a bit of urban archaeology irony, Ryzewski only learned about the cabin because it was doomed — and because she'd been featured in a Detroit News article in late October about an exploratory dig with her students in Hamtramck. 

A state contractor inspecting pre-demolition properties for asbestos recognized its unusual underpinnings, remembered the story and reached out.

Ryzewski and a few colleagues paid a visit in early December. The drywall had been removed, "and it was right there before your eyes," she says.

They took measurements and photos. They dropped a soil corer through holes in the floorboards and brought up a small shell button. They saw hand-wrought squared metal nails that fell out of favor by 1890, and doors that didn't face a street that was platted around 1880.

Log segments sent to an expert at Michigan Tech for tree-ring dating should give a more official estimate of age. Other potential clues were lost to the demolition, including fragments of newspaper wedged between logs for insulation.

Preservationists tend to work with buildings tied to the upper end of society, Ryzewski says. "This was kind of a tangible connection to the history of everyday people — the laborers who built Detroit and Hamtramck."

The James Smith log house, now clad in aluminum siding, sits at 2015 Clements on Detroit’s west side. It dates back to the 1830s and is believed to be the only other log cabin still existing in Detroit. It is owned by the Detroit Land Bank; a sale is pending.

Taxpayer dollars

The workers who knocked the cabin down needed only a few hours to do the job.

There were four to six of them, says project coordinator Sheila Prater of Smalley Construction in Scottville, whose toll-free phone number ends in DEMO.

They arrived with a bulldozer fitted on the back with a powerful arm and punishing claw, a simple tool for a basic job.

Smalley has knocked down upwards of 300 buildings in Detroit in the past year, Prater says, at prices typically ranging from $8,000 to $30,000. The house at 2038 Halleck would have been in the low to medium range.

What people don't realize, says Strickland, is that even before the crew arrived, the land bank had spent at least $10,000 on the site.

Since 2014, she says, land bank contractors have demolished more than 16,900 houses. Of those, 11,000 were paid for by $258 million in federal Hardest Hit funds that expire in 2020.

Contracts have been issued for 2,633 more tear-downs, and another 1,849 are in the pipeline. On Halleck,10 houses remain contracted for demolition.

The bluish-gray, two-story house that sprouted around the original 1 ½-story cabin had been on the demo list for nearly three years. In that span, Strickland says, the land bank had devoted time and money to oversight, surveys and abatements, such as the asbestos inspection that found hidden history.

"Without a way to recoup that significant cost or time spent," she says, "it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars."

The land bank favors historical preservation, she says.

While the city's best known log cabin, built by Sen. Thomas Palmer and his wife, Lizzie, has stood at what's now Palmer Park since it was built in 1885, the second is owned by the land bank.

The aluminum-sided James Smith Farm House, built between 1830 and 1850, has been for sale along with an adjoining newer duplex at 2009 and 2015 Clements Street. The list price is $29,900, and a deal is pending.

Hand-stenciled wallpaper suggested to urban archaeologist Krysta Ryzewski that the log cabin was built for the long term.

With the Halleck Street log cabin, Strickland says, the Wayne State team did not contact the land bank until Jan. 16, five or six weeks after its first visit.

Had the team "reached out to us to request access instead of trespassing," Strickland says, or been more prompt with an alert, "perhaps this property could have been removed from the demolition list."

By mid-January, however, the contract had been issued to Smalley. In addition, Strickland says, there was no specific plan in place, funding was purely theoretical, and no one had addressed disposal of the debris from the unwanted larger house.

"Pulling it from the list and losing the $10,000 already spent wasn't a viable option," she says.

Not surprisingly, the Michigan Historic Preservation Network sees different figures on the bottom line. Privately funded preservation, points out Detroit specialist Melissa Arrowsmith, would have saved the cost of the demolition.

Arrowsmith says it's unlikely that other log cabins remain undiscovered. What's important now, she says, is that "when we have a place that the community has raised their voice in support of preserving rather than demolishing, that we work together."

"Once they are gone," she says, "they're gone for good."

Opportunity lost

On the lot where unknown hands once built a cabin, Kowalski kicks at a fragment of a log poking through a coating of fresh snow.

The log is rotting and brown, so he knows it was from a foundation added during the expansion when the cabin had already seen a generation or two of use. "On top of it," he says, "everything was like new."

Toward the front of the lot, the cement porch remains, a stairway to nothing. Then comes a flat patch where the cabin stood, and beyond that a half-basement dug beneath the addition.

The basement is surrounded by orange plastic fencing, the only bright color on an overcast day.

"We could have at least salvaged a log. A corner. Something," says Kowalski, and he kicks again.

He looks beyond the orange mesh, to where some owner across the last hundred years built a cinder block shed whose wall sags against the base of an uprooted tree. Looks back to where the cabin was. Looks away again.

He's trying to picture what was — and what could have been.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn