The bottom of the drawer bears a handwritten inscription: “This sideboard belonged to Major John Rowe, an officer of the revolution.”
That’s the American Revolution, and the same John Rowe whose house was the headquarters of the Continental Army during the Battle of Bunker Hill and who owned the ship involved in the Boston Tea Party.
Today, the sideboard has pride of place in collector Chris Kolomjec’s 1930s center-entrance Colonial in Grosse Pointe Farms. Kolomjec, who shares the house packed with American antiques with his wife, Julie, picked up the circa 1770-1800 piece for a song after a local dealer found it at a Grosse Pointe estate sale. “There’s a good chance George Washington ate off this sideboard, but at the time it was for sale no one wanted it,” he says. “I’ve found Grosse Pointe to be a gold mine.”
He should know. Kolomjec has been scouring local estate sales and antique shops for some 15 years, snapping up the early-American antiques that have become his passion and, he says, his obsession. For the most part, Julie supports his hobby, although she isn’t always crazy about having to dust it, she admits. She has even nabbed the occasional piece herself. “I went out in my pajamas to get a silver tea set out of someone’s recycling bin,” she says with a laugh.
The house is decorated with a variety of American furniture and decorative arts, although Kolomjec’s favorites are Federal pieces from 1780 to 1810. “That’s when the country was born and when we became a people,” he explains. “It may be brainwashing from the Marine Corps, but it speaks to me.” A veteran of the Iraq war, Kolomjec is now a Marine Corps reservist and an attorney in Novi.
His favorite pieces include the living room’s tambour secretary/desk, circa 1780, and the 1770 to 1780s dining-room table made in Boston, whose mate can be found in the White House. The pièce de résistance, though, is the 1790 to 1810 mahogany Duncan Phyfe sofa with hairy paw feet discovered at another Grosse Pointe sale. “It had been owned by a prominent family, but the estate-sale organizer had relegated it to the garage,” Kolomjec says. “A local dealer called me and told me it was there because he knew I liked American things.” Kolomjec paid $500. Detroit dealer Henry Harper, Kolomjec’s friend and unofficial adviser, estimates it could be worth a conservative $75,000. “It’s definitely my jackpot,” Kolomjec says.
Although early-American furniture and decorative arts have never gone out of style on the coasts (Ralph Lauren and Barbra Streisand are fans, Kolomjec says), the style is sometimes overlooked in the Midwest. The couple have lived all over the country and began buying in the early to mid-1990s, when they discovered they could get real antiques for the same price as reproductions. “Once other people figure that out, I won’t be able to get good things anymore,” Kolomjec says.
Favorite sources include Harper and Marvin Nash, both of Detroit, and Birmingham’s Jim and Dede Taylor. Despite his strong affection for the period (“I could have a Picasso and wouldn’t care, but I love my American antiques,” he claims), he says the style isn’t for everyone. The current interest in mid-century modern art and antiques holds no appeal for him. “It’s the difference between the Renaissance Center and the Guardian Building,” he explains.
The Kolomjecs’ three children, ages 11, 13, and 14, live easily among the antiques. Son Christopher has begun collecting toy soldiers, which pleases Chris. He says they don’t think twice about owning a 200-year-old sofa or eating at a dining-room table identical to one in the White House.
“They were raised with it,” he says. “Their friends, however, are another story.”