Trying to install a support beam in what would one day be the master bedroom of his future home in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, Hill Hampton crashed through the floor, hit his head and had an epiphany.
Was he renovating the old house, one that had been vacant for decades, to truly build a home, he wondered? Or was he trying to prove a point? He’d grown up watching his father, a general contractor, renovate a home and build an addition but he’d never actually done it himself.
Hampton, who luckily wasn’t injured, realized it was likely a bit of both.
“Especially for me and the type of person I am,” said Hampton, 38, standing on the third floor of the now completely renovated home he shares with his wife, Sony. “You tell me I can’t do something, I want to prove you wrong.”
Hill and Sony (pronounced Sone-ee) had to overcome huge obstacles to transform the 3,000-square-foot Victorian from just another relic of the city’s past into a home. There was the struggle to find contractors. There were financing issues and insurance challenges.
And then there was cancer. Yes, cancer.
Two weeks after Hill closed on the house in late 2014, he was tested to be a kidney donor for an uncle who needed a transplant and instead found out he had stage 1 kidney cancer. He was 34.
But he went through treatment and went into remission. And in February 2015, Hill met Sony (they married last November). Four weeks after having surgery to remove half his kidney, he started tearing down the first wall. “He had stitches and that’s when he started taking down the first wall,” said Sony, 35.
The entire renovation process took about two years and cost about $150,000. The couple would both arrive after their day jobs to work on the house through the evening, sometimes using floodlights to see because they didn’t have electricity.
“It was tough,” said Hill, a small business consultant who used to be an administrator of an online high school. “Blood, sweat and tears literally. Some days I remember being so sore.”
The 1899 house, with a gorgeous view of the Detroit skyline to the east and the Detroit PAL stadium on Michigan Avenue just north, is now an example of what happens when two people are committed to not just each other but a vision for what a house can be. It was featured in June on the Corktown Neighborhood Tour.
“The house renovated us, really,” says Sony, an engineering manager. “They say if you can survive a reno, you can survive marriage!”
Renovating a house was in Hill’s genes.
As a kid, he remembers watching “This Old House” with his siblings. And he helped with his dad’s renovation and addition to the family home in Inkster. His grandfather, meanwhile, was an electrician.
“We used to get doughnuts, crawl in my parents’ bed with all five of us, watching ‘This Old House,’” he said.
No wonder why Hill was drawn to the old Corktown Victorian, which sat empty for more than 35 years before the Hamptons rescued it. It was a shell of itself, missing doors and floors.
“You’d walk in the door, look all the way up and it was just a roof,” said Sony.
Hill was undeterred.
“I thought, I can do this,” he says with a laugh. “Some of the glamour of watching HGTV was in the back of my mind. Six months, I thought. I can do this.”
Not everyone agreed. He remembers bringing his father, the former mayor of Inkster, to see the house before he bought it. He looked at the basement and the foundation.
“We left that day and he said, ‘Son, find another house,’” Hill remembers.
Sony remembers seeing the house for the first time and being grateful they were just dating.
“You couldn’t walk past the first door because it was just holes everywhere,” she said. “You could see the basement and the roof.”
But it was during a second walk-through with Hill’s dad and a family friend, an inspector in Ann Arbor at the time, that attitudes changed.
“He came through and said, ‘It’s a lot of work but believe it or not, this house is solid,’” he said. “He said they just don’t make homes this solid anymore.”
Lining up finances was another issue, not just buying the house but getting the funds to renovate it. He bought the house for $45,000.
To maximize their budget, Hill and Sony splurged on some elements (the kitchen counters, for example, are granite and they converted a room into a beautiful master bathroom) but saved money on others (the cabinets are from IKEA; the kitchen’s subway tile is from Menards). And they did a lot of the work themselves.
Wood beams in the kitchen are custom-made by Hill and Sony, for example.
“When you use creativity and think outside the box, you can accomplish anything,” said Sony. “We put a lot of sweat equity into those but sometimes that’s all it takes to give a house back its character.”
Decor with meaning
When it was finally time to decorate the house, the same level of thoughtfulness went into the furniture and decor.
“Everything in the house has some type of history to it,” said Sony.
In the front living room is a sewing machine from Hill’s great-grandmother. There’s a pocket door original to the house that’s now in the living room. And on the third floor, there are two 1977 seats from the old Tigers Stadium which Sony found through the company that tore down the stadium in 2005.
"Can’t live so close and not pay homage to the original stadium!" said Sony.
Even plants outside in the backyard have history and meaning.
“The hostas and peonies outside were from my great aunt,” said Hill.
The couple, meanwhile, turned to Craigslist and antique shops to find some period-appropriate furniture and light fixtures.
Looking back on their incredible journey, Hill and Sony are both happy to have done it and grateful it’s (essentially) over. A gallery wall of photos in the kitchen showcases their journey.
“We put in a lot of sweat equity and every day was a celebration,” said Sony. “Yeah, we have a wall. Yeah, we have a ceiling. Yeah, we have water!”
The days and weekends of sacrifice were worth it, they say.
“Even though the house was the condition that it was in, I just had a vision for what Corktown could be,” said Hill.