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?