exterior at night
Preservation Magazine, Winter 2018

A Michigan Couple Designs Their Midcentury Home As a Mini Art Museum

W. Hawkins Ferry House | Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan

Owners: Anthony (interviewed) and JJ Curis

ORIGIN STORY: The house has a great history. W. Hawkins Ferry, who was a huge philanthropist and art collector in Detroit, built it for two reasons: to house his incredible collection, which included pieces by Picasso and Rothko, and to host events for the Detroit Institute of Arts and other organizations. He hired a notable architect, William Kessler, to build it, and lived here for 30 years until he passed away in 1988.

The house is very dramatic: It has a two-story wall of glass facing the lake and an enormous roof overhang to shield the art from sunlight. It was an intriguing house for the neighborhood, which is filled with older, traditional homes. I grew up in the area, and used to paddle down the lake just to see it.

THE LATEST CHAPTER: My wife, JJ, and I own a contemporary art gallery in Detroit called the Library Street Collective. My background is in real estate development, and I’ve always been interested in architecture and design and public spaces. We were living nearby in a 1950s ranch that we had restored. When we heard that the owner of the Hawkins Ferry House was planning on putting it on the market in 2015, we immediately asked to meet with her.

living room

JJ and Anthony Curis in the sunlit living room of their Modernist house outside Detroit.

TURNING BACK THE CLOCK: We knew it was going to take a lot to restore the home to its original architectural intent. Structurally, it had amazing bones. But the house had changed hands many times over the years, and had gone through a number of interior modifications.

It was a giant fact-finding mission: Even with the original plans and old photos, there were a lot of unknowns. David Webster, a designer in New York and a family friend, helped us understand, structurally and aesthetically, why things were done the way they were. You could tell that past owners were sensitive about making changes, because in many cases they saved the materials when they renovated. One owner had replaced a bunch of oval slit windows with rectangular ones, but instead of throwing them away, they saved them and put them in the crawlspace.

In a shoebox of old Polaroids, we found a photo of two guys laying the terrazzo spiral staircase with the name of a company and a phone number on the back. I called, and the number was still in service. The son of one of the guys came out and did the terrazzo and tile replacement.

The lakeside patio had been designed by a well-known sculptor in Detroit—Glen Michaels. It was in complete disarray, and 40 percent of the pavers were missing, so you couldn’t make out the design. Michaels helped us restore it.

library

JJ plays with the couple’s son, Connor, in the library.

MYSTERY SOLVED: There were these 8-foot-tall walnut doors that we found in the basement after we bought the house. We uncovered a track system for the doors in the den, but we didn’t really understand why it needed to be closed off. Then we realized that it wasn’t about the den. It was about closing off the library next door and keeping it a beautiful space for meetings. Everything in this house was so meticulously thought out and designed. Learning about it and being involved in the restoration made us not only respect the house so much more; it made it more of a home for us.

piano room

The couple turned to original plans, old photos, and friends of the original owners to guide their restoration.

stairs

The house’s distinctive spiral staircase has been restored.

DELIGHTFUL ANACHRONISMS: It’s a really comfortable house to live in. You wouldn’t think it would be because of the scale and size, but it is. In so many homes today, the kitchen is the place to be. Here, the kitchen is on the far side of the house, away from the views. I like things to be really organized, so for me it’s amazing that the kitchen is hidden out of sight. The area where we spend the most time as a family is this little conversation pit in the center of the house. It is a great, cozy space.

exterior

Wood paneling covers the front and sides of the building.

FOLLOWING SUIT: We held a public exhibition last summer to benefit MOCAD [the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit]. Thirty-six artists created site-specific works for the house, which were then sold to benefit the artists and the museum.

PLANNING AHEAD: According to his daughter, Tami, William Kessler felt that the Hawkins Ferry house was his greatest accomplishment of his residential commissions. We’re trying to put the house on the National Register of Historic Places and have met with the state to start the process. It’s an architectural masterpiece, and whoever is here next should respect the original integrity of the house.

Lydia Lee is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Dwell and The New York Times. This is her first feature for Preservation.

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