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Reviving a Castle-Like House in Michigan

A grand home gets a new lease on life, thanks to owners intent on protecting its architectural past.
By Demetra Aposporos | Photos by Joseph Hilliard

     Built by a General Motors executive, the Mediterranean Revival house is an architectural tour de force.

    Built by a General Motors executive, the Mediterranean Revival house is an architectural tour de force.

    In the late 1920s, Flint, Michigan, was the place to be. As the birthplace of General Motors, then a young company struggling to make automobiles fast enough to keep up with an unprecedented demand, the city of Flint was enjoying a remarkable boom. Jobs were plentiful, so much so that across the South and Midwest, people began leaving their struggling farms and migrating to Flint to vie for the promising and lucrative future a career in auto manufacturing could bring.

    Meanwhile, the executives running GM were building lavish, refined homes worthy of their newfound success. In 1930, Edward T. Strong, the president of GM’s Buick division, built one such home. Constructed entirely of smooth-cut limestone with a red clay tile roof, and boasting more than 6,000 square feet (despite the Great Depression), the Mediterranean Revival house was designed by architect Joseph M. Savage to resemble the Montague house in Verona, Italy. Savage included romantic European flourishes like a Juliet balcony, an oriel window, and a crenellated tower, and he placed a stone fountain and reflecting pool in the garden.

    Strong was a horseman, so the adjoining 5,000-square-foot carriage house contained a four-stall stable on its first floor beneath the staff apartments. Even the horses’ living quarters were upscale—their stalls were crafted of fine mahogany, with several 8′-long-radiators installed on the walls to ensure that the animals remained comfortable in the frigid Michigan winters. The home was so stunning that it was soon being used as the backdrop for many of Buick’s national advertisements.

    But by the time Mike Sanders and Tom Williams purchased the house in 2003, it had endured decades of slow decline. The roof had been leaking for years, which resulted in extensive plaster damage, and the once-lovely garden ran rampantly out of control. “It was so overgrown, we couldn’t see the front door!” says Tom. And while the house came with a pedigreed history, its long list of problems made many potential buyers run in the other direction. “Everyone wanted to see this house, but nobody wanted to touch it,” says Mike. Undaunted, the veteran restorers purchased the home and set to work.

    Top Priority

    Foor-to-ceiling mahogany paneling defines the library, which is further formalized by an intricate, panelized floral plasterwork ceiling.

    Floor-to-ceiling mahogany paneling defines the library, which is further formalized by an intricate, panelized floral plasterwork ceiling.

    Because they moved in during the winter, their first priority—repairing the failing roof—had to wait until spring. That gave Mike, an engineer, time to do some research. He started by identifying the tiles’ manufacturer—Ludowici—then getting on the phone with the company. They were a wealth of information. “When I told him the age of the house and where we lived, he said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right on schedule.’” The employee explained that many of the tiles were probably fine, but the infrastructure—nails and flashings—was at the end of its lifespan, and needed to be replaced. When Mike asked about where to find tiles similar to ones that were broken, missing, or patched sloppily with a pot of tar, he learned that Ludowici has a stock of vintage tiles. “A week later, a box of different salvage tiles arrived,” says Mike. One of them was a perfect match.

    The materials problem solved, Mike set about finding someone who could remove the existing roof, install new copper underlayment, and put the tiles back on. He soon hit a roadblock. “I called several local roofers. All said they could do a spot repair on clay tile, but not the whole roof.” Discussing this conundrum with an architect friend, Mike was directed to Mike Morrison, a general contractor who used to live in Arizona, where cement tile roofs—installed in much the same way—are common.

    The master bathroom is entirely original, and sports a separate shower and tub, double sinks, and Art Deco flourishes on its tiles—like the pastel bath mat and wall decoration, and the iridescent gold zigzag border.

    The master bathroom is entirely original, and sports a separate shower and tub, double sinks, and Art Deco flourishes on its tiles—like the pastel bath mat and wall decoration, and the iridescent gold zigzag border.

    Morrison was certain he could do the job, and when he came over to check out the roof, he ended up getting an extensive tour of the house. As he walked through, Mike and Tom pointed out all of the projects they had already mapped out. At each one, Morrison stated that he could do that, too. So Mike and Tom decided to give him a try, starting first with a small project on some puzzling doors in the basement.

    The thick wooden doors lay on the floor, their elaborate hinges completely shot. “The hinges were all locked up, and the doors had gotten a little roughed up from being forced,” explains Mike. Morrison told them the hinges were manufactured by a company named Soss, which was still in business. In no time, he had the doors repaired and hanging in their proper place—fronting a Prohibition-era bar that’s completely hidden behind bookcases when the doors are closed.

    Kitchen Designs

    From there, work moved to the kitchen, a space outfitted in the 1950s with pink appliances. “We knew we wanted simple vintage cabinets, with ship’s-lock catches on the doors,” says Tom, who even had a photograph of an era butler’s pantry he aimed to re-create where the original one had since morphed into a tiki bar. Morrison crafted a new pantry that’s a doppelgänger for Tom’s photo, along with new period-inspired cabinet fronts for the existing solid base frames throughout the kitchen.

    Mike and Tom decided to move the refrigerator back to its original place on a wall beside the maid’s stairway. When they pulled the old fridge out of the alcove it was nestled in, they found a surprise: A stripe of the beige tile around the kitchen walls here was a salmon pink. A closer look revealed that the main room’s accent tiles had been judiciously painted over. “We used paint stripper to take off the beige,” says Tom.

    In the kitchen, appliances were returned to their original locations, new linoleum flooring was patterned on an original sample in the adjacent maid’s hall, and the salmon Faience wall tiles were stripped of a beige paint job.

    In the kitchen, appliances were returned to their original locations, new linoleum flooring was patterned on an original sample in the adjacent maid’s hall, and the salmon Faience wall tiles were stripped of a beige paint job.

    Also hidden in the alcove was a ceiling vent, which Tom and Mike realized was for the original stove, so they decided this was the place to put their range. The 1950s pink dishwasher they removed went via eBay to a couple in Palm Springs who’d spent years searching for one to complete their mid-century restoration. Tom and Mike also removed the worn ’50s-era flooring and installed new linoleum in a pattern that copied the original rubber flooring in the adjacent maid’s hall.

    Changes Afoot

    The entryway boasts a mammoth, sweeping staircase and Flint Faience tiles, once carpeted over. The owners chipped away tack-strip glue from the tiles a few inches at a time.

    The entryway boasts a mammoth, sweeping staircase and Flint Faience tiles, once carpeted over. The owners chipped away tack-strip glue from the tiles a few inches at a time.

    Another major flooring project involved uncovering the striking original floor tiles throughout the expansive entryway and breakfast room, which had been carpeted over in the 1950s, in some areas via carpet strips glued directly to them. The distinctive tiles, part of the home’s bounty of Flint Faience tiles, were manufactured in a spark plug factory. (Read more about Flint Faience here.) After attempts to loosen the tack-strip glue with several different solvents failed, Mike resorted to carefully chipping away at it with a hammer and chisel, and sometimes a razor blade, too. “Every night I’d remove about three or four inches of tack strip,” he says.

    By the time spring rolled around, the house was looking much more like its old self, and it was time to turn attention to the landscape. Tom hacked away at the jungle for weeks to get it under control. “It was really nice to get rid of the overgrowth and show off the details of the house,” he says. Meanwhile, Mike used heat to thoroughly strip the paint off of the cypress garage doors. “The paint was something like half an inch thick,” he says.

    Morrison and his crew worked diligently on the roof nearly the entire summer. “They would do one section at a time, building shelves of wood to stack the tiles on until they could reinstall them,” says Mike. The technique spared the crew the work of having to move all of the heavy tiles down to the ground, then back up again. As they finished, all the neighbors with original clay roofs on their houses flocked to Morrison for repairs as well.

    Next, Mike brought in a master plasterer who cut out the damaged areas and repaired the ceilings, including an elaborate panelized treatment in the sunroom. Other projects included replacing the original 2-million-BTU boiler (a job that required a crane to hoist the old unit, in pieces, out of the basement), adding a small-duct air conditioning system, reglazing the original Crittal windows, and building custom interior wood storms to help offset heating costs. Mike designed the storms after an original he’d seen on another grand house in town, modifying the design to include an invisible bullet catch and hidden rubber weatherstripping for a better seal. Morrison measured and built the frames, and set in the glass. Mike and Tom did all the glazing, priming, and painting or staining (the finish varies by room).

    Designed for entertaining, the main floor flows between the dining room, entry, living room, and sunroom, which boasts a Faience-tiled fountain.

    Designed for entertaining, the main floor flows between the dining room, entry, living room, and sunroom, which boasts a Faience-tiled fountain.

    Mike and Tom’s extensive research and meticulous restoration led to the house being listed as a local historic landmark. But despite all these accomplishments, Mike might be most proud of this one: He was able, after much detective work and a few cold calls, to locate the daughter of the architect, who was then in her 80s.

    Denise Savage visited Flint and toured the house—which she’d last seen as a 6-year-old during its construction—shortly after its restoration was complete. She was very proud of her father’s work, and to see it living on.

    Online Exclusive: Read more about the Flint Faience Tile Company, and see more photos from this house.

    Published in: Old-House Journal August/September 2012

    { 9 comments… read them below or add one }

    Julie Griffith June 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    This issue was great. I would love to buy a copy but can’t find it anywhere. Can I still buy a copy? I would love the June 2012 issue.

    Clare June 20, 2012 at 9:28 am

    The August/September issue goes on sale on June 26. You may still be able to find a copy of June/July on newsstands, or you can order it here.

    Judith Gillette in Bay City, MI June 28, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Owners Mike and Tom installed a new linoleum floor in their kitchen. I am interested in purchasing new linoleum for an old house renovation and would like a source for this product. Thanks!

    Janice M. Sorensen July 9, 2012 at 11:35 pm

    This is my favorite house in all of Flint. My friends and I used to ride our bikes past this grand old home and I would dream that one day I would call this place my own. I’m glad to see that it has been brought back to it’s grandeur… the last time I saw it was at the Estate sale after the former owners, the Hamady’s, had passed away. The Hamady’s certainly left their mark in Flint with their grocery stores, that were eventually bought out by Kessel and then by Krogers, their “Hamady” sacks and a club for school-age girls that rivaled the Girl Scouts called, “Stepping Stones”. I joined “Stepping Stones” with my best friend, Bert when we were students at Cummings and would spend two weeks at a time at the, Hamady Mansion off Branch Road learning proper etiquette… what a great experience. Bert stayed with the group through High School at Southwestern and won the trip to stay at the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island. Flint is filled with many great memories and the beautiful house on Parkside Drive is one of them… wonderful job with the restoration – keep Flint alive!

    Laurie Michaud-Kay July 27, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    I, too, have always been intrigued by Hamady House, having been a member of Stepping Stones. I would love to know the name of the architect and whether blueprints for the original house are available.

    Tom August 27, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    The kitchen floor is armstrong linoleum flooring.

    The architect’s name is Joseph Savage. From AZ and educated CA. He was designing homes in B Hills CA b4 coming to Flint. We have the drawings. He designed five homes in this neighborhood. The landscape drawings were done by Pitkin and Mott. They also did the Applewood estate.

    Kimberlee Klatt May 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    I’m so glad I ran across this article. I too was a Stepping Stone in the 60′s. I went to Longfellow Jr. High and we stayed a week two consecutive yrs in a row. We also won a trip to Mackinac Island where we spent an afternoon in her house on the Island for tea. I recognize this house. I recognize the living room and the indoor fountain. What a wonderful thing the Hamady’s did for young girls.

    Janice (Walker) Gouldthorpe August 22, 2013 at 10:03 pm

    I was also a Stepping Stone in the 70′s from Emerson Jr High. Our club stayed at Hamady House more than once and I fondly remember the solarium as my favorite room in the house. Our club won the trip to Mackinac Island. I have many pictures there – where, for some strange reason, they must have thought us a singing group! Many fond memories.

    Bruce August 29, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    Any idea the address of this home?

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