Heavy Lifting

From a raised foundation to reclaimed stone walls and repurposed timber, a lovingly restored 1850s farmhouse blends old and new


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Photographs by Justin Maconochie

Some might call Zerrin Karaca a “serial remodeler.” She jokingly calls herself “a frustrated architect.” 

Either way, with no formal training, she’s directed several major rehabs — plus the design and construction of two homes from scratch — in places ranging from Michigan and California to the Bahamas. 

Karaca’s latest effort is a lovingly restored 1850s farmhouse in Bloomfield Hills. And while there have been more than a few twists, turns, and setbacks along the way, the project is coming together stunningly. 

Then again, she’s had a bit of practice.

In 2006, the Detroit Home annual Design Awards recognized a home she and her husband lived in with first place kudos in the “large remodel/addition” category. 

At the time, Karaca had worked closely with Carnovale Associates’ architect, Frank Carnovale. She did most of the interior design herself and worked with him to restore a family room, a gourmet kitchen, and a large master suite, keeping with the original architectural style.

So when the family purchased an 1851-era farmhouse in Bloomfield Hills, Karaca once again looked to team up with Carnovale. 

But just as the project was ramping up, Carnovale became ill. He eventually passed away. Undeterred, Karaca took on the challenge — in effect, acting as her own contractor. She also continued to supervise the project and contribute her own design ideas.  

The results speak for themselves. 

Left: The outdoor patio and fireplace are in a wing of the home that had to be raised and given a rebuilt foundation. The original stone home — visible at left — dates back to 1851. Right: Inside, the decor is a tasteful mix of old and new. One bathroom features a unique sink found at Betty Mason Classic Country Antiques.

 

A Few ‘Small’ Repairs

In 2013, the farmhouse was available “for a song,” Karaca says. But it was in a bit of disrepair. 

One part of the house would take a lot of heavy lifting to bring up to code. An entire wing needed to be raised and given a proper foundation. 

Karaca, who studied art history, architecture, and urban planning at Wayne State University, relied on an eye for design and some previous experience — and a few trusted contractors. 

A fireplace in the 1850s section had already been changed from the original, so she brought in a crew she met during a previous remodel to construct a new one. 

Another trusted contractor, Bryan Ritter of BMR Design, did a lot of the woodwork — and more. 

“He took my design ideas and brought them to life,” Karaca says. 

Ritter grew up working alongside his father, a successful furniture industry veteran whose pieces are featured at the presidential retreat at Camp David near Washington, D.C.

The younger Ritter has worked on a variety of projects including schools, restaurants, and stores such as the new Revive in Birmingham. And while he notes that it’s “hard to make a living as custom furniture maker,” his passion is using reclaimed material (his handiwork graces Germack’s Eastern Market locations).

Ritter, too, had worked with the late Carnovale over the years as a finish carpenter. And in Karaca, he’s found a kindred spirit. 

“We clicked very well,” he says. “We were like imaginaries at Walt Disney.” 

Karaca would describe things and Ritter would make them into a three-dimensional reality. 

Notable pieces include using timber saved from a garage to make a custom-made entertainment center, rustic outdoor tables on the patio, and a rolling barn-style door that hides a laundry room. 

“She knows what she wanted,” Ritter says. 

Left: In the family room Bryan Ritter of BRM Design fashioned timber saved from the old garage to custom make an entertainment center that also serves as a display for the family’s collection of Spode pottery depicting Middle Eastern architecture. Right: The banister leading up the stairway was made of repurposed wood from the original home. The stairs lead to a cozy guest room and study. The kitchen wall in the background is exposed original stone. Plaster was removed to reveal the stonework interspersed with pieces of wood that held the plaster lathe work.

 

Attention to Details 

The décor in the nearly finished home is a tasteful mix of reclaimed and new. A chandelier over the fireplace comes from Restoration Hardware, effortlessly paired with a long custom-made table Ritter fashioned out of reclaimed wood.

One bathroom features a sink from Betty Mason Classic Country Antiques in Birmingham; another has a 1850s mirror frame. 

In the living room, they removed a drop ceiling to open up the room. While structural steel beams and fire retardant bring the place up to code, the exposed original stone walls — “mortar washed” and scraped to even out the look — lend a warm charm to the room. Headers over the windows are 1850s originals; the ceiling beams were recreated using reclaimed wood. 

Then there’s Phineas, the massively antlered trophy buck who holds a place of honor in the living room. 

“We’re not hunters,” Karaca says. When buying a previous home, the owner found out that Karaca means “deer” in Turkish. So the owner gave it to them as a “closing gift.” 

Phineas has moved with Karaca family members — from Birmingham to Beverly Hills, Calif., and back again. 

Other “deer-themed” elements grace the home — from a small tile inset on an indoor fireplace to a large sculptured deer head overlooking the cozy outdoor patio. There are tastefully placed deer-themed throw blankets, candleholders, and more.  

In another nod to the Karaca’s Turkish heritage, beautifully framed maps of the Ottoman Empire line a hallway leading to what was the original master bedroom, which is now a cozy guest room.

There’s more history throughout the home. When they were rebuilding the foundation, they came across an old cistern. A portion of it is visible in a basement “man cave.” 

That cave is near a mysterious half tunnel discovered in the old section’s half basement — the story handed down from the prior owners is that the area was an Underground Railroad hideout before the Civil War. 

The kitchen is another focal point. They tore off the plaster to expose the original stone and wood lathe supports. The floor is original, as well, and they added a Dutch door for access as well as natural light. 

The backsplash to the stove integrates timber accents with stainless steel. 

All of the flooring in the stone portion is original, including in the kitchen and where the family’s Akita named Augustus (Gus) takes a break (right). In the large kitchen, a drop ceiling was removed to reveal the original beams. For access as well as natural light, a Dutch door was custom built to replace an old window. A new window was added to bring even more light into the room. 

 

Next Steps

Like any major remodeling project, unexpected roadblocks have driven up costs. And that’s led to hard decisions, like not buying a pair of expensive sconces Karaca wanted for the library because of cost overruns to restore the old wood floors. 

While Karaca is a bit reluctant to show off her work, she’s understandably proud of the effort — now that it’s nearly done. 

In the backyard, there’s a smokehouse, which for now is used as a storeroom, but Karaca has big plans for it. 

But first, there’s a bit more interior work to do. Ritter is working on a few other projects such as making some custom shutters. But once that’s done? He thinks Karaca is itching to move on to another project.

Karaca admits that might be true. “It’s an illness I’ll have to get looked at,” she says with a laugh.

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