Kerry Doman and her husband, Saverio Montalto, always envisioned themselves living in a Mid-century home after they married three years ago. When they couldn’t find anything of that style, they decided to renovate the Detroit loft they lived in and wait for something to come on the market.
Then, just as they were putting in their new dishwasher, a rare townhouse in Detroit’s Lafayette Park came up for sale. They bid on it immediately, and their offer was accepted.
Designed by famed Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe, the three-bedroom, two-bath unit is part of a four-component residential district built near Eastern Market between 1956-59 — it’s the largest collection of buildings ever created by the architect, whose motto, “less is more,” echoes throughout.
The 2,100-square-foot townhouse, including the basement with polished cement floors, was in decent shape. The basement was unfinished, but that would change. Because the home was historic, the couple wanted to make sure each and every detail of the renovation they envisioned — like the ceiling and closet lights, which demanded work from a master to burrow into the thick plaster, and the built-in walnut-topped console in the kitchen that goes with all of their Mid-century furnishings in the living room — was up to Mies’ specs.
“The previous owners had started the renovation, but we did a lot of the finishing touches ourselves,” says Doman, who operates a number of websites including after5detroit.com and littleguidedetroit.com. “We touched every wall, every floor, every light fixture.”
Start with the three-level open staircase, a dominant feature to the left of the entryway. The couple knew they wanted to start a family, and realized the staircase would never do for a small child. Nor did they want a plastic baby gate mucking up Mies’ aesthetic. So Montalto designed a childproof gate that mimicked the original design.
The all-white walls dance with large-scale modern art the couple has amassed, some of which came from downtown’s Library Street Collective gallery. There’s even a piece that their now-2-year-old son, also named Saverio, painted. The ceiling lights and pendants, art pieces of their own, are Mid-century designs by George Nelson and others of that era.
A narrow dining room with an elongated white table and chairs for six looks out at the courtyard. The galley kitchen beyond, with its shiny white subway tile, modern new appliances, soapstone counters, and open shelving makes for practical beauty.
Because Mies didn’t design for the multitude of appliances that take up space in today’s kitchens, the couple converted one side of the large front hall coat closet into an extra pantry/microwave/coffeemaker/stick vacuum area, to keep the kitchen clutter-free.
“We kind of live by that less-is-more rule now, because you really don’t need that much,” says Montalto, a realtor for Max Broock in Birmingham.
Down the hall is a sleek half-bath with shiny black tile, luxurious appointments, and a 9-foot ceiling and door that make the small but streamlined room seem twice its size.
The living room beyond and the upper level’s floor-to-ceiling windows frame the landscape that surrounds the cooperative; towering maples, blue spruce, hostas, and perennials create a lush, park-like setting. “I’m so spoiled by the wall of windows,” Doman says.
Upstairs, there’s an office, baby Saverio’s room, the master bedroom, and a fabulous steam shower with a seat and a full-glass enclosure. Mies designed the closets, whose floor-to-ceiling doors and original bars for uniformly hanging clothes are as thoughtfully efficient today as they were in the 1950s.
The basement is where the family relaxes on a comfy modern sectional in front of the large-screen TV. Baby Saverio’s play area includes a huge stuffed giraffe; for the adults, there’s a wine cooler/bar. Through a door is a storage/laundry/HVAC area, and through another, a hallway for trash and recycling, which keeps the exterior grounds neat. Everything is in its place, and less is very much more in this townhouse.
Each unit in the complex offers outdoor space for a patio, table and chairs, a grill, and a chance to get to know the neighbors. “There’s a playground just outside our door,” Doman says. “It takes you back; it’s old school.” Down a walkway that leads to a meadow, there’s another common area where kids, parents, and longtime residents, some in their 90s, congregate for holiday events like Trick-or-Treating and Easter Egg hunts. Friday night is Pizza in the Park, and Montalto says you might see 10 to 20 young families mingling.
“It’s older people, young people, all different races and ethnicities, and it’s really, really special,” Doman adds. In a few months, she and Montalto will welcome their second child. “People ask if we’re going to move now that another one’s on the way, but there’s no better place in metro Detroit that’s more conducive to having kids. Everyone watches out for everyone else’s kids.”
Montalto agrees. “We tell everybody that we bought it for the architecture, but we’re staying for the community.”