Other Cool Things

Detroit: The James V. Campbell House

This is Part I of a series. Part II is here. Part III is here. Part IV is here. Part V is here.

 

Brush Park is a residential neighborhood just north of downtown Detroit. In the latter 19th-century, Brush Park was chock-o-block with grand mansions.

The advent of the automobile however meant that people no longer needed to be close to work and Brush Park, like all first-generation urban neighborhoods, fell into a quick decline during the first decades of the 20th-century. Mansions were first converted into rooming houses, then apartments, and each passing decade brought further decline. By the 1950s Brush Park was a slum but largely intact.

 

Brush Park, 1951. The upper red line, left to right, is Edmund Place. The lower line is Alfred Street. Note the density.

 

From Baist’s Real Estate Atlas.

 

What was. The north side of Alfred Street, between and John and Brush streets. The Gillis house is to the left. The Campbell house is #5 from right. This stunning drawing is by Briguyinla. Click here to see more information, and then click on the drawing to enlarge.

 

2014. Red line, top, is Edmund Place. The lower red line is Alfred Street. Note the utter devastation; where once 21 structures lined the south side of AlfredcStreet, by 2014 only a single house remained. The structure marked #1 (middle) is the Ransom Gillis house, and #2 is the James Campbell house.

 

2014, Alfred Street. Gillis house, left, Campbell house, middle.

 

Alfred Street, what was. Yep, wow. Wow! The 1881 Campbell house is second from right.

 

2014. The Campbell house survives alone.

 

The Campbell house was, compared to it’s dazzling neighbors, subtle. It was a simple box, yes, but rich with adorned detail.

 

The rich details though had been stripped away leaving just…

 

…the basic box. And today?

 

The Campbell house has been reborn. Albeit though still as a basic box. Sigh, what an opportunity lost. The rebirth of the house is part of a massive redevelopment project costing tens and tens of millions of dollars. Yet, the exterior restoration of the Campbell house was done on the cheap. For example, note the new cornice. While token brackets have been installed, they are just sad facsimiles of what was.

 

Originally, the third floor was visually separated, in a highly distinctive manner, from the floors below.

 

The windows rested on a string course, and were enhanced with substantial vertical trim and beefy brackets. Smaller brackets adorned the cornice with decorative panels below resting upon a dentil trim. Note also the fretwork on the roof.

 

An artist, Briguyinla, created colored drawings of the original details. Stunning.

 

The second floor windows had brick and stone arches.

 

The pitiful facsimile.

 

The lost porch. Note the beefy entry doors.

 

The pitiful facsimile. You can tell that the person who designed the new porch studied the lost original. The upper portion of the columns mimic, in an anemic manner, the curve of the originals, and the double-pairing of the original brackets is also anemically mimicked. And rather than recreate the beefy scale of the original brackets, even the scale of the new brackets is anemic. Note, too, the cheap entry door. This is particularly egregious as 1880s entry doors abound in salvage yards across the country.

 

One of the window bays. Was the upper trim stone or stamped metal?

 

The pitiful facsimile.

 

What was. Drawing by Briguyinla.

 

What was. Drawing by Briguyinla.

 

What was: a distinctive house, easy to admire, a structure which enhanced the streetscape and contributed to the city.

 

What is: meh.

 

This is directly across the street, but one of the many new structures now surrounding the Campbell house. I have no issue with their modernity but think how vastly more exciting the urban streetscape would have been had their stark modernity offered an exciting counterplay to…

 

…this. And imagine how much more the owners of the modern townhouses would have enjoyed looking out their huge windows to THIS richly adorned beauty rather than…

 

…a basic brick box. This is the view from the new $1.3 million dollar townhouse.

 

Just east of the Campbell house (left) are two more survivors, now also reborn on the cheap.

 

The city of Detroit, which owned these three houses and the surrounding land, offered all for redevelopment, stipulating that the historic houses had to be retained. And this, this, was the mistake. The city should have also demanded that the facades be restored to their original appearance.

It is no coincidence that great cities are also normally beautiful cities. Humans respond to beauty, be it a beautiful flower, face, or building. Yet somebody, at some high level working for the development company, made the decision that cheapness should prevail. Somebody decided that people and the city did not deserve beauty.

With such a decision in place, what happened was inevitable. Had a more enlightened soul been in charge the results would have been striking.

Today, with laser technology, intricate brackets and ornamentation can be created with surprising affordability. But, on Alfred Street, the will to do things right did not exist.

The development company clearly did not think it necessary to retain a preservation-trained architect, instead relying on, no doubt, an underpaid and inexperienced draftsperson who did not even understand the value of scale. Because the will to do things right did not exist.

The development company clearly did not think it mattered to the buyers of their new townhouses that their windows would overlook banal brick boxes instead of gloriously restored historic houses. Because the desire for beauty did not exist. Because the knowledge that beauty has value did not exist.

Soon, the shiny new modernist townhouses will become less shiny. In, say, two decades, they will look dated and suffer from maintenance issues. Across the street, the cheaply done porches and details on the historic brick homes will have also suffered from the ravages of time. Newer projects will draw people away from Alfred Street and the cycle of decline will repeat itself.

However, had the three historic houses on Alfred Street been restored to a high level, they would pass through the coming decades as valued landmarks. The modernist townhouses, too, would retain value due to their great views of the historic houses, the Fabergé eggs of Alfred Street.

In short, the three old houses on Alfred Street are today banal brick boxes not due to cost.

No, they are banal brick boxes due to a lack of vision. And because somebody lacked a spirit of generosity.

I am curious how the citizens of Detroit feel at being treated so…shabbily?

 

7 Responses to Detroit: The James V. Campbell House

  1. Thank you for this excellent discussion of architecture and the value of beauty and doing things right, Ross. I enjoyed reading your preservationist perspective, which I wholeheartedly agree with. I find it mind boggling that people don’t “see.” Or maybe they don’t care or understand.

    I really enjoyed the pictures of the original houses and the drawings are great.

    Thank you dear Ross. Wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a fabulous new decade. It’s the 20s all over again – one of my favorite periods.

  2. American’s see architecture as something disposable. We bulldoze old neighborhoods, to build cheaply constructed houses which decay in only a few decades. And then go to Europe to marvel at all the old buildings. The east coast would have building at least 250 years old, but they were so yesterday, and are torn down in the name of “progress”. Sadly we are a nation of not seeing the worth in anything old, including humans….

    Love your writing, its so lyrical and descriptive.

    • Thank you for the kind word, Biki.

      Had Brush Park been preserved as it was in, say, 1970, today it would no doubt be gloriously restored and a sought-after place to live.

      I am reminded of the Point Section in Newport, RI. During the 1960s it was considered a slum and the city wanted to bulldoze most of it. A few citizens fought back and today the Point is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city.

  3. Yay Ross! Love your passion!
    Unfortunately we all live or have lived in communities who harvested the old homes for their trim and interiors. I have seen Universities take their ancient (and unmaintained) buildings and do a semi mod restoration (Syracuse Univ.?!)(and others). I live in Portland and the we celebrate the bits that were preserved meanwhile the best they had got torn down long ago with poor foresight. The little Central NY town (Ilion, NY) and region (Including Utica, NY) I grew up in is full of big magnif. old timers in the same family ownership since day one or are too much upkeep and falling into disrepair. The whole region is similar. Sad. I live in a 634 sq ft apt with 2 big black Labs and in heaven in PDX 🙂 Best wishes all!

  4. I can understand the instinct to bulldoze rather than restore that which is seemingly beyond repair. It takes time and money, and the average person prefers new to old. But once you’ve decided to keep it, I can’t fathom the impulse to do a halfway job of fixing it. I tend toward being a purist, but many aren’t. I blame the more artistic types who care less about history and more about creativity. Sadly, there are plenty of architects who don’t feel fulfilled unless they’ve put their unique stamp on something by “improving” or “modernizing” it, or by creating something that is (usually loosely) “inspired” by what was a great work of art. The new Campbell house looks like a sad HGTV restoration.

  5. I think most people like the idea of preservation. It’s the cost and labor that is hard to swallow. On the flipside, tear downs can be just as costly if not more then as a reno.

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