Beloved Detroit

Two college professors find a rare gem on a golf course in the city, and now relax in the splendor of a near-century-old manse // Photos by Diana Liang
The gleaming kitchen with an adjacent wine room was the only down-to-the-studs project in the house.

When the University of Michigan recruited Heather Ann Thompson and her husband, Jon Wells — both professors, historians, and authors — for jobs in Ann Arbor in 2014, the couple jumped at the offer, and despite the commute, they set their sights on a home in Detroit.

Thompson, a Princeton Ph.D. who has lived and taught all over the country with Wells, has deep roots in Detroit; she grew up in the Rosedale Park neighborhood and attended Cass Tech High. She met Wells, a Florida native, when they both attended grad school at U-M. Each shares a commitment to the health and vibrancy of urban centers, particularly Detroit.

Even so, finding the perfect house for themselves and their now-grown children wasn’t easy. They scoured Detroit’s best neighborhoods — Indian Village, Boston-Edison, Rosedale Park, and Palmer Woods. Nothing they saw suited them, until a listing appeared for a home in the Detroit Golf Club neighborhood near Palmer Park. That was it.

Thompson fireplace seating areas and exterior
The owners can see the entire first floor from the dining room, including two seating areas with fireplaces and the library beyond. All of the wood — beams, fireplace surrounds, millwork, and floors — is original, and many of the furnishings are vintage, passed down from the couple’s grandparents. The home’s exterior was completely painted and new landscaping was added. The thick front door and original tile floor are still intact — and stunning.

“It just had that amazing family feel,” Thompson recalls. “It’s a big house (three floors, six bedrooms, seven baths, plus a full finished basement with sauna, Jacuzzi, bar, and catering kitchen, for a total of about 7,000 square feet), but it just felt cozy. I loved the woodwork and the paneled library, and the thick moldings were
just incredible.”

One of only 30 homes on the street, the stately 1923 Tudor, which sits on the wooded 11th hole of the golf course, was solid. The windows and woodwork hadn’t been painted over or replaced, the wooden floors hadn’t been carpeted, and it was in great condition overall.

“The people before us clearly loved this house,” Thompson says. “They treated it well, and that also makes a difference. We looked at a lot of homes that were extraordinary and had amazing potential, but when we looked out and saw this backyard and said, ‘We’re in the city? That’s crazy,’ that sealed the deal.”

Third floor bedroom, library, and dressing room
Clockwise from top: Half of a daughter’s third-floor bedroom is a sweet retreat for watching movies. Paneled walls adorn the library. The dressing room off the master bedroom is every woman’s dream.

Right around the same time, Thompson was on a two-year nationwide tour with her book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, which later won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, among other prestigious literary awards. Needless to say, it was a stressful time.

Nevertheless, renovations began immediately. “We were lucky we had a home-renovating company, Detroit Build. They really understood the bones of this house and helped us reimagine the kitchen,” says Thompson, adding that after living in so many homes around the U.S., she knew this one had to have a fabulous kitchen. New paint, tile, and light fixtures, and refinished floors also were part of the home’s update.

For the kitchen, Thompson found a magnificent blue La Cornue range she adored, and the plan moved forward from there. Rebekah Tull, of  Royal Oak’s Whiski Kitchen, did the design and cabinetry, which involved gutting a tight, narrow room with a skinny island, bumping out a 3-foot addition, and creating a sitting area with a wine nook and fireplace topped with a TV.

Guest bedroom
One of the guest bedrooms, with a stellar view of the 11th hole.

Tull says it was one of  her favorite projects. “They wanted a nice, cozy place to hang out, besides sitting in one of the big rooms.”

Lisa Backus from Design Bar Detroit worked with Tull to produce the color palette for the kitchen, as well as the rest of the house and its exterior. “It’s such a large house, so it was quite a challenge,” says Backus, who created PhotoShop mockups and painted tons of swatches on the walls to get the shades exact.

The design team also added a second-floor laundry room in a former huge closet, which is one of the home’s many storage places (there are also two dressing areas with cupboards and drawers galore).

Heather Ann Thompson and Jon Wells
The well-stocked library, in all its glory, is a favorite spot for homeowners Jon Wells and Heather Ann Thompson.

The couple says there are still more projects planned for this nearly 100-year-old house, but for now, they’re taking a break.

“The only thing left (in this phase) is the air-conditioning,” Thompson says. “We’ll tackle that next.”


General contracting, Detroit Build, Royal Oak, Cabinetry/kitchen, Rebekah Tull, Whiski Kitchen, Royal Oak, Interior design for kitchen/wine niche, Lisa Backus, Design Bar Detroit, Madison Heights, Cabinetry, Legacy Crafted, Countertops, Aurea Stone, Dwyer Marble & Stone Supply, Farmington Hills,, Cabinet hardware, Top Knobs, Plumbing, Brizo, Apron sink: Kohler, Copper sink, Native Trails, Accent tile, TileBar, Appliances, La Cornue range, Williams-Sonoma, Sub-Zero refrigerator and wine column, Witbeck, Range hood, Custom Copper Hoods Inc., Pendant light, City Lights Detroit, Visual Comfort, Michigan Design Center, Troy, Backsplash tile, Virginia Tile, New Ravenna, Michigan Design Center, Troy,