But now Christopher Lee and Amy Feigley-Lee find themselves at home and heart-bound to a Detroit house once owned by Lee's great-grandfather in the Roaring '20s, but was lost at the onset of the Great Depression.
And it all began with a photo.
Shot in 1926, the family heirloom depicts Lee's great-grandparents, Daniel and Patrice Foley, hosting a family gathering in honor of the Catholic priestly ordination of the Rev. Dominic Ignatius Aloysius Foley in 1926. The photo also depicts Lee's great-great-grandparents, William and Johanna Foley. The clan is assembled in a spacious foyer in front of a distinctive stairway.
"That was the only photo we had of the inside of the house," Lee said. "When I came in and looked at the staircase, I knew this was the house."
What was lost is now found and reborn as the couple's home, where Feigley-Lee and Lee, both art instructors and artists, will welcome their first child in the coming weeks, a daughter with a name yet-to-be announced.
Lee, 32, bought the house for $8,100 in a county tax foreclosure sale in 2007. The house had been empty for at least five years. He tracked the house for years while he was in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art, after getting the address from his great-uncle.
Great-uncle Bill Foley, now 83, jokes that he was conceived in the home's master bedroom circa 1928.
Lee learned that his great-grandfather, Daniel Foley, was a 1920s-era wheeler dealer, a stock market and real estate investor, and a horse track regular. Daniel and Patrice Foley were raising 10 out of their 11 children at the house, including Chris's maternal grandmother, Eileen, when Daniel's investments evaporated with the onset of the Great Depression.
They lost the house and Patrice, an accomplished pianist, went to work in an office job by day and played the piano for pay at night.
The house is in a neighborhood just off Woodward, between the historic Boston-Edison district and Highland Park. Chris said it has been bypassed in civic-sponsored renewal plans.
Lee and Feigley-Lee are among the stream of artists and entrepreneurs flowing into Detroit in recent years, motivated by eye-popping cheap property prices and eager to participate in Detroit's renewal and creative class. They're not all just settling down in Midtown and downtown; but in other pockets throughout the city.
Feigley-Lee, 33, a sculptor and instructor at Oakland University, grew up in Milford, and only visited the city for some major events. She enrolled in a graduate school program at Cranbrook Academy of Art, and lived in Ferndale until she met Lee.
Lee also was a Cranbrook student and now is a photographer and OU instructor. He grew up in Detroit's Rosedale Park, Huntington Woods, and in China, where his father was raised. When Lee moved into the Detroit house in 2008, so did she.
"I wouldn't have done it on my own," Feigley-Lee said. But Lee's enthusiasm and confidence helped sell her. "I was up for the challenge."
"It was pretty normal to feel I'm over my head. I have had this feeling throughout the whole process," Feigley-Lee said. "But I love it. I really do."
What greeted her were collapsing ceilings, a leaking roof, buckling floors with three layers of linoleum, and a vandalized interior.
"There was dust flying everywhere, the roof was leaking and falling. There wasn't hot water," she said. "The house was a wreck. It wasn't livable."
But they lived in it anyway, after fixing basics like electricity, heat and plumbing. They were aided by a $50,000 Michigan State Housing Development Authority loan.
The 3,500-square-foot house was built in 1903, with two layers of brick framing it. William Worden, the City of Detroit retired director of historic designation, said many houses in the city are worthy of preservation and perhaps historic designation.
"For neighborhoods to survive, people have to come in take care of the buildings," Worden said. "You hope when people do that ... they're starting a trend and others will follow."
They have good friends on the block, which includes vacant lots, well-kept mini-manses and rundown but still occupied homes. The Lees consider the neighborhood stable.
"I always prayed for good neighbors," said attorney Derrick Phillips, 58, who lives in the house next door.
— By Patricia Montemurri, Detroit Free Press (MCT)