These 2 Michigan homes earn spots on National Register of Historic Places

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The stately features of a brown brick house perched near a rural road in Northfield Township are so distinctive, passersby have stopped and snapped photos.

Some even park in the driveway not far from an orchard, a clue to its past as part of a farmstead dating back more than 150 years, to approach the five-panel wood doors at the white-trimmed entrance and ask the owners how they came to find such a charming place.

Though Victor Volkman has lived there since the 1980s, he often shares the awe of the visitors.

The front of the Nathan Esek and Sarah Emergene Sutton House.

"It’s unique architecture," he said. "It’s like a museum, a little bit."

Government officials have deemed his dwelling and one other in southeast Michigan as deserving a permanent place in history.

This month, the pair of properties, known as the Walbri Hall in Bloomfield Hills and the Nathan Esek and Sarah Emergene Sutton House in rural Washtenaw County, were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

They join more than 96,000 nationwide considered worthy of preservation, according to the website for the registry under the National Park Service.

Todd Walsh, the state’s National Register coordinator, estimates Michigan has about 2,000 such places and districts.

The latest additions, which followed a lengthy process involving local, state and federal authorities, were selected for their representation of distinctive architectural styles in the region.

“Everybody agrees that these properties are significant in some aspect of our collective history,” said Walsh, who works through the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office.

The Sutton home is the oldest of the two, having been erected in the 1860s, according to the nomination application that Cheri Szcodronski, an architectural historian, submitted for the owners.

It bears an Ann Arbor mailing address but has long been considered part of Northfield Township, and is closely linked to that community's heritage.

The Italianate style abode, which sits on about 3 acres abounding with apple trees and open fields, has ties to Benjamin Sutton, considered among the township’s settlers in the 1820s, and sibling George Sutton, a future supervisor and state lawmaker, Szcodronski wrote.

The descendant behind the building, Nathan Sutton, also was active in state and local politics. He launched a sizeable farm boasting fruitful orchards, hundreds of animals and an operation producing wool and butter as well as other items, according to the nomination form.

His son, Daniel, who became a county sheriff, sold the 185-acre farm in 1942; through multiple sales the land later was subdivided. The gabled two-story house underwent updates, including additions in 1880 and 1940, while retaining its form and features such as a porch with chamfered wood posts, load-bearing masonry walls, and narrow windows with brick and stone hoods as well as much of the original flooring, the application reported.

The interior of the Sutton house, pictured in 2021.

"Italianate houses are known for their bay windows and small, elaborate porches, and the Sutton House is interesting because it's two-and-a-half stories tall, which gives it an imposing, sort of monumental feel," Szcodronski said, adding its first owner "was an important local politician from one of the township's most prominent pioneer families, so that imposing, impressive architecture reflected his wealth and social position in the township."

The full scope of the spread's chronology was not clear when Volkman and his wife, Marian, moved in. They lovingly maintained the grounds, which included a barn and chicken house, and luxuriated in the woodwork and antique touches.

Volkman initially sought an historic designation years ago, scouring archives for supporting evidence and learning the township historical society he and his wife had written about the house, which in 2019 was cited in a survey of local historic properties. But it wasn't until meeting Szcodronski shortly before the pandemic that the idea firmed into work to seek the official recognition.

"History is usually in books and abstract, but I can look around this building that’s more than 100 years old and it’s like I'm connected with the past," he said. "It's a wonderful feeling."

The National Register recognizes not only historical examples of architectural style “but also how that was interpreted locally and how it was influenced by local factors,” Walsh said. “The Sutton house is a good example of that.”

Walbri Hall, nearly 50 miles northeast, also highlights a specific period and how residences were shaped.

Walbri Hall

When it was constructed in the 1920s near what is now Long Lake Road, prosperous Detroiters commonly sought wider spaces away from the city. So, Walter Briggs, a wealthy auto industrialist who once owned the Detroit Tigers and co-founded the Detroit Zoo, bought more than 160 acres for a “summertime country estate,” according to the application completed by Nathalie Wright, an historic preservation consultant.

The result: a sprawling, picturesque lot that eventually contained the manor, a stable, two cottages, a swimming pool, tennis courts, a greenhouse, an icehouse, a gatehouse, garage and a workers’ dormitory, she wrote.

Named after the first few letters of Briggs' first and last names, Walbri went to his five children after he died Jan. 17, 1952, at a Miami Beach winter home, Wright said.

"The Briggs heirs quickly dispersed the Walbri Hall property, with forty acres donated to the Sacred Heart Academy (per wishes of Walter O. Briggs) and 107 acres sold to four Ford Motor Company executives for an estimated $550,000.30," according to her research. "The lots north of Long Lake Road and the section on the east side of Squirrel Road were sold separately..."

The register’s designation is for the 2.71-acre parcel centered by Walbri, a two-story “hunting lodge" rising above street level and situated an estimated 75 feet above two spring-fed lakes, Wright said.

It is in the Tudor Revival style considered popular in the 20th century among summer homes and in new suburban neighborhoods, she wrote.

Today, the space still bears stucco and half-timber clad exterior walls, leaded-glass windows, cavernous “great room” in an English design, living room, large fieldstone fireplace, French doors and “Medieval-inspired” light fixtures, the registry filing noted.

There is also glazed blue tile, an original wrought iron electric chandelier relocated to a balcony, bedroom suite, butler’s pantry and, in the basement, a concrete-constructed "secure room" with built-in selves and a wine rack.

“Taken together, the extant materials, evident workmanship, and location and setting allow Walbri Hall to continue to convey the important feelings and associations of a 1920s Tudor Revival country house,” Wright wrote.

The Walbri home has chandeliers and a prominent great hall.

The grandeur has attracted prominent figures.

Actress Elizabeth Taylor attended a party there in 1980 with her then-husband, U.S. Sen. John Warner, and Wilhelm Kast, a later owner, “was known for hosting military and international leaders, such as Indonesian governors, the mayor of West Berlin, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Wright wrote. “In 1994, Kast hosted a formal reception for the Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chemomyrdin, which was attended by the governor, plus multiple state and national politicians.”

The current owners have had the home since 2011 and sought nominations for the National Register in the last three years, Walsh said.

The process that typically takes 12-15 months wound through a state historic preservation review board, which includes appointees in various disciplines, to review images, maps and other materials before the national officials weighed in, he added.

To be considered eligible, a property must meet certain criteria, such as being at least 50 years old. 

A National Register listing does not lead to public acquisition, require public access or automatically invoke local historic district zoning or local landmark designation, according to the website.

The Michigan sites listings mean local authorities are notified, but the owners can opt not to display markers or signages for their homes' new lofty status, Walsh said.

Their recognition reflects Michigan's rich heritage, which has yielded historic sites in categories such as agriculture and maritime developments, he said. "There are significant properties all around us."