Michigan native’s book details his efforts to restore his ancestors’ English mansion

A Michigan native’s midlife crisis prompted him to put aside his Hollywood acting and directing career so he could move to rural England and devote himself fully to restoring the mansion dilapidated ancestor of his family. This tale is now a book.

Hopwood DePree, 52, is celebrating the May 31 release of his book, “Downton Shabby: One American’s Ultimate DIY Adventure Restoring His Family’s English Castle,” with a 7 p.m. event on June 1 at Schuler Books, 2660 28th St. SE in Grand Rapids.

DePree, who grew up in Holland, will show videos and photos of Hopwood Hall – parts of which are 600 years old – while reading excerpts from the book. He will also answer questions from the public. The event is free but the number of places is limited, so participants are asked to Book a seat.

Publisher HarperCollins/William Morrow has DePree on a whirlwind tour, with events in Grand Rapids, Chicago, Los Angeles, London and six more stops in England, including a June 18 event at the Hopwood Hall Estate itself. DePree hopes to schedule additional time to meet with West Michigan readers and historic preservation enthusiasts on a future trip to the United States.

“I am thrilled to be able to open the book tour in West Michigan, which will always be my home,” says DePree, whose years in England taught him to drink tea, snack on cookies and wear a coat. in oilcloth with rubber boots. (rain boots).

“In fact,” he continued, “much of the book is about my upbringing in West Michigan and what happened in my life that made the idea of ​​preserving this home in England so convincing.”

Aerial photo of Hopwood Hall. (Phil Longley)

Period of silence imposed by the pandemic

DePree wrote most of the book – which is receiving favorable reviews for its humor and self-effacing ideas – during a visit to Holland in the first year of the pandemic. With England quarantined, building projects to restore the once-grand ground came to a halt. DePree decided to self-isolate near her mother, Deanna DePree, and her sisters, Dana and Dori, who all live in the Holland area.

A New York literary agent had approached DePree to write a memoir about his efforts to restore Hopwood Hall in 2018 after reading a USA Today report titled “Downton Shabby,” DePree’s affectionate nickname for the dilapidated estate that was five to 10 years of being beyond repair before entering the scene.

DePree, who had done only minor household repairs before tackling Hopwood Hall, also developed an hour-long stand-up comedy routine about his efforts and dust with English expressions and mannerisms. The show, “The Yank is a Manc”, had 24 dates in 2017 in the UK, including the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (In England, anyone from the United States is a Yank, and people from the Manchester area are called Mancs.)

The calm weather imposed by the pandemic, says DePree, gave him the space he needed to reflect on why he felt such urgency to preserve his ancestors’ home – which is almost as large as the White House. – and to restore it to its former, landed-glory of nobility.

After all, he didn’t know Hopwood Hall existed until 2013.

As a child, DePree’s grandfather, Herbert Hopwood Black, told him about a castle in England that was named after Hopwood, but young DePree knew his grandfather had never set eyes on such a place. . Because the stories were mostly told at bedtime, DePree assumed they were fairy tales.

Unlike his grandfather, who was proud to have the middle name Hopwood, DePree was determined the moment he entered school that his middle name would not play well on the playing field. Although his mother l Called “Woody” or “Hoppy” as a young child, he insisted on being called his first name, Tod. This name is derived from the initials of his father, Thomas Oliver DePree, a Dutch businessman who was long-time chairman of the Ottawa County Republican Party and served on the Ottawa County Commission.

A Hollywood agent encouraged DePree, then 25, to stop hiding his middle name because the name Hopwood is fun and memorable.

The stories were true

DePree says the loss of her grandfather in 2008, quickly followed by her father’s unexpected death in 2010, was a catalyst for contemplating her own life and legacy.

After a few glasses of wine one evening in 2013, DePree says he started snooping on an ancestry website from his home in Los Angeles and found a black-and-white photograph of Hopwood Hall.

Vintage image of Hopwood Hall.

“It was amazing to me that the castle my grandfather used to tell stories about actually existed,” DePree says. “I emailed the local council asking if the house was still standing because my ancestors lived there and I would like to visit.”

By the time DePree woke up eight hours later, he had several emails in his inbox from people in Rochdale, England, reporting that Hopwood Hall was up – but was on the verge of collapse.

Soon he was in communication with Bob Wall, a local man who was leading an effort to preserve and restore the hall as an example of the cultural significance of an English country mansion. Hopwood Hall had stood empty for 30 years and was suffering the ravages of time. Without timely intervention, Hopwood Hall would be lost forever, insisted Wall, who became the hall’s caretaker.

After a few visits and many conversations with members of Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, which had owned the hall since the 1990s, DePree decided to sell his homes in Holland and Los Angeles and move to England to lead the restoration efforts of Dilapidated Hopwood. Hall as an arts, entertainment and cultural venue.

History of Hopwood Hall

Going through ancient records with local historian and undertaker Geoff Wellens, DePree was able to establish that his family, who originally spelled the name Hopwode, had lived on 5,000 acres of woodland between the towns of Middleton and Rochdale since 12e century.

The oldest part of Hopwood Hall is timber-framed and built over what had been their hunting lodge in 1426. The remainder, a two-storey stone and brick mansion, was built in a quadrangle.

The estate has been self-sufficient for centuries, even mining its own coal. About the middle of the 18e century, more farmers, cooks, maids, butlers, carriage drivers, gardeners and caretakers were employed at Hopwood Hall Estate than in all of Middleton.

Hopwood DePree at Hopwood Hall.

Her stature was so great that Lord Byron – perhaps the greatest English poet of the Romantic movement – is said to have taken inspiration for her most famous poem, ‘Child Harold’s Pilgrimage’ from her 10-day stay in Hopwood. Lobby.

World War I ended the Hopwood family’s multi-generational run on the property. The last male heirs, Edward and John Hopwood – along with two dozen Hopwood Hall staff – died during the war. Devastated, the surviving family members moved to London. In 1922, the family put the estate up for sale but found that the large rural estates had become white elephants.

During World War II, the Lancashire Cotton Co., which made uniforms for soldiers, moved operations to Hopwood Hall, believing that Axis forces would not detect and bomb them in the countryside.

Later in the 20th century, an order of monks ran a college of teachers there. But by the end of the 1980s, the hall was unoccupied, falling into disrepair and becoming a favorite target for vandals.

A place of historical interest

When DePree first set eyes on the location nine years ago, only about a third of the floor space was deemed safe enough to walk on. Many leaded glass windows were smashed. There were holes in the ceilings and floors. The flat roof of Hopwood Hall held so much water that it looked like a pond.

Hopwood Hall was designated a place of historic interest in 1957. England has a rating system for determining historic significance. Even as the estate began to crumble into ruins, it was among the top 5% structures to preserve.

It takes years to make the place waterproof and structurally sound — a painstaking and Herculean effort that DePree hopes can be completed by crews carrying out the preservation work as early as 2023.

The cost of the restoration will likely be between $5 million and $13 million. The wide range, DePree explains, is because crews never know how much dry rot they’ll need to replace until the walls are open. And Hopwood Hall has a lot of walls. The renovated structure will have 25 rooms, which DePree says will be operated as a hotel.

Funds from grants, donations

The renovation is funded by grants from historic preservation entities, as well as private donations. DePree is personally invested in the project and says everything he does — including writing “Downton Shabby” — is for the purpose of preserving the venue. He says he hopes to one day reside in a modest apartment inside the hall.

Many local volunteers contributed their time and expertise to the project.

DePree says that when he returned to England in May 2021, after COVID-19 vaccines made travel safe again, he found crews hard at work recovering Hopwood Hall’s heritage gardens after 30 years of proliferation.

Along with Wall’s son, Fred, DePree films and produces the steps of the restoration process and posts them to a youtube.com channel.

“A lot of people are passionate about this project,” says DePree, who does the repairs. “I have never been alone in this situation. My job is to keep the momentum going. It’s not unlike film production in that there’s so much to put together before there’s a finished project.

“It just takes a lot longer than making a movie. And I know it will be even more rewarding.