Restoring America Series: The Hiriam Walker Residence, Grosse Pointe Farms, MI.
This magnificent Georgian-style estate was designed by Detroit architect Robert O. Derrick in 1927. The 20,000+ square foot mansion is the largest single family home in Grosse Pointe Farms. and is considered to be Derrick's residential masterpiece. The brick house has exquisitely carved limestone detailing and a parapet wall at the roof line which is typical of the style. Inset into the side wall of the garage wing and overlooking the rear terrace is a limestone niche featuring a dolphin fountain. The carving is of the highest quality and would be difficult to replicate today.
Incredibly, the house has a seven car garage and seven servants quarters. There was a designated office for a butler located just off the servant's hall and two kitchens. This was important in an age before air-conditioning to keep the heat of cooking separated from the food preparation kitchen located just before the butler's pantry and dining room. There was also a servant's dining room and servant's screen porch overlooking the motor court.
The home's interiors are palatial in scale with 13'-6" ceilings and elaborate moldings. An octagonal entry vestibule leads to a transverse galley hall running the length of the main facade. One end this gallery hall terminates at Hiriam Walker's paneled Study while the other end terminates at the oval stair hall with its graceful freestanding staircase. A banquet-size dining room large enough to seat 20 guests opens to the rear terrace as does the even larger living room. An elegantly detailed sitting room anchors the rear corner of the plan and provides the family with a more intimate space in which to entertain guests.
Baker considers this to be one of his most important commissions as the challenge is to bring this formal floor plan into the 21st Century making it livable for a modern family with three children. Fortunately, the servant's wing and original kitchen areas provide adequate space for the new functions of modern life so that the house did not need to be expanded further, thus preserving Derrick's original vision for the architecture.
In its new form, the house will have a large kitchen with a 10' long island and a large family room with a fireplace and a family dining area. There will also be a beautiful lacquered butler's pantry, also with an island, which can double as a caterer's kitchen or gentlemen's bar. The Butler's Office will become a laundry with a desk area for the owner's use. This will allow the laundry function to be moved to first floor from its original location in the basement.
Baker has preserved the home's original six bedrooms and baths on the second floor with only a minor rearranging of one area to create a his and her master bath and closet - such was the generous size of the house. An upstairs Adam's style sitting room with a fireplace will be preserved and re-purposed as the children's TV room, located adjacent to their bedrooms. It is an elegant and comfortable solution for a modern lifestyle.
In the lower level, Derrick had created an Old English Pub Room complete with bar and wine cellar. In the days of Prohibition when alcoholic beverages were illegal in America, this room was accessed by a secret stairs from Hiriam Walker's Study and was secured by an iron door - just in case there was a raid by the police! All of the timbering work is to be restored and preserved just as Derrick had envisioned it in 1927. The wine cellar is also secured by an iron door and still has in place its wood racks for the wine bottles and two old oak casks which may have held whiskey from his family's distillery. Due to their age and somewhat damp conditions all of this wood is in a rather weathered state of repair.
During the remodeling, the home's superior construction became apparent as the floor joists are steel bar-joists instead of wood. The house was built with a sensitivity to be fire-resistant as there were precautions taken in the construction of the walls and ceilings to isolate a fire in the kitchen wing if such an event occurred.
Remarkably, the house has only had three owners over its long history and it has been lovingly cared for over the years by each family who has enjoyed living there. The present owners are a young family with three sons and, along with the help of Baker's new architecture, are preserving one of America's great houses for another generation.