Family Circle

When a third generation moved into their old family homestead, it was designer Ann Heath’s job to ensure that history was respected, while also acknowledging the new owners’ more casual lifestyle. The result is a tasteful melding of past and present
Photograph by Beth Singer

In the American South and along the Eastern seaboard, it’s not uncommon for homes and homesteads to be handed down from elders to children.

Michigan has its centennial farms, of course, and cottages tend to be inherited. But in terms of old family homes being kept among kin, interior designer Ann Heath says, “We’re not that generational here.”

So it was a rare opportunity for Heath when she was asked to help a third generation move into a Bloomfield Hills estate, a home that had been in the same prominent family since 1919. “I had my own antiques store to deal with,” Heath says, referring to the household contents. The attic and living spaces were filled with furniture and art that Heath used in the décor. “I’ve never in my life had so many accessories to work with,” she says.

Part of Heath’s challenge involved helping the third generation merge their existing household with the belongings left by the matriarch, when they moved in. The effort reminded Heath of Sister Parish, a noted 20th-century interior designer (she worked on the Kennedy White House).

Parish used a tray system, putting worthwhile “keepers” on a tray for the homeowners as a way to sort — and prune — household accents.

The other challenge involved respecting the history of the home while allowing the third generation (and their fourth-generation children) to tailor the home to their more casual lifestyle.

In addition to the shuffling and reshuffling of furnishings, architectural changes were made to the home. A family room was built, and a mudroom, bathroom, and office were added to the kitchen area. “I call it the control center, because women are the CEOs of the house and they need an office,” Heath says.

Heath confesses admiration for the new woman of this house because, as she put it, “She was giving up a lot of herself” by moving into her husband’s venerable boyhood home. But she liked what her late mother-in-law left behind and was willing to use it.

Though they were obviously familiar with the home, there was a bit of an archeological excavation about the process of getting settled in. And there were the usual family stories, including one dating to when the first generation moved in.

As Heath heard it, the husband gave his wife cash to go and buy furniture. He came back to find a flip-top table in the foyer, which still occupies that space. When he asked if she was going to buy furniture, she replied, “I did. I’ve decided to do the house in antiques.”

Decades later, the new occupants regularly open their doors to various philanthropic events. Those visitors, along with the current family, are breathing new life into the old estate.