Residents of West Village in Detroit sprang into action this week when two men appeared to be scrapping the architectural features off one of the historic neighborhood’s most famous mansions.
City officials said the homeowner had not secured the proper permits nor gone through the requirements involving historic homes to do work on the former Van Dyke Place Restaurant.
On Wednesday night, Detroit police arrested and later released the men working on the house, from T&T Construction in Findlay, Ohio, as they investigated neighbors’ complaints.
The former Van Dyke Place, a 10,000-square-foot building, was built about 100 years ago by the man whose overalls eventually would anchor the Carhartt brand of work clothes.
Residents said the workers pulled doors off their hinges, carefully disassembled a limestone balustrade and cut a massive limestone façade out of three layers of brick above the door. But in their historic neighborhood, such deconstruction requires permit after permit, with public hearings and community approval. By about 7 p.m. Wednesday, 20 residents gathered at the house and demanded to know what the men were doing.
“The intention was to strip the house,” said architect Brian Hurttienne, executive director of the Villages Community Development Corp., a neighborhood organization. “It undermines everything that community really is.”
Michael Mallett said he owns the house and commissioned the work — but said he was simply trying to stem water leaks. He said he bought the foreclosed house for $115,000 cash in May.
Mallett, who said he has rebuilt old homes before, said his workers removed the façade to get better access to the doors because they were rusted through. Mallett, also from Ohio, said he didn’t think he needed permits to attack the water leaks. On Thursday, he said he was talking with the city about the proper permits.
“I don’t think everyone understood what we were doing,” he said. “We’re trying to diffuse the situation as best we can.”
But neighbors and some city officials expressed skepticism at the explanation.
They said Mallett’s crew has been working for about three weeks on the house, mostly on the inside. On Wednesday night, when the residents arrived, they said the previous owner of the house — who lives next door and still has keys to the fence lock — told police they couldn’t enter without a warrant.
By Thursday afternoon, the former owner, real estate lawyer Rod Strickland, was representing Mallett. Mallett said they had never met before Wednesday night.
According to county tax records, Strickland bought the mansion for $500,000 in 2001 and lost it to foreclosure in 2011. He said he thinks his neighbors overreacted, and the two men were unfairly arrested. He would not allow the Free Press inside the gates.
“They failed to have it permitted,” Strickland said of the workers. “They stopped and agreed to go home.”
Hurttienne said architectural features — such as façades — are extremely difficult to replace once they are removed. He estimated the value of what was pulled off the Van Dyke house in excess of $100,000.
State Rep. Maureen Stapleton, a Democrat who represents West Village and was apprised of the situation Wednesday night, said she is investigating legislation with harsher penalties for people who buy historic homes to rip them apart.
“We’re talking about more than just scrapping. We’re talking about people purchasing buildings fraudulently and dismantling them,” she said.
Terry Martin, a supervisor in the city’s code inspection department, said the list of things he saw dismantled — cornices, medallions, the limestone facade — did not equate to fixing water damage. He also was denied entry to the house by Strickland, who listed his law firm as an owner in tax records.
“These have nothing to do with water damage,” Martin said. “It sort of looks like there was an alternate motive.”
Mallett vehemently denied such suggestions.
He said he wanted to turn the house into offices and bought it because of its location and potential. He said he was impressed with the community response, but isn’t sure what he’ll do with the house if public input goes against his plan.
“We’re going to do what the community wants,” he said. “If they don’t want an office building, we’ll just put it back the way it was and put it back on the market.”