Nuts, Bolts, and Luxury Living
A young entrepreneur and a savvy architectural firm turn an old hardware store into cool Corktown lofts
The living room features a projector TV that shines on many layers of a painted wall which also doubles as a work of art; the antelope skulls came from one of the owner’s trips to Belgium.
Photos by Michelle and Chris Gerard
In these heady days of downtown Detroit’s rebirth, Christopher Burcham, a 30-year-old entrepreneur, bought a building on the outskirts of Corktown and turned it into four high-end condo units, including one he occupies.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Burcham purchased the 8,400-square-foot Bullock-Green Hardware Building, a two-story emporium that later became a brewery and then an appliance store and, after that, an art studio. At the time, he was (and still is) working as the chief technology officer for his family business, Steelpro, based in Wayne. A DIY enthusiast, Burcham had already restored a wooden 1949 Chris Craft powerboat and was up for a new challenge.
“I kept thinking, ‘How hard could a building be?’ ” Burcham says of the opportunity he saw to create something that Corktown lacks: high-quality residential spaces.
Raw walls and exposed ceiling ducts contrast with high-end furnishings, bath and kitchen fixtures, LED lighting, and smart systems that operate with an iPhone. Macomb County’s Preferred Marble & Granite created the bar, while the owner made shelving out of galvanized pipes.
Acting as his own general contractor/interior designer, he contacted Kevin Crosby and Shane Burley of Studio Detroit. Crosby and Burley were able to see Burcham’s vision for the circa-1905 building, whose funky façade was partially burned from a fire in the 1930s.
“He had the idea and we helped to bring it to life,” Crosby says. “We drew the floor plans with his input, worked through the codes, and did the design/build for the project.” Burcham found a plumber, electrician, dry-waller, floor refinisher, and HVAC company, and got to work. The idea was to keep as much of the original building’s skeleton as possible, including the exposed brick, steel interior doors, freight elevator, wooden and concrete floors, and one long, plastered wall that had been covered with shelving and many layers of paint.
There’s room for many activities at burcham's building, such as riding his scooter and bicycles, shooting hoops, and housing two cars. The exterior of the old hardware store was revamped with murals, new windows, and curvy panels that seem to undulate along Michigan Avenue.
“It took one year of construction and eight months of getting permits before that,” says Burcham, who grew up in Sterling Heights and Bloomfield, graduated from Detroit Country Day School, and lived for a time in Miami before deciding to return to the area.
“This is one of the first neighborhoods I gravitated to after coming back,” he says. He was intrigued by the vibrant restaurant community that was winning awards, as well as new infrastructure that included bike lanes on Michigan Avenue. “It’s a part of America that’s being preserved,” he says, “and I wanted to be part of it.”
Architects Crosby and Burley attacked the ugly façade with fervor. “We kind of brought the whole office down to do it,” Crosby, co-founder of Studio Detroit, recalls. “We wanted to activate that façade and bring it to life,” he says of the structure, which was basically concrete block with bricks at the bottom. The project included boring out openings for more than 20 windows and adding a wooden structure to the upper front.
Local muralists Ouizi and W C Bevan painted lively images on one side of the building. “It was a way to say, ‘Hello, I’m here,’ ” says Crosby, and also a way to claim the turf: Great street art stops bad graffiti in this neighborhood.
The main door to the building looks a little like a boarded-up piece of plywood, and that’s intentionally deceiving. A high-tech Nest smart system runs through each unit and includes video monitoring, heating/cooling, fan controls, Sonos, and fire protection controls.
Burcham’s first-floor loft — 7,580 square feet, including an attached two-car garage — is as stylish as a Restoration Hardware catalog. Indeed, RH Modern is where he found all his large-scale, industrial-chic furnishings and chandeliers, and they fit right into his plans. So did the shiny white kitchen, bath and bar cabinetry, appliances from IKEA, and the quartz countertops and wolf range from Preferred Marble & Granite in Fraser.
Below the basketball hoop on one wall is a home gym, and two bicycles hang neatly on a wall. At the other end is an LED-lit bar with shelving Burcham made with steel pipes and wood from Detroit’s Public Lumber Co. A full-view, glass garage door lets daylight in and showcases his private, gated, grassy courtyard beyond.
All of the existing windows were replaced with heavy-duty aluminum models that seal out street noise and have motorized shades. Each master bath — including his own, accessed via a spiral stairway to the second floor — features Toto toilets, Aria tubs, Brizo fixtures, and Mr. Steam steam showers.
Two long tables and 12 cushy chairs together create a space for dinner parties.
The condos exemplify urban luxury at its finest, and the building is even pictured on the cover of a new hardcover book, Detroit: The Dream Is Now: The Design, Art, and Resurgence of an American City, by Michel Arnaud (Abrams). Burcham was hands-on throughout the process, from building and installing the exterior façade panels to hanging the interior lighting and reclaiming and repurposing the building’s original woodwork. “It was a
fun project,” he says.
Life is good for this entrepreneur. He says he originally planned to find occupants for all four of the lofts but he loves living here so much, he just might decide to stay.