Back in the Saddle

New owners are posting quite a trot with their artistic, community-focused renovation of Metamora’s legendary White Horse Inn

There’s perfection in imperfection,” says Victor Dzenowagis as he reviews some of the finishing touches on his “new” restaurant. His wife, Linda Egeland, agrees, nodding her head as she looks around the recently renovated White Horse Inn. The legendary spot in Metamora has served as a stop for stagecoaches and trains, a hotel, a brothel, an Underground Railroad stop, and, most recently and once again, a restaurant.

The couple purchased the multiple-story, white clapboard building, which was built in 1850, more than a year ago. It’s been lovingly refurbished to feel similar to an 1800s establishment, but with practical updates.

While renovating the White Horse Inn to remain as a restaurant, “we didn’t want the wood or beams to be perfectly treated,” Dzenowagis says. “We didn’t want the chairs to be new ones that ‘looked’ old … Does that make sense?”

Indeed it does. And it’s that very idea of flawed beauty that makes the White Horse Inn stand out from the crowd.

A Stable of Experience

If they were characters in a novel or film, Dzenowagis and Egeland, who live in Metamora, would have to insist on including a scene from when they met.

The two first laid eyes on each other at Dooley’s restaurant and bar in East Lansing, where they worked while students at Michigan State University. Starting their lives together at a restaurant? Well, you can’t make that kind of story up.

Fast-forward about three decades, and the now-married couple are running the White Horse Inn as their sixth restaurant together. They also own and operate the popular The Moose Preserve Bar & Grill in Bloomfield Hills, Camp Ticonderoga in Troy, Deadwood Bar & Grill in Northville, The Iroquois Club Fine Banquets in Bloomfield Hills, and Beaver Creek Tackle & Beer in Westland.

The White Horse Inn, the couple says, could be their crowning glory of their 28 years of restaurant experience. Featuring “upscale comfort-casual fare with an urban twist,” they hope to become known for signature beverages and hearty food.

But its handsome, well-groomed ambience also impresses, thanks to its barnful of decorative details that put the spotlight on classic and simple, with authenticity at its core.

Attention to Detail

Before Dzenowagis and Egeland purchased the White Horse Inn, it had nearly been put out to pasture (it closed in 2012 when the previous owners couldn’t afford to keep up repairs). It had claimed to be the state’s oldest continuously operating restaurant.

Now, on a chilly afternoon just a few weeks before the late November grand opening, Dzenowagis and Egeland are scurrying about the establishment sampling menu items and helping staff fold stadium blankets, tending to a crackling fire, and answering a nearly constant ringing phone.

The affable Dzenowagis is politely chatting with inquisitive passers-by as if he has all the time in the world. One can imagine that local townsfolk are extremely curious, as they’ve been watching the fascinating transformation (with close to $3 million total investment) of the 164-year-old Metamora mainstay for months now, including getting glimpses through old windows of new, life-size charcoal drawings of horses gracing (not, um, grazing) a huge wall.

Egeland watches closely as a staff member places old-school plaid blankets over several chairs. Ralph Lauren, it seems, would be right at home.

As for the builders and craftsmen and decorative appointments like chairs, tables, stone, wood, lighting, and more, nearly 80 percent was sourced from Michigan. That which isn’t is from other U.S. locations. Except for the aforementioned head-turning horse mural, which came straight from the charcoaled hands of one very renowned French artist.

SMALL TOUCHES: The White Horse Inn’s handsome, well-groomed ambience includes decorative details that put the emphasis on classic and simple. Stadium blankets are draped over chairs, the walls exude horse-themed art, and the owners even included new hitching posts outside for those guests who might arrive on horseback — a scenario that’s not out of the question in Metamora.

A Fresco that Draws Notice

One day Egeland was thinking about her 2013 trip to France. While there, she saw the work of artist Jean-Louis Sauvat adorning the plaster walls of a renowned riding arena. His depiction of magnificent dressage horses wouldn’t leave her mind. She thought, “Why not ask the artist to come to Metamora and draw on our walls?”

The next thing you know, Sauvat, in sandals and khaki shorts, is standing in the White Horse Inn drawing a magnificent dressage fresco. While unable to pay his usual fee, Egeland and Dzenowagis provided a commission as well as an unforgettable experience for the visiting artist. “We were so excited that he said, ‘yes.’ He stayed for 10 days at our home,” says Egeland of the artist, who designs products for Hermes.

Now gazing at Sauvat’s artwork in what the owners call the Community Room, Egeland says, “People thought we were crazy to not have this done on a canvas that could be passed down. But when we’re gone, it’s here.”

BIG PLANS: Top renovation experts were gathered to remodel the White Horse Inn. World-renowned craftsman John Yarema’s floor installation (above left) was such a huge task, he had to rent a warehouse in the nearby village of Dryden during the process. Yarema helped out on other woodworking efforts, using red maple, cherry, and white oak timber for the floors, columns, and beams.

Beauty Big and Small

By gathering an enthusiastic team of top renovation experts together for this project, the couple envisioned both big and small design appointments.

The big came in the way of experienced woodworker John Yarema, who used red maple, cherry, and white oak timber for the floors, columns, and beams. A world-renowned craftsman who’s done work for the Detroit Institute of Arts, Yarema says the floor was such a huge task that he had to rent a warehouse in nearby Dryden during the process.

“He actually laid out the floor in his warehouse before transferring it here, so he could work out the design,” Dzenowagis explains. “It [the floor] has a one-of-kind tree design that will be here forever.”

Yarema and his team used a lot of hand tools for the woodwork. “When you keep your hands as close to the work as you can, a project turns out differently — it has soul,” he says.

Big also came in the way of architect Tamás von Staden, principal of Von Staden Architects in Royal Oak. Although today’s structure echoes the original footprint, it was apparent early on that only the 1850 structure was salvageable. The several additions needed to be demolished. History would blend with practicality.

The architect sourced materials from nearby forests and farms, much the way materials would have been found in the mid-1800s. Even the timber for the flooring was hauled out of the owners’ forest by horses and then milled by a fifth-generation sawyer.

Stone for the wood-burning fireplace was donated by a local landowner from an 1880 dairy barn, while the cobblestone for the foundation was culled from old fence lines from the farm where Dzenowagis and Egeland live.

Smaller details that make a big impact were also part of the owners’ goal to maintain the area’s horse-loving sensibility; after all, this is horse country. For example, over the bar hangs a magnificent foxhunt painting by Birmingham artist Weatherly Stroh.

“The owners wanted a scene that looked like the 1850s,” Stroh explains. “They have done a beautiful job with the renovation … every detail is thorough.”

And that includes new hitching posts for those arriving on horseback. The preserved original structure also is complemented with working Dutch stall doors (think “Mr. Ed,” and you’ll know what these spiffy red doors are all about).

Speaking of red, all of the paint colors of the interior doors are the same as they were, but touched up with coats of glossy paint, whether in bright reds or muted creams and butters.

“Doorways and doors were so narrow in the 1800s, so we had to add to them to make them bigger for today’s doorways,” Dzenowagis says. “And I’m still looking for antique doorknobs to fit these thin doors, so if you know of anyone …” he adds.

FROM NEAR AND FAR: The Community Room features long tables for group seating. The chairs came from a Saline schoolroom. Artist Jean-Louis Sauvat — who designs products for Hermes — visited from France to draw a life-size horse fresco

Authentic Community

While Dzenowagis and Egeland have certainly put a lot of money into the remodel, there’s been help. Plenty of community support went into the renovation, including grants from the Metamora Downtown Development Authority and the state of Michigan Economic Development Corp. Many other artisans dramatically reduced their usual fees to be a part of the special project.

That community spirit wends its way through the restaurant’s design, too. Located just off the Fireplace Room is the Community Room, which houses two super-long tables and chairs (from a Saline schoolhouse) that can seat large families, groups of friends, you name it.

Upstairs, the Ball Room, with its original floor and windows, also intrigues with ebony-stained tall Windsor bowback chairs. These decorative nuances — along with a long wrought-iron fence from Saline, a huge 1780 market table, an antique leather sofa, equestrian blankets, vintage lamps, and English ladder-back chairs  — all add up to a commitment to not only history, but also horse country. Oh, and there’s nary a television to be found!

For Dzenowagis, a favorite accent is a trap door that was discovered during the renovation. “We hung it on a wall in a special place so people can really take a look at it,” Dzenowagis says.

But don’t think for a moment that there aren’t modern touches aplenty. The bathrooms, for example, feature Egeland’s selections of stylish wallpapers and gorgeous tile, both in black and white. Dzenowagis is crazy about their nifty high-tech “trough-style” sink (by Dyson), which allows patrons to wash and then dry their hands almost at once.

The Long Haul

“We often wondered if we’d ever sit where we are now,” says Dzenowagis. “Weeks and weeks went by and you really couldn’t see any progress because [the changes] were like underground work, wiring, et cetera.”

What got them through those long weeks of seemingly turtle-pace progression? “Vision, tenacity, and persistence,” Dzenowagis says. “You can have vision, but you need the others, too,” he adds, glancing over at his wife. “There’s no stopping her (Linda); she doesn’t quit.”

And then there’s the quest for authenticity. Reviewing the fireplace stonework, he says, “Typically, these are all about function and getting them up fast. We agreed with our mason to create it the old way. It now looks like a competent, handy farmer built it rather than a modern-day artisan.” As for the beams, they’re scraped but not faultless. “We didn’t want the White Horse Inn to be perfect. We wanted it all to be perfectly imperfect.”

The White Horse Inn, 1 E. High St., Metamora, 248-858-7688. 

Sleigh Bells Ring

When folks at the White Horse Inn talk about dining and dashing, what they really mean is they’re going to enjoy a great dinner and then take a dash through the snow, as in a horse-drawn sleigh or carriage ride. At press time, the owners were working out a ride schedule. “When one makes a reservation, they can also ask for a sleigh ride and we’ll make it happen,” says co-owner Linda Egeland.