Walk into the city’s oldest cabin and you step into Detroit’s very beginnings. You also step into lots of piles of crap.
It’s everywhere inside this historic home. There’s dog poop all over the floor from the strays that trot in and out of an open door, leaving paw print trails in the snow outside. And there’s human feces and toilet paper in a bucket, the makeshift outhouse for some squatter whose aim isn’t always so good.
This is the state of the James Smith farmhouse, the city’s oldest cabin and its second-oldest house, located on Clements near 14th Street on the city’s west side. Built as long ago as the 1830s, it’s a small, one-and-a-half story box that sits partly hidden and largely unknown in a fading neighborhood dotted with abandoned homes, tucked between two old houses that shield it from view. A small historical plaque offers the only clue that there’s something special about it.
“It’s one of those buildings that people who love buildings in Detroit know about through the grapevine,” said Amy Elliott Bragg, president of Preservation Wayne. “It’s in an odd spot, for sure.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The cabin is empty and abandoned, marred by graffiti and open to trespass by a number of species. And though it’s on the city’s list to protect it from demolition, so far nobody’s been able to figure out what to do with it.
So, for now, it’s just another abandoned house in a city full of them.
Unlike Detroit’s officially oldest home, the well-preserved, 1826-built Trowbridge House, the James Smith farmhouse never passed through a succession of careful owners who made efforts to preserve it, never drew praise for its architecture, and didn’t enjoy a highly visible location near downtown that kept people’s attention focused on its historic significance.
In fact, until just recently, the cabin had always just been the home for a string of people over its lifetime, disguised under layers of renovations, until its history was mostly forgotten. It fell into foreclosure and abandonment, then into the city’s hands a couple of years ago. Now it waits for someone other than a squatter to make something out of it.
“The best thing that can happen to the future of the house is for people to know its story,” Bragg said. “It’s been hiding for however long, and once people know how old this house is and what a great story it tells about the history of Detroit, it’s got a much better chance of survival.”
The best thing that can happen to the future of the house is for people to know its story.
Amy Elliott Bragg, president of Preservation Wayne
A Canvas for a Vandal
Mack-I-Lot probably doesn’t know its story.
If he did, he might not have spray-painted his street name in bright red letters on the house’s white walls, nor would he have vandalized it with other graffiti idiocies.
He probably didn’t realize it’s a cabin either, because it’s wrapped in a layer of vinyl siding, which covers a layer of Styrofoam insulation, which lies over a wall of thin boards, which prevent the cabin’s old original logs from revealing themselves. The only hint that the house is really old is the irregular brick chimney that pokes crookedly out of the roof.
There’s not a lot known about its history. James Smith was a pioneer, one of the first settlers to buy land in what was then known as Greenfield Township, a rural area far outside the city limits at the time.
According to the records of the State Historic Preservation Office, Smith first appeared in the area in 1829, bought a plot of land outside the city, cleared it and built his cabin soon after, leading some to speculate it was built as early as 1830. Though the exact year it was built is unknown, county records show that the cabin was certainly there no later than 1850, when the city was a small town with barely 20,000 people clustered near the river.
Smith spent his life farming here. He was even recognized by the Michigan Farmer journal in 1854 for winning several awards at the annual fair of the Michigan State Agricultural Society for the butter he made from the cows on his Greenfield farm.
The cabin was a famous enough landmark to earn a place in an 1893 book called “Picturesque Detroit and its Environs,” showcasing black-and-white photos of notable mansions, beautiful downtown buildings and this quirky old cabin.
After Smith died, his land was sold off in small parcels, then annexed with the rest of the township by Detroit in 1916. Though the city cleared the area of everything standing to make way for the new neighborhood, the cabin survived, either out of respect for history or because a stubborn owner refused to budge.
The city simply platted the uniform neighborhood around the little cabin, which looked like an ugly duckling amid all the new duplexes arrayed neatly in a grid on the new streets.
In 1990, its elderly residents at the time and the most recent in a long line of owners, petitioned the state to have it recognized as a historic site. They were given a marker that rests on the pediment above the front door: “James Smith House. Built between 1820-1850,” it announces.
Those owners passed away by 2006, the house was sold, it fell into abandonment and then into foreclosure by 2012. It’s now owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which auctions off such abandoned homes to bidders promising to do something with them.
To Mack-I-Lot, it’s just another empty house. Yet, in a way, its plainness, its anonymity and its use all these years as a simple home might just be what saved it for so long.
“In other places, this house would be celebrated for its history. But also it could be long gone,” Bragg said. “There were lots of houses like this house all over Detroit – none of which remain – so, in some ways, it’s unusual that the house still exists, that the house has adapted to a new time. It’s covered in vinyl siding, it’s kind of askance on the lot.
“Maybe it still survives because we adapted it to suit a changing neighborhood. And maybe that’s a good thing.”
In Search of an Owner
After its abandonment, the house began to crumble.
Soon, the boarded-up doors were kicked in. Soon, someone was living there who didn’t own it. These days, the driveway is full of a changing set of cars every day in various states of stripping and repair. And neighbors say it has been an oversized dog house for years.
The weather has made its way inside open windows and doors, causing countless strips of paint to peel away from the walls and ceiling. A bullet left a hole in the middle of the bedroom window. Old-fashioned wallpaper peeks out from under broken drywall, which crumbles onto water-damaged floors. And there are holes in the ceiling showing rotting wood behind it.
The house is a mess. But city officials say there are no plans to demolish it.
“Right now we have a very strong ‘do not demo’ flag on it,” said Brian Farkas of the Detroit Building Authority, which is responsible for demolishing abandoned homes. “It appears to be one of the oldest structures in the city, and we don’t mess around with stuff of that historic nature.”
Yet, nobody’s sure what can be done with a historic cabin situated in a rough neighborhood.
“We have not yet made a determination what we’re going to do with it,” said Craig Fahle, director of public affairs for the city’s Land Bank Authority. For one thing, he noted, it’s paired in a parcel with the abandoned duplex next door, so anyone who wanted it would have to take the empty house next door, too. For another thing, it’s too small to live in as a house, and fairly expensive to restore as a museum.
Still, Fahle said, he holds out hope for its future.
“Given the historic nature of the home, we’d love to find a solution,” he said.
It likely will wind up for sale in a future auction. But because it’s not located in an historic district, there are few restrictions on its use, and someone could presumably buy it just to bulldoze it. But Fahle hopes someone comes along who knows its past, understands its challenges and will buy it to restore it to what it once was.
“It’s going to be a special-type person that’s going to want to take on this project,” he said. “Obviously, that’s something that we would love to see, someone do something really great with (it).”