The metal image of a phoenix that graces a wall in Alex and Lisa Grabowski’s Indian Village kitchen is more than just a decorative element — it’s a fitting symbol of the 1899 home’s lasting legacy as well as a testament to its surprising longevity.
One of the oldest houses in the distinctive Detroit neighborhood, the classic Dutch colonial was given up for dead by most after a boiler explosion caused a horrific fire in 2019. “The flames reached the third floor,” Lisa says.
Fire destroyed the kitchen, damaged the main staircase, and caused smoke damage throughout the 5,000-square-foot house, originally built for Dr. Andrew P. Biddle, a dermatologist, philanthropist, and grandson of John Biddle, a prominent 19th-century Michigan politician and early mayor of Detroit.
Saved from the Wrecking Ball
Fortunately, not everyone saw the house as a total loss. Alex is in real estate development and has been working on restoring homes in the area for a number of years. The longer he worked on the historic neighborhood, the more he and Lisa fell in love with it.
“We had always lived in the suburbs, but we found ourselves spending almost every weekend here,” he explains, adding that “it’s such a vibrant community.”
The couple had originally looked at the house for a client but ultimately decided they wanted it for themselves.
“It was completely overwhelming,” Lisa remembers of the state of the house post-fire. “But as we went through the house, it spoke to us.” At the time they looked at it, some work had been started by another developer, but the city had issued a stop-work order and the house was at serious risk of demolition.
Much of the original interior architecture had been destroyed in the fire or through earlier misguided renovations. Despite the need for significant restoration, the pair were smitten.
“We could tell it was a happy house,” Alex says. “It wanted to be saved. We fell in love with the layout and could see our family here.”
It Takes a Village
When the Grabowskis closed on the house in February 2021, it was covered in gray stucco.
“By the time Indian Village came into its own in the 1920s, the house was dated,” Alex explains, adding that the home is one of only a handful of wooden houses in Indian Village and that the stucco had probably been added to “update” it. The house was never designed to accommodate that weight, but while “it crippled the house, it may have been one of the reasons the house survived,” Alex says. “It encapsulated and protected it. It was both a blessing and a curse.”
The couple started by removing the more than 35 tons of stucco and rebuilding the majority of the roof. Luckily, when they took the stucco off, much of the original architecture remained. Inside, the only original elements that had survived the fire, Alex explains, were the main staircase, front door, leaded-glass windows, and French doors.
The Grabowskis are no strangers to the building trades. Alex’s company, Blue Gate Michigan, specializes in historic restoration and rehabilitation (the company is currently working on the city’s landmark Dr. Ossian Sweet House), and Lisa’s grandfather was a builder in Bay City.
Nonetheless, they found the project overwhelming at times. “I’m a determined guy, and I knew we’d get it done,” Alex recalls. “There were times when I wondered how, though.” The couple shared their journey on their Instagram page, fittingly named The Seminole Phoenix, and moved in with their family of five, amazingly, a short eight months later.
The house, they say, is now 98 percent complete — but the other 2 percent may well take the rest of their lives. No regrets, they add.
“She was a lost beauty,” Lisa explains, one that “wanted to be pretty again.” The two say they were honored to be the ones to bring her back to life. And while they’re happy to have done it, once is enough. “We are never moving,” Lisa says adamantly. “This is our forever house.”