If the walls could talk at Shane Pliska’s home, boy, would they have a story to tell. The “talk,” though, would have to come from just a couple of walls, as this 1956 beauty was built pretty much without interior walls. As for the all-glass exterior, it’s relatively new compared to the glass that originally enveloped the home some 62 years ago.
The story begins the day auto dealership owner and Detroit resident Leo Calhoun built this woodland home as a vacation cottage for his wife and children. Back then, many Detroiters thought of Oakland County’s lakes district as a haven for summertime escapes from the city. Cottages and second homes dotted the area, thanks to several alluring lakes.
Calhoun had originally planned to build the home near its current spot on a lake, but when the neighbors saw the plans he and his wife had drawn up, they rejected it. “It was nonconforming. [It was] a modern style, an all-glass structure with no walls separating the rooms, and [the area was more] traditional,” Pliska explains. “But then he spotted this piece of land where the home is now, with its access to a nearby lake, and that sealed the deal. The Calhouns only had the home for three years, though, because they had three kids and they found they needed walls [the only interior walls are for two bathroom enclosures]. It was a mistake, so they sold it to a woman named Fern Tate.” Tate, an artist, lived in the home until she died. In 2010, the residence was sold to an investor.
And then it sat. By the time Pliska eyed the home, it was appraised at zero dollars. “It was considered a teardown,” he says.
Pliska, president of Planterra in West Bloomfield and a lover of minimalism, nature, and woodland settings, sensed that the home could eventually be a true haven for him. Deer, egrets, wood ducks, and more live on the property, and its forest is filled with towering oak and hickory trees, along with an understory of maples. A pond also occupies some of the land. “It was only appraised for land value,” Pliska says. “I bought it the day it hit the market.”
In researching the home, Pliska embarked on a veritable journey, both literally and physically. He discovered that Tate’s nephew had the original blueprints, so he made contact with the family.
“The nephew scanned the blueprints for me and emailed me a copy,” recalls Pliska, who had heard through the grapevine that some believed the home was designed by renowned architect Mies van der Rohe. Naturally, Pliska was intrigued and excited. Upon further inspection, Pliska discovered the appraiser had written on his form: “Mies van der Rohe home,” but that came from a realtor, whose notes included the words: “Mies van der Rohe-inspired” home. Apparently a neighbor, walking his dog at the time the appraiser was on the property, told the appraiser that it was a Mies home; later, Pliska discovered that van der Rohe is listed on the official bank appraisal as the architect of record.
“We think the appraiser didn’t know who Mies was, so it was convenient that the neighbor told him he designed it. It matched the ‘inspired’ language on the listing,” Pliska says with a laugh.
When Pliska reviewed the original plans for the home, he noticed the name Edwin deCossy. As it turns out, the home was the work of architect Edwin William deCossy. So Pliska, a design and architect buff, delved into the world of deCossy. The mystery designer, a Connecticut-based architect, had worked for Paul Rudolph, a renowned architect of the era who was known as the pioneer of the Sarasota School of Architecture, which was a regional style of postwar designs built between 1944 and 1966 on Florida’s Central West Coast. At the time, Rudolph was the dean of the Yale School of Architecture.
“DeCossy had a nice architectural career in the 1950s and ’60s [he worked at Connecticut-based Douglass Orr, deCossy, Winder & Associates], then stopped practicing for a while,” Pliska says. “He then became a professor at Yale.”
Pliska knows all of this because he decided to pay a visit to deCossy, who is now nearly 90 years old. “I had to be in New York, so I decided to add a day and go to Connecticut. I took the train to New Canaan, and Edwin actually picked me up at the station in an old Mercedes Benz, wearing a white shirt, tie, and English racing gloves.” The two went to lunch and chatted about the history of Pliska’s home. “He was shocked that the house was still there,” Pliska says, adding that it was the only home deCossy designed in Michigan.
The house’s story may have a few dull chapters due to it sitting unoccupied for a few years, but the plot certainly picked up when Pliska decided to purchase it and meet the architect. Beyond the gorgeous acreage and excellent bones, it also had deeded access to a nearby lake and community beach. Perhaps its most appealing attributes, though, are its four cantilevered sides; the home creates the illusion that it’s floating amid a woodland forest. “It seemed like a modernist treehouse,” Pliska says.
In 2012, he moved in. “I decided not to do anything to the house for a year,” Pliska says. “Then, a 100-year-old oak tree fell on the home, but oddly enough that didn’t affect its structure.” The homeowner discovered that the beams are made of redwood and cedar, which don’t rot. “It wasn’t uncommon for this style of home to be built out of this material,” he explains. “Of course, everything else had shifted over time, but the ‘cage’ itself was super strong. A builder said I could put another story on top if I wanted to.”
Pliska wanted to keep things simple, though, and bring the residence back to its original state. He moved out and the transformation began. “It was a complete gut job,” recalls the homeowner, who was contemplating various designers and contractors for his restoration project when the tree fell. During the renovation, Pliska started to refer to his home as “The TreeHaus.”
Architect Ron Rea, of Ron & Roman LLC in Birmingham, came on board to “help me get it all together,” Pliska says. “He ensured that the house stayed relatively true to what it was and helped remove things that were added over the years.” Rea chose the colors and also designed and executed important details, such as column lights that run from the front door down to the master bedroom. “These lights go all the way down and they look original, but they’re not. Ron was really good at making his efforts look invisible; his details make a huge difference.”
In the bedrooms, Rea designed bump-out spaces for the closets. “They’re new, but you can’t tell,” Pliska says.
The flooring includes much of the original oak wood, but also has some replacements that blend well with the old. All the doors are sliding and have teak veneers. There’s floor-to-ceiling tile in the bathroom, and the original radiant heat system, in the ceiling, is still in working order. The exposed block is original, while cedar that was painted over was stripped to show off its original beauty.
The 2,000-square-foot layout features clerestory windows in all the rooms. “Even the bathrooms have light, and so do the closets,” Pliska says. Off the master bedroom, an inviting deck looks out to the peaceful forest. “I sit out there every morning; there’s always something to look at back there.” Another deck is just off the main living space.
The office, with its walls painted black, is a charming nook that features a good-size shelving system with color-coded books. The black grounds the space and isn’t confining because, like every other area in the home, it’s easy to look through the huge glass walls and out to whatever colors Mother Nature has whipped up for the season.
Interior furnishings include vintage pieces from Le Shoppe Too in Keego Harbor. Naturally, all the interior plants — from kalanchoe to ponytail palm — are from Planterra. The entire kitchen was once a floor model in Scavolini’s Birmingham store. “I lucked out; it fit perfectly here,” Pliska says.
Architect Rea chose a deep black-brown that’s “not historically an accurate color” for the home’s exterior, Pliska says, adding, “it wasn’t about creating a 1950s time capsule; we were more into honoring the architecture.”
Steel-framed windows and redwood with cedar trim create a stunning combination. In the front, the plant connoisseur (his family-owned company does everything from interior landscaping to special events featuring botanical beauty) planted several hemlock trees that soon will start to fill in and grow. “It’s hard to find an evergreen that the deer won’t eat that also tolerates shade. Hemlock is poisonous, so deer won’t eat it,” he says with a laugh. In the spring, his front lawn pops with periwinkle myrtle blooms. “I got rid of all the grass and filled it in with myrtle,” he says, “keeping it simple. Plus, deer don’t eat myrtle.”
The homeowner’s philosophy — he calls it “biophilic living” (creating connections with nature) — rings true throughout his home, inside and out. “The concept involves living organically with nature and not forcing nature to do something it doesn’t want to do.”
Strolling his property and looking out to the vast forest beyond, Pliska reiterates that the natural residents and the soaring trees — as well as their astonishing leaves, now turning a shade of gold — are truly all he needs.
“I love living here in the woods. I feel so lucky; it’s incredibly beautiful. And during the autumn months, it’s absolutely stunning,” he says. “I really feel like I live in a National Geographic scene. Living here, I’ve become more in touch with nature than ever before.”
As for the home’s original design, “you have to think about how the Mid-century modernists had these design philosophies,” Pliska says. “They were radical. A lot of the practices that became fashionable then have been adapted today, but this home is a reminder of how minimalism was supposed to be and what the original intention was for these designers.”