The Fall of the House of Burrowes

Halloween, several years ago...

Marcus R. Burrowes, architect.

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone on horseback, through a singularly deary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Burbrook.

The ongoing Fall of The Empire of Michigan, as it could be called, daily brings with it new shocking and ever-more-depressing losses and soon-to-be losses which cut adrift, will soon sink beneath the cold black waters of economic recession and dissolve into ruin. This one cuts particularly deep for me, because I feel a strong personal link.

When my fatal attraction to abandoned buildings became "activated" within me, it was to one of his architectural creations that I fell deep in love with. In the course of my research I learned a bit about the man who designed it—an architect who has for most intents and purposes gone the way of many of the structures he created—faded into the grey shroud of time. So you can imagine how bizarre, and how...very bittersweet it feels to find out about, and then explore his house. The house that an accomplished architect designed for himself—a man's castle...a house that he even felt it was necessary to bestow a name upon. He named his house "Burbrook," by the way.

My "career" (if you will) of putzing around in abandoned buildings began with an obsession specifically with some of his buildings, then actually over time I unknowingly wandered through a couple more of his abandoned designs (the Highland Park municipal buildings, Kronk Rec Center, etc.), and now, fourteen years later, I find out that his very house has become a target as well. It's almost as if I want to ask, "Is nothing sacred?", or, "Where will the decay end?" Indeed it seems as if I may get a shot at exploring an abandoned Michigan State Capitol in a few years.

What's even more incredible is that Mr. Burrowes happened to live in the same neighborhood as the great and famous "Lone Ranger!" The Lone Ranger character was developed originally on a radio program on Detroit's venerable 950AM WWJ—the first commercial radio station in America—and played by Earle Graser. Earle Graser made the Lone Ranger the first great radio character, and popularized the timeless exclamation, "Hi-ho Silver, away!" The original Lone Ranger died a few blocks from here in a car accident in 1941. This was all commemorated by a historical plaque, at the end of the private drive into the neighborhood, however, nothing is said of Marcus Burrowes. As if that were not all interesting enough, it would seem that there is yet another abandoned house in that extremely affluent private neighborhood that is still owned by the famous Detroit techno music pioneer/icon, Derrick May.

But anyways...

Burbrook had indeed defaulted and was in a state of serious disrepair (or rather, mid-repair). Not only that but it sat in the middle of a huge forest and was on a cliff overlooking a branch of the Rouge River (Just asking to be trespassed in). It lay in Farmington Hills, now an affluent northern suburb of Detroit, but when Burbrook was constructed it was well out into the country.

Finding Burbrook Mansion proved to be no challenge. I felt that I of course needed to see this melancholy abode in person, based on principle alone if nothing else. Hank and I had just recently visited the equally creepy Dahlinger Estate as the ghoulish season of All-Hallows descended upon us. To visit this memory-haunted house while swishing through a redolent carpet of dry autumn leaves on Halloween would be a most awesome way to enjoy the best holiday of the year. Of course a substantial amount of risk came attached with this mission, being that Burbrook resides within the confines of Oakland County, the neighbors were keeping an uber-vigilant watch on the place. Nonetheless for some reason I had a strong feeling that there would be a way inside, but I didn't let it get to me because I knew I would be satisfied with just seeing the outside of the joint, and having a nice hike in the fresh autumn air. I'm not the guy who cracks open a place like this and leaves it open for the hoards of jerkoffs...but if there is already an exploitable, concealable way in, that's another story.

I was surprised by the varied topography here...

Pretty soon we could see something pale through the looked like the stark, stuccoed walls of Burbrook! We had found it...

I know not how it wasbut, with the first glimpse of the building a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before meupon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domainupon the bleak wallsupon the vacant eye-like windowsupon a few rank sedgesand upon a few white trunks of decayed treeswith an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation....

Page 57 from the Farmington Hills Historic District Commission report describes Marcus Burrowes and his house in some detail:
Marcus Burrowes was an outstanding Michigan architect in the early 1900’sthrough the 1920’s period. He made his home in Farmington on 12 acres given him from the estate of his friend, attorney Luman Goodenough. In an era when Farmington was a desirable place for country estates, Burrowes designed and built his own home on a bluff overlooking a branch of the Rouge River. It was built in 1924 in French Provincial style constructed of concrete block to which a stucco finish was applied. Basement windows, new to the period, offered maximum ventilation. 
There are many cabinet and bookcase features in the house and some of the carpentry work was done by Burrowes himself. There are four French shallow fireplaces with tall chimneys. An additional room was designed leading out from the den, but it was never constructed. The beautiful foyer was designed for entertaining. This house is listed on the Michigan Registry of Historical Places.

The creepy Halloween vibes were definitely popping in my veins as we timidly crept up to the rear approach of this monstrous old house, and were able to behold the entire structure. The diffuse, clouded-out sunlight was beginning to wane into a cold grey dusk, the air was dry and crisp with the distant scent of burning leaves and jack-o-lanterns. Halloween has always been my favorite day of the year.

One should definitely note that Burrowes' own house is quite an unexpected departure from his usual fare of English Cottage style homes. I was actually quite unimpressed by the exterior, the obvious outlines of cinder blocks evident in the outer walls being a major bummer. Luckily however, I would soon be blown away by the interior.

The fact that we were seeing Burbrook in this semi-stripped, semi-repaired state is what in major part caused it to take on such a disappointing appearance to our eyes. Rumor has it that the place was owned by an *Ohioan* who was trying to fix the place up (specifically replacing the roof), but didn't bother to pay any contractors, so work stopped and it stayed frozen in mid-resto while the court BS was ironed out. Hence the blue tarp.

We approached the open door to the foyer hidden behind the tattered tarp, hoping to find ingress to the main house.

This was not to be however, the place appeared well sealed. We continued along the back of the house, noting the leaf-filled swimming pool overlooking the cliff above the banks of the Rouge.

Soon, Hank found a single broken pane of glass, and with a simple flick of the wrist, she had the sash swinging open wide enough for us to jump through. We found ourselves in Marcus R. Burrowes' den.

But I had to wonder if there was any kind of alarm in here. The place was dead quiet, except for an occasional drip-drip from the basement. We climbed in, but remained on high alert. The kitchen had a light on over the sink—the power was still on.

I began shooting pictures but gave the greater share of my concentration to carefully continuing to search for any kind of alarm.

I noticed that the insides here had been kept fairly up to date; looks like people lived in this place up 'til just recently. The kitchen was totally modernized, and was the only part of the house that bore no resemblance to its original 1924 appearance.

The grand staircase however looked excellent and un-messed-with. We still could find no sort of security system in here, except for the locked front door and the light over the kitchen sink. They must not have viewed approach from the woods as a threat....

Which is an unfortunate mistake, I think. This place as it sat was a totally ripe target bound to become a huge magnet for little vandals, almost perfectly set up to become "that haunted house on the hill" seemed like no one would be doing anything with it anytime soon, and despite difficulty of approaching from the front, the rear approach was totally unguarded.

In fact, the "warning" sign where the little trail leaves the main park trail was almost sure to draw curiosity seekers. And there was a lot of traffic through Heritage Park...I imagined that if the power were cut to Burbrook, it wouldn't be long before this became a popular spot for the local kiddies, and ghost hunters.

I think this may have been a study or library, and contains the third fireplace I had found so far on the main floor:

We moved upstairs.

A book written by Jean M. Fox (a former mayor of Farmington), Marcus Burrowes: English Revival Architect, contains an excellent analysis of the architecture of Mr. Burrowes, and describes Burbrook:
Shallow fireplaces with very tall chimneys distinguish the interior. Dark beams were hand-hewn by Burrowes himself, and all the cabinet work was done by him. Burrowes himself described the roofline and upper stories as French Provincial, and indeed it would be more at home among the hills of Normandy than of Sussex. A beautiful retreat; the Rouge River is not far from the door, and there are deer on the property.

At the top of the stairs was a hall that branched to the left and right, and behind a door were more stairs going up to the third floor or attic.

A large bathroom lay directly ahead.

The Rouge River was indeed not far from the door, as this view out a bedroom window attests:

I went left, into what appeared to be the master suite...?

These must be the "dark beams" that Fox was saying Burrowes had "hand-hewn" himself. This ante-chamber was cast in a blue hue due to the roofers' tarp over the window outside.

The damage in here was significant, though I am not sure exactly how the ceiling came to fall in...

Dormer windows lined this upper story on both sides:

Moving into the actual master bedroom, we could see that the ceiling had caved in here as well:

Funny; and here I thought the huge goofy cathedral ceilings were merely a modern fad...not so, I guess.

Another fireplace, and another bathroom:

Very shallow and French indeed:

And here was where the great architect took his morning constitutional:

I kept looking out the front windows to make sure the coast was still clear, and our presence had gone undetected by the extra-wary neighbors...

We turned around and headed over into the opposite wing of the house. The hallway was narrow and winding. On the left was a guest bathroom, followed by some bedrooms.

A small bedroom:

It seemed like there were a lot of little secret passages and nooks in this house, like every closet had another door within it that opened into another closet or attic space.

Lots of windows too. This hallway was just so damn cool:

Just past the narrow (servant's?) staircase was another bedroom, which also could've possibly been the master bedroom. Further on in Mayor Fox's book, she quotes the wife of a Mr. Spicer, who was neighbor to Burrowes, and who lived in a house also designed by him.
Burrowes was a tall man, 6'2", well built, a man "everyone loved.""He was kind, gentle, and had a rare sense of humor...

"He loved to paint portaits, which he did well, and had his own forge where he spent hours working with silver. He took great pride in his hobbies, just like everything else he did, and quite often he would give his silver creations to friends as gifts.

"Marcus was absent-minded but this is understandable since he was always so thoroughly absorbed in everything he did. He was a true genius."
Today the nearest neighbor is out of sight through the trees up to the left:

Having pretty much seen the second floor of the house, we ventured up the narrow stairs to the third floor. Fox goes on to explain that Burrowes drove downtown to his office everyday (which in the 1920s would've been a hell of a commute), and during the winter he had to use a tractor to keep the private road clear. Eventually this was probably doubly important so that the Lone Ranger could also commute downtown to WWJ studios, heh! She said that he stayed home saturdays and could be found working in his garage, which also contained his workshop. I wish I would have realized this when we were there, because we did not look for his garage. 

Burrowes also had an English housekeeper living in, and some cats as well. When I barged into his house, I could not help but having his face keep reappearing in my mind, and wonder how his no doubt stern and proprietous 1920s manner would take to this brash invasion.

At the top of the stairs to the third floor, we walked into a large closet which contained the attic scuttle hole, and...this magnificent piece of artwork, done by.....??

I'm not even sure what city it was supposed to be of, if any. The buildings look a little tall though to be Farmington.

But all of the citizens seem to be white, so I suppose it's still plausible...

Wow...I had never come across anything like this in a place I'd explored before. It was like something out of a suspense novel or movie. It was signed off in the corner, by whoever "WHITING" is:

It was also dated "'59 '58," and Mr. Burrowes died in 1953, so this was painted by whoever lived in the house afterward. There was another large bedroom up here in the top floor, and in it was a closet, which contained....another closet...?

Except when I stepped in to take a peek, the smaller door actually led into a large secret attic space:

On the other side of the room, my partner was making her own bizarre discovery, in another closet—a shower?!

No way! What the...?

1920s vintage showerhead and soap dish, but it's not a tiled stall or anything; just a regular plastered closet...very strange. Not even any ventilation for steam. It was very odd...there was for sure a weird horror movie vibe of some kind in this third floor of Marcus Burrowes' house.

At this point it was getting close to beer-o'-clock, and my twisted side was starting to kick in. I figured we should turn on all the lights in the house...every single one we could find. Creep people out, you know. When darkness falls tonight, the neighbors will freak when they see "the ol' Burrowes place" mysteriously lit up, all the windows warmly glowing through the forest on Halloween! Hahahaha...

Might also help ward off potential vandals if it appeared that people still lived here. And teach the caretakers a lesson in securing the property (unless of course they really believed our prank to be the work of spooks and spirits).

We went about the house turning on every single functioning light, and just before making good our escape, we made a quick run-through of the basement. I noticed that all the electrical wiring was still antique knob & tube style. It reminded me almost of the Evil Dead basement. We hopped out our window and closed it tight behind us again. I then wanted to go around front and get some shots of the mansion's face.

During his lifetime Mr. Burrowes was actually quite well recognized. He was the president of the Detroit Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) from 1916 to 1917, vice president in 1923, and had been its secretary since 1911. From 1923 to 1924, he served as the president of the Michigan Society of Architects.

In her book, Mayor Fox continues,
In 1940 he was made a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and became Emeritus in 1952. He served on the board of examiners of the Michigan Chapter of the A.I.A. He was a member of the Episcopal church and of the Detroit Athletic Club.
Oooooooooh, DAC...hoity-toity. The Detroit Free Press wrote a very solemn obituary for him in 1953 when he passed. It began,
Marcus R. Burrowes is dead. Few have done so much to build Detroit.
Almost melodramatic. The obituary finishes by stating that he designed more than 1,000 structures in and near Detroit during his long career. One must believe that if Marcus Burrowes indeed was the great architect described here, then it was only due to standing in the very long, very deep shadows of the famous Albert Kahn and Wirt Rowland, and other better-known Detroit architects that relegated him to obscurity. If he had come from a different city or slightly earlier time, he might have ended up better-remembered today.

"What then, has been the lasting impact of Burrowes' fifty years on Michigan architecture," Fox asks?
He came into his profession ca.1910 at a time when the genius of Detroit was rising into an unforseen and hitherto unknown productivity. The surge, the dynamism which became Detroit was generated by men of unbounded vision. It was a time not only of industrial genius, but of great, burgeoning need. Success brought wealth; these industrial leaders wanted banks, schools, libraries, and—some of them—social programs. 
At a time when the slick, the contemporary was taking on more and more dreariness of the Bauhaus, [...] Burrowes was able to turn the vision of his clients to a more refined, more enduring, and more subtle aesthetic function of a warmer, more satisfying architecture.

[...] In his creation of designs for schools and buildings, libraries, but more especially his elegant mansions, he added grace notes of felicity to the joys of living in a dynamic Detroit.

Here is a list of some notable buildings that Burrowes designed.

At time of writing in 2014, Burbrook Mansion is—I am ecstatic to report—well underway to a restoration with new, non-deadbeat owners.

Update: As of January 2017 the renovation was completed and the house was sold again, at a price of $685,000. 

Marcus Burrowes: English Revival Architect, Jean M. Fox