Northern Michigan Home & Cottage: A Place in History

Northern Michigan Home & Cottage: In the summer of 2000, just as lifetime Benzie County cottager John DiLorenzo was poised to place an offer on an Up North place of his own, he drove up Old Mission Peninsula for the very first time. What he found near the peninsula’s northern tip would change his plans—and his lifestyle—for good.

There, on 100 feet of East Bay frontage just up shore from the tiny burg of Old Mission, stood a log cabin and a tiny 135-year-old house, formerly servants’ quarters. Both overlooked the water and a sprawling gentleman’s farm that was once a summer home to socialite Louise Cromwell Brooks, first wife of General Douglas MacArthur. Historical significance aside, John was enthralled.

“My heart went crazy. I knew this was it,” he says, describing his first visit to the property. He has since renovated both structures and added a third between them, so these days when John isn’t with his parents or siblings at their cottages in Empire or on Platte Lake, he’s working on his “charming collection of buildings,” where he frequently holds his own share of overflowing family gatherings.

The log cabin on the beach has become a hub of activity. In 1,000 square feet—and in all four seasons—John typically hosts 12 to 15 people and Kona, his gregarious Bernese mountain dog. John gutted the worn cabin, a 1980s replica of the farm’s original bachelor’s quarters, and remodeled with the intent of reviving the charm and warmth of the original building. Cedar paneling and heart-pine floors set a rustic tone for an updated kitchen. The dining space is near a new fireplace constructed from Upper Peninsula stones. A small but open living room exits to a long, beachside porch. Two bedrooms with updated bathrooms round out the efficient layout.

Extra guests bunk in the charming and mostly original 1865 servants’ quarters near the property entrance. John covered crumbling plaster walls with cottagey beadboard and updated the bathroom, but original floors and doors still greet guests with a pleasing creak. He added a small front porch to give the quarters a more welcoming feel.

“My heart went crazy. I knew this was it.”

Between the original structures, John built The Lighthouse. The idea sprang from a need for storage space but developed into a three-floor structure devoted to recreation. The lower level stores a boat and a single vehicle. Guests encounter the first of many antique treasures right at the entryway: a hefty arched door from an old church. Its iron strap hinges swing open to a generous slate-tiled foyer with plank stairs that look ancient.

“I made the stairs with new lumber,” John explains. “But then I gathered some antique tools and chains, and my cousin Nick and I beat them up to look old.” Dings and dents mingle with scratchy carvings by John’s nieces and nephews. The distressed surfaces help the new structure blend with its much older companions.

In the rec room upstairs, John made careful design decisions to create an aged, semi-industrial atmosphere. Uneven brick walls, rough-sawn lumber, stainless steel, and wide-planked pine floors set the stage for a collection of furnishings chosen for rugged simplicity. The room is set up for fun with a bar, fireplace, media center and state-of-the-art sound system.

Up another flight of stairs, the viewing platform is a quieter space where vistas extend over both East and West Grand Traverse Bays. John says that from this perch, the sunrises are topped only by the moonrises.

John is constantly thinking about the next improvement and never really wants the place to be finished. In fact, he’s already expanding his “little village,” having purchased the adjacent Colonial house, which is original to the farm and has four outbuildings and 500 feet of bay frontage. He plans to someday open the house as an inn and is considering a way to memorialize a special cousin, Matthew, in its eventual purpose. Meanwhile, his family makes their own mark on the history of this extraordinary property.

This feature is also available in the February 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Get your copy now!

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