Passion Project Turns Personal at the Lion House in Grand Rapids
By Amy Sherman
Grand Rapids is known for its history of building beautiful homes that have stood the test of time. One particular gem recently came up on the market for the first time, and while many potential buyers sauntered on through, it ended up being the real estate listing agent who finally purchased it, and then undertaking a major historical renovation along with her husband. The Lion House has been referred to as a house caught in time, where contractors weren’t hired, but artisans were, and it is being restored to its original glory by an enterprising local couple.
The house was built in 1940 by John & Nellie VanderJagt. John died about a year later, and Nellie stayed and raised the seven Vanderjagt children here until 1985. The Albright family then bought the house after falling in love with it during the estate sale, and lived here for another forty years. When the house was put up for sale in the spring of 2021, it was the very first time that the house had ever been on the market.
“It had never been exposed to the community, but it had always been loved,” said realtor Tammy Jo Budzynski. She was one of the house’s many admirers. “I remember when I was a little girl, driving by this house, and thinking oh my God. I never thought I’d get to list this property. I never thought I would be inside of it. I never thought we’d own it.”
That’s right. What started out as a dream listing for Budzynski has now turned into a passionate renovation and restoration of this historical home. Tammy Jo and her husband Max ended up purchasing the home in August 2021 to guarantee it’s authentic restoration.
“My husband said right away “I want to buy it,“said Tammy Jo Budzynski. ”I said no. This one needs way too much. I think I turned him down three times.” She said it took her about five times of walking through the home to truly appreciate the details and craftsmanship that the Lion House possesses.
“I thought somebody else would step up,” she said about the house and keeping it historically authentic while still updating it for modern use. “I mean, we’re in Grand Rapids!” After watching the movie “We Bought a Zoo”, which chronicles a family’s kind of unexplainable decision to purchase and renovate a dilapidated zoo, the couple thought “Why not?” according to Tammy Jo. “If no one else was stepping up, then dang it, we’ll step up,” she said.
The house is pretty impressive from the street, and only more so once you go inside. Nestled on a large piece of property on 1.65 acres on Plainfield Avenue in the Creston Heights neighborhood, the house greets you with it’s signature, namesake lions right away. Brick posts line the outside of the property, with chain link hanging between them, and regal lion heads on the center of each one watching over their vast city estate.
Pull up the stately curving driveway, and notice the precise brick work, with decorative patterns scattered about. A wide open porch, lined with tiles and a stained wooden ceiling, offers both covered seating, and an open-air space for plenty of room for outdoor entertaining. A traditional slate roof tops the house, which needed a lot of work to stop leaks. The couple had to order 5 palates of slates at $9 a slate tile to replace damaged ones. Stop by on a sunny day and admire the ombre effect that the original builders planned for this showstopper, the roof turns from a kind of purple to gray to silver when the sun hits it. “It’s amazing,” said Tammy Jo. Don’t miss the incredible, gorgeous copper gutters, which have recently been restored to their former glory. “That’s the zeros,” Tammy Jo said with a laugh.
There are 13 decorative lintels that line the outside of the house, all have been removed and sent to an artisan craftsman to be recarved in oak, stained and sealed, and brought back to their former glory.
Enter through the cherry wood doors, which have been stripped of paint, and once again boast a warm wood grain. Max turned the brass plates on the exterior doors over so they would all appear to be new again.
Once inside, you’ll notice that the outside traffic noise from Plainfield disappears. That’s because the home’s walls are all made of solid concrete, creating amazing insulation and a truly solid feel. A winding wood staircase is warm and inviting, and there is even an installed pipe organ in the living room. Incredible floor to ceiling rich stained wood paneling lines the formal dining room, while impressive beams line the high ceilings in the sun room. All of the original light fixtures remain in the home.
For the inside renovation, the couple turned to Cate Ball from Delight in Designs, which is a local store and design firm owned by Jessica Crosby, to help them plan out what they would do to make the home ready to sell. “She called and said she had a really fun project,” said Ball. “Of course, I fell in love with the home.”
Ball originally helped stage the home when it was on the market last summer. Once the Budzynski’s bought it, she designed a kitchen for them, and then continued to work throughout the house, guiding decisions on everything from paint colors, to rugs, furniture, and artwork. “The home is very authentic, and I wanted to keep it that way,” said Ball.
“My whole idea for TJ and Max was trying to marry the fact that one wants to go in one direction, and one in the other,” Ball said. “Lightening up the space was important because there is so much wood.” She worked hard on picking the right colors for the home, to compliment both the stone and wood elements. “I envisioned soft fabrics for a comfortable feel,” she said. “We didn’t want a showplace, we wanted a comfortable, authentic and true to the house design, but something that a family could enjoy. And that’s how I approached my design.”
The dynamic duo of Budzynski and Ball have focused on sourcing items for the house from antique stores, resale shops, estate sales, and even their own belongings. It’s a different approach from how many designers attack a project, rolling in with all new furniture, art and textiles. These guys go out on the hunt, to find the perfect items that feel like they’ve always belonged at the Lion House. I found it, frankly, quite refreshing to walk through a house of this stature and not be inundated with gray sectionals and a Pottery Barn aesthetic. This has a comfortable feel while maintaining the knowledge of the home’s history.
“I try to find the exact right piece for each room,” said Ball. In the basement, she’s found the funkiest, coziest couch at a flea market that just screams 1970’s and totally partners with the wood paneling. Her most recent find was a solid iron fire grate that’s “just perfect.”
There is still a lot of work to be done on the property, to be clear. The furnace and boiler were replaced by Lake Michigan Heating and Cooling, and it took over a month for them to get this job done. “She was a beast,” said Max about the original system. The five bedrooms are next to be tackled and the couple hopes to keep much of the original wallpaper. “My goal is to make each one unique,” said Ball. The new kitchen has yet to be installed, but is on its way.
The five full bathrooms are all functional, if funky. I actually liked one that I referred to as the Disco Bath, which features purple, aqua and shiny silver wallpaper that resemble large scales with a deep teal toilet and sink. I asked Ball about what to do with this type of situation when renovating with a limited budget. She agreed that it’s not always possible to tear everything out, so the goal is to tone it down in an affordable manner. Paint, beautiful artwork, and easily changeable things like towels, rugs and shower curtains can transform a bathroom space fairly affordably.
While the home does not have official historical status right now, the couple plans on applying for it after the renovation is completed.
Tammy Jo’s favorite part of the house took her a few times around to even notice it. The sun room is constructed of stone, while the main house is made of brick. The integration of the two materials at the corners is a sign of incredible craftsmanship, creating a flow between materials that is truly beautiful. “You have to look at the details, at the peak,” Tammy Jo said.
Originally, the house cost about $9000 to build. It was last listed by Tammy Jo in May at $700,000. The Budzynski’s bought if for an undisclosed sum, but I was told it was less than this. The couple continue to work together in real estate, and work on the house in their limited free time. Will they decide to stay here and make it their family home? Or will they put it back on the market, for the right buyer, in the future? Only time will tell.
“We have a wonderful house,” said Tammy Jo when I prodded her about possibly just keeping the property for her family. “It’s in the works. This style isn’t mine, but the house feels good. And I like sharing it.” Max explained that he’s already struggling to maintain just half the square footage at their current house. Plus, “this house was meant to be shared,” he said. “We’re taking just one day at a time,” said Tammy Jo. “And trying to find our way with it.” One option the couple has discussed is turning it into a special spot for private events and parties, allowing others to enjoy its beauty and a little slice of Grand Rapids history.
For her part, Ball isn’t going anywhere. “ I’ve felt like part of the family,” she said. “I feel very blessed to be a part of this project. Tammy Jo, Max, and their girls really speak to my heart and it’s been a joy and a blessing to work with them.”
“It’s a project of compassion,” said Tammy Jo. “I’ve never felt like this about a project before.”
Learn more about the Lion House: www.thevanderjagt.com.
6 Tips for Excellent Authentic Historical Design from Cate Ball
- Research the home and find out its history. Use what history you can in the home as you decorate. Historical photos are a great starting point.
- If you are a designer, really take the time to get to know your client and listen to what they want to achieve, and how they live and function in their home.
- Try to use any materials that are already in the home and repurposing them.For example, copper piping that might have gotten cut out of the basement, try using them as a bar foot stool at your kitchen counter. Or try using them in the bathroom as a towel holder. Get creative with how to repurpose.
- You will have to update the house somehow, in someway. Find materials that are authentic to the home, and to the time period that it was built, that feel like they belong there.
- Some historical homes have undergone horribly dated remodels, or might still have an absolutely not historically authentic bathroom. Budgets can be tight, so if you can’t actually completely remodel a room that’s an eyesore, try to mask anything inauthentic. Using things that don’t cost much like new paint, a well placed piece of art, a new shower curtain, towels and a rug can help mask peach and brown tiles, so you don’t have to replace them right away.
- Try not to overdo anything, keep your decorating simple and elegant so everyone can enjoy. If you want to add some up-to-date trendy things, keep them limited to you change out easily, like pillows or bedding. Keep the main design simple and classic to the home.