Past Presence

Photographs by Justin Maconochie
Photographs by Justin Maconochie

Brian Hurttienne’s home — a former 19th-century meat market on Bagley — has been on the Corktown historic home tour five times since he purchased it in 1996. Each time, he says, he’s been surprised by visitors who comment on the multiple layers of peeling wallpaper in his den.

“I expect them to remark on the furniture, the before and after, or even to say they can’t imagine living here, but the number who comment on the wallpaper always surprises me,” the architect says. “I think they’re fascinated by the many layers of history.”

It’s an apt metaphor for the surrounding neighborhood, which dates to the 1840s. Like many homes in Detroit’s oldest enclave, Hurttienne’s Victorian is a work in progress, a task he’s been chipping away at for two decades. Before joining Hamilton Anderson Associates architects two years ago — where he, not surprisingly, specializes in rehabbing older city buildings — he lived above the street-level office, which housed his architectural firm.

I did the opposite of what my parents told me to do… I left the suburbs and moved to the city.
— Brian Hurttienne

He headed downtown after graduating from Lawrence Tech. “Everyone I graduated with was going to Dallas or Baltimore to build new office buildings,” he says. “I wanted to work with old buildings. I saw some of the interesting projects going on in Corktown and thought, ‘I could do that.’ ”

His brick home has a colorful if somewhat sketchy past. Hugh L. Gamble’s meat market closed in the 1920s. From the 1930s forward, the retail space operated as a grocery store, a flower shop, a space for a neighborhood eccentric known as Dirty Dave (a packrat worthy of A&E’s hit show Hoarders), and the headquarters of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club.

When Hurttienne took possession, he added new doors, floors, heating and cooling, electrical, and plumbing on the first floor. Upstairs, he remodeled the small kitchen, renovated the dining and living room (including stripping years of paint from the soapstone fireplace), updated the bathroom, and added a rooftop deck.

“I have no yard,” he says. But the third-floor terrace, which overlooks downtown, has been the site of some “great parties.”

Though he grew up in the suburbs, Hurttienne’s family has Detroit ties. His French/German ancestors were Macomb County potato farmers who operated a stall in Eastern Market. A sign from that stall now hangs in his dining room. Driving the five minutes from Corktown to his Harmonie Park (Paradise Valley) office gives him time to admire (and fret about) Detroit’s vintage buildings. He allows a special admiration for works by architect Wirt Rowland and dreams of getting his hands on some of downtown’s neglected structures, including the at-risk Metropolitan Building on John R.

For now, work goes on in Corktown. He’s currently converting his lower level to living space, which he plans to rent out. After nearly 15 years, his affection for his home and his neighborhood hasn’t dimmed.

“I love Corktown’s location, its proximity to downtown freeways, and maybe the biggest thing, the mix of people, houses, and commercial buildings,” he says. “Sometimes I’m without a car for a week, but I can ride my bike everywhere.

“Something came over me when I saw this building. It told me I had to do this.”