“Old wood to burn, old friends to greet,” reads the inscription carved into the wooden mantel in the foyer of the historic Frederick Stearns House in Detroit’s West Village, which opened to the public in June.
“You don’t see a lot of foyers with fireplaces,” says Innkeeper and President Rachel Mitchell. “It’s so cozy and warm.”
It’s also a fitting introduction and an appropriate sentiment for the historic bed-and-breakfast — especially in the autumn, when the trees and gardens surrounding the Tudor-style structure on East Jefferson Avenue turn gold and a crisp feeling fills the air.
Undeniably large at some 16,000 square feet, the stucco and timber historic mansion was built in 1902 for Frederick K. Stearns, a pharmaceutical magnate and a key player in the city’s turn-of-the-century cultural scene.
Active with the Detroit Orchestral Association (later renamed the Detroit Symphony Orchestra) and the Detroit Museum of Art (now the Detroit Institute of Arts), Stearns also donated more than 900 vintage musical instruments from around the world to the University of Michigan, thus providing the foundation for the institution’s respected Stearns Collection.
The inn’s ballroom — originally the Stearns family’s music room and now available for private ballroom dance lessons — once featured a balcony overlooking the space, but it was gutted in the ‘80s by a fire that destroyed a significant portion of the paneled room.
“We did our best to make every- thing look original,” Mitchell says of the couple’s restoration philosophy.
The home’s details are distinctive, but Mitchell says one of the best qualities is the layout, which was ahead of its time. Building on that, the couple removed the offices and returned the house to its residential status.
They reorganized spaces where needed, adding bathrooms as well as new heating, cooling, and electrical. They worked with the Detroit Historic District Commission on the exterior of the home to ensure things were period appropriate.
Mitchell decorated the home with the same guidelines in mind, furnishing it with art, antiques, and other pieces discovered at estate sales or on Facebook Marketplace.
“Treasure hunting was part of the fun,” she says.
The Mitchells’ experiences staying at other bed-and-breakfasts are evident in their attention to detail, from the silky bamboo sheets on the beds to the breakfast menu, with its signature dishes such as lemon crisp French toast (my decadent choice), blackened shrimp and grits with Cajun oil, smoked salmon or prosciutto eggs Benedict with Champagne hollandaise, and seasoned red- skinned potatoes.
All are prepared to order by Shannon Tabron, the inn’s private chef. Guests can choose to enjoy their morning feast (included with the accommodations) in the dining room, the nearby breakfast room, or the sun-filled enclosed porch — where I chose to dine — which overlooks the historic homes of the West Village.
The inn’s 10 guest rooms are named after flowers. It’s a choice that reflects Mitchell’s love of gardening, also seen in the extensive landscaping around the building. Perched on the third floor overlooking Jefferson Avenue, the Zinnia room, a spacious, soft green room where I lodged, has a white brick fireplace, an elegant marble-lined bathroom, and a serene sitting area. Loofahs and hand cream in a basket atop the vanity are another thoughtful touch. The occasional sound of passing traffic was the only reminder of how close I was to downtown.
Another standout is the Rose room (aka the presidential suite) on the second floor, which boasts a salvaged fireplace and an elegant bathroom larger than my entire New York City apartment.
The Lily room, decorated with Asian antiques, is a nod to Mitchell’s Chinese heritage. After all, it was that heritage’s influence that enabled her to recognize and appreciate the diamond in the rough.
“In China, we have a great respect for history and tradition,” she says.
The Stearns House is available for special occasions, including bridal showers and small weddings. There’s a new membership program that includes dinner in the lower-level pub, jazz nights, and other events.
“Word is starting to get out,” Mitchell says of the inn’s growing popularity. The majority of guests so far have been Michiganders, but the inn has also hosted travelers from Atlanta and even as far away as France.
On the night I that stayed, in mid-September, Brenda and Mike Zemmin of Bloomfield Hills were celebrating their 54th anniversary with a stay in the Rose room.
Mike, who had grown up on the city’s east side, recalled driving down Jefferson Avenue through the years and was thrilled to stay at the inn after witnessing its transformation.
“You have to take your hat off to the attention to detail,” he said, marveling at the elegant interiors. Brenda said the inn was the perfect spot to celebrate. “We loved the size of our room, the comfortable bed, and the relaxing sitting area. We will absolutely come back and are trying to get some friends to come next time too.”
Restoring the home has always been a labor of love, despite challenges along the way.
“The house has wonderful feng shui,” Mitchell says. “It gives you a good feeling and a sense of peace. The original owner left such a legacy. We wanted to bring it back to life and continue that legacy.”
This story is from the November 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.