Books

Michigan native’s book details his effort to restore ancestors’ English manor

A Michigan native’s madcap midlife crisis prompted him to mothball his acting and directing career in Hollywood so he could move to rural England and devote himself fully to restoring his family’s dilapidated ancestral manor. That tale is now a book.

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

DePree, who grew up in Holland, will be showing video and photos of Hopwood Hall — parts of which are 600 years old — while reading excerpts from the book. He also will field questions from the audience. The event is free but space is limited, so participants are asked to reserve a spot.

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

“I’m thrilled to be able to open the book tour in West Michigan, which will always be my home,” says DePree, whose years in England have taught him to drink tea, munch biscuits, and wear a waxed canvas coat with wellies (rain boots).

“Actually,” he continued, “a lot of the book is about my upbringing in West Michigan, and what was going on in my life that made the idea of ​​preserving this house in England so compelling.”

Aerial photo of Hopwood Hall. (Phil Longley)

Pandemic-imposed quiet time

DePree wrote most of the book — which is getting favorable reviews for its self-effacing humor and insights — while visiting Holland during the first year of the pandemic. With England quarantining, construction projects to restore the once-grand home ground to a standstill. DePree decided to isolate himself in close proximity to his mother, Deanna DePree, and sisters, Dana and Dori, who all live in the Holland area.

A New York literary agent had approached DePree about writing a memoir about his efforts to restore Hopwood Hall in 2018 after reading a USA Today news story titled “Downton Shabby,” DePree’s loving nickname for the ramshackle estate that was five to 10 years from being beyond repair before he entered the scene.

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

The pandemic-imposed quiet time, DePree says, gave him the space he needed to reflect on why he felt such urgency to preserve his ancestors’ home — which is almost as big as The White House — and restore it to its former, landed- gentry glory.

After all, he hadn’t known Hopwood Hall existed until 2013.

As a child, DePree’s grandfather, Herbert Hopwood Black, told him about a castle in England that bore the name Hopwood, but young DePree knew his grandfather had never laid 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 resolved by the time he entered school that his middle name would not play well on the playground. Although his mother called him “Woody” or “Hoppy” as a young child, he insisted on being called his given first name, Tod. That name was derived from the initials of his father, Thomas Oliver DePree, a Holland businessman who was the longtime chair of the Ottawa County Republican Party and served on the Ottawa County Commission.

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

The stories were true

DePree says the losses of his grandfather in 2008, quickly followed by the unexpected death of his father in 2010, were a catalyst for contemplating his own life and legacy.

After a couple of glasses of wine one night in 2013, DePree says he started poking around 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 unbelievable to me that the castle my grandfather told stories about actually existed,” DePree says. “I sent an email to the local council to ask if the house still stood because my ancestors used to live there and I would like to visit.”

By the time DePree woke up eight hours later, he had several email messages in his inbox from people in Rochdale, England, reporting that Hopwood Hall was standing — but was on the verge of crumbling.

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 manor. Hopwood Hall had stood empty for 30 years and was experiencing 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 lots of conversations with members of the Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, which has owned the hall since the 1990s, DePree decided to sell his houses in Holland and Los Angeles and move to England to spearhead efforts to restore run-down Hopwood Hall as an arts, entertainment, and cultural venue.

Hopwood Hall history

Perusing ancient archives with local historians and undertaker Geoff Wellens, DePree was able to establish that his family, which originally spelled the name Hopwode, had lived on 5,000 woodland acres between the towns of Middleton and Rochdale since the 12th century.

The oldest part of Hopwood Hall is timber-framed and constructed on what had been their hunting lodge in 1426. The rest, a two-story stone and brick manor, was built in a quadrangle.

The estate was self-sustaining for centuries, even mining its own coal. By the middle of the 18th century, more farmers, cooks, maids, butlers, carriage drivers, gardeners, and caretakers were employed at Hopwood Hall Estate than resided in all of Middleton.

Hopwood DePree at Hopwood Hal.

So grand was its its stature that it’s said Lord Byron — perhaps England’s leading poet of the Romantic Movement— is said to have taken the inspiration for his most famous poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” from his 10-day stay at Hopwood Hall.

World War I ended the Hopwood family’s multigenerational run on the property. The last male heirs, Edward and John Hopwood — as well as two dozen members of Hopwood Hall’s staff — died in the war. Devastated, surviving family members moved to London. In 1922, the family put the estate up for sale but found that large country estates had become white elephants.

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

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

A place of historic interest

When DePree first laid eyes on the place nine years ago, only about one-third of the floorspace was deemed safe enough to walk on. Many of the leaded glass windows were broken out. There were holes in ceilings and floors. Hopwood Hall’s flat roof was holding 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 was beginning to crumble into ruins, it was rated in the top 5% of structures that should be preserved.

It is taking years to render the place watertight and structurally sound – a painstaking, Herculean effort that DePree hopes can be completed by teams doing the preservation work by as early as 2023.

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

Funds from grants, donations

Renovation is being paid for through 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 the hall’s preservation. He says he one day hopes to reside in a modest apartment inside the hall.

Many local volunteers have been giving their time and expertise to the project.

DePree says that, when returned to England in May 2021, after COVID-19 vaccines made traveling safe again, he found teams hard at work reclaiming Hopwood Hall’s heirloom gardens from 30 years of overgrowth.

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

“Lots of people have passion for this project,” says DePree, who’s hands-on with repairs. “I’ve never been in this alone. My job is to keep the momentum going. It’s not producing a movie in that there are so many things to bring together before there’s a unlike finished project.

“It just takes a lot longer than doing a movie. And I know it will feel even more rewarding.”

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