Man reclaims family home lost during the Depression
Detroit - They only knew about this once-stately Detroit residence - brick with bay windows and the spacious side yard - from family folklore. They did not know Detroit in its heyday.
But now Christopher Lee and Amy Feigley-Lee find themselves at home and heart-bound to a Detroit house once owned by Lee's great-grandfather in the Roaring '20s, but was lost at the onset of the Great Depression.
And it all began with a photo.
Shot in 1926, the family heirloom depicts Lee's great-grandparents, Daniel and Patrice Foley, hosting a family gathering in honor of the Catholic priestly ordination of the Rev. Dominic Ignatius Aloysius Foley in 1926. The photo also depicts Lee's great-great grandparents, William and Johanna Foley. The clan is assembled in a spacious foyer in front of a distinctive stairway.
"That was the only photo we had of the inside of the house," says Lee. "When I came in and looked at the staircase, I knew this was the house."
What was lost is now found and reborn as the couple's home, where Feigley-Lee and Lee, both art instructors and artists, will welcome their first child in the coming weeks.
Lee, 32, bought the house for $8,100 in a county tax foreclosure sale in 2007. The house had been empty for at least five years. He tracked the house for years while he was in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art, after getting the address from his great uncle. His great uncle Bill Foley, now 83, jokes that he was conceived in the home's master bedroom circa 1928.
Lee learned that his great-grandfather Daniel Foley was a 1920s-era wheeler dealer, a stock market and real estate investor, and a horse track regular. Daniel and Patrice Foley were raising 10 out of their 11 children at the house, including Chris's maternal grandmother, Eileen, when Daniel's investments evaporated with the onset of the Great Depression.
They lost the house and Patrice, an accomplished pianist, went to work in an office job by day and played the piano for pay at night.
The house is in a neighborhood just off Woodward, between the historic Boston-Edison district and Highland Park. Chris says it has been bypassed in civic-sponsored renewal plans.
Lee and Feigley-Lee are among the stream of artists and entrepreneurs flowing into Detroit in recent years, motivated by eye-popping cheap property prices and eager to participate in Detroit's renewal and creative class. They're not all just settling down in Midtown and downtown; but in other pockets throughout the city.
Feigley-Lee, 33, a sculptor and instructor at Oakland University, grew up in Milford, Mich., and only visited the city for some major events. She enrolled in a graduate school program at Cranbrook Academy of Art, and lived in Ferndale until she met Lee. He also was a Cranbrook student and now is a photographer and OU instructor. He grew up in Detroit's Rosedale Park, Huntington Woods, and in China, where his father was raised.
When Lee moved into the Detroit house in 2008, so did she.
"I wouldn't have done it on my own," Feigley-Lee says. But Lee's enthusiasm and confidence helped sell her. "I was up for the challenge."
"It was pretty normal to feel I'm over my head. I have had this feeling throughout the whole process," says Feigley-Lee. "But I love it. I really do."
What greeted her were collapsing ceilings, a leaking roof, buckling floors with three layers of linoleum, and a vandalized interior.
"There was dust flying everywhere, the roof was leaking and falling. There wasn't hot water," says Feigley-Lee. "The house was a wreck. It wasn't livable."
But they lived in it anyway, after fixing basics like electricity, heat and plumbing. They were aided by a $50,000 Michigan State Housing Development Authority loan.
The 3,500-square-foot house was built in 1903, with two layers of brick framing it. William Worden, the City of Detroit retired director of historic designation, says many houses in the city are worthy of preservation and perhaps historic designation.
"For neighborhoods to survive, people have to come in take care of the buildings," Worden says. "You hope when people do that ... they're starting a trend and others will follow."
They have good friends on the block, which includes vacant lots, well-kept mini-manses and rundown but still occupied homes. The Lees consider the neighborhood stable.
"I always prayed for good neighbors," says attorney Derrick Phillips, 58, who lives in the house next door. The house belonged to Phillips' father since 1955 and Phillips has lived there since 1994. Philips says he's experienced no problems since the Lees moved there in 2008, and he counts on their dogs, Suzy and Yin, to be lookouts.
To stave off further blight, Phillips would mow the lawn of vacant houses just to keep up appearances and says that helped the Lees "decide and take a chance on it."
Their families were supportive and pitched in regularly.
"I was very happy to hear about it. I was a bit apprehensive, though. But fools rush in," jokes Lee's stepfather, Bob Herman, a self-professed handyman who is business manager at Gesu Catholic Parish in Detroit. Lee turned to Herman, who is married to Lee's mother Cathy Lee, for some reconstruction help.
"The progress they've made is amazing. The upstairs bedroom shows what the potential for the rest of the house is," says Herman. "But it will take some time to reclaim its former glory."
While they've relished the hands-on process of renovation, the Lees know why others might be deterred.
"The homes are so big and they tend to require a lot of work," says Lee. It costs nearly $600 a month for heat and electricity during the winter months, which the couple has spread out across the year.
"It's taken us five years to get this far," says Feigley-Lee. Plus an additional $50,000 out-of-pocket beyond the loan they received.
They pulled out 1970s-era cabinetry in the kitchen and replaced it with 1920s-era cupboards that Lee was invited to salvage from a vacant apartment building. They kept the original kitchen sink. The main upstairs bathroom is down to the studs, awaiting renovation and the original claw-foot tub now stored in what will be the baby's room.
They've decorated with some hand-me-downs, some modern pieces and vintage Chinese furniture from Lee's father, Winston Lee, a native of China who was in business information technology development and now lives in China.
Lee's Cranbrook master's thesis included a display of photographs he shot at the house during its renovation. They included photos of the 5-year-old contents of the refrigerator and the geometric beauty of the old fuse box, as well as documenting the home's decay.
His project, he wrote, was "a critique of the tendency to use decay as an overly romanticized form of decoration, a trend that ignores the socio-economic issues underlying the subject matter."
While the house now shows the couple's artistic eye for color, proportion and design, Lee says "it's been less of trying to fit into artistic visions, and more just trying to make it a house."
"Lofty ideas become less important when you wanted windows not to leak, and a roof that didn't leak," he says.
They've gotten this far in home renovations, in part, by hosting a "work party" where friends and family pitch in with painting the first floor, for example, for Feigley-Lee's home-cooking and the camaraderie.
"Surprisingly, people enjoy coming to work," says Feigley-Lee. "We get a lot done."
The oral history passed down has influenced how they use the house. One of the first floor front rooms was known as "the piano room" where great-grandmother Patrice Foley practiced her piano. When the couple moved in, they put Feigley-Lee's great-grandmother's piano there.
Next to that is a not-yet-fully fixed "living room" where Lee was eating breakfast once when he felt "like someone was standing over me with a salt shaker." It wasn't salt. It was the ceiling. "As I looked up, I saw the ceiling give way," he recalls.
The famously photographed foyer space now looks like a family room with a modernist decorating edge, and a wood-burning stove that replaces a busted-down brick fireplace. In the 1920s, Lee's great-great grandfather, William Foley, was laid out in the space after he died.
They've hosted some family dinners, but nothing of the size that heralded great-great Uncle Dominic's ordination to the Catholic priesthood. Lee says family oral history relates that back in the 1920s, the family bought the house, in part, anticipating the ordination celebration.
The couple hopes to host another grand family gathering in the years to come, perhaps a big Christmas dinner or summer reunion. Either way, there's a more imminent celebration in the offing for the baby, due May 19.
The couple also plans to hang up a photo of great-great Uncle Dominic's ordination celebration.
"My thought is the staircase," Lee says. "It makes sense there."
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