This is the first of a two-part series on historic houses in Kalamazoo. Hear the second installment Friday, September 11 on Arts and More.
A house that makes it to 100 is a survivor. Fire and neglect aren’t the only threats. They also succumb to the belief that newer is better. In the '40s and '50s, people who tore down buildings to make room for roads and parking claimed those structures had ‘outlived their usefulness.’ But others campaigned for preservation, and as a result many historic homes in Kalamazoo did survive.
In the first of a two-part series, we report on who built them and why.
Across the street from Western Michigan University’s first campus, a porch on a house on Davis Street has shifted off its foundation. Avery Marschke is working to fix it – chiseling away at the side.
“The grout and whatnot going on here is a little chipped up and so in order to shift this back over we have to kind of remove some of this,” he says as he works.
It’s a sprawling, rectangular house with wood siding. By appearance, it’s not one of the city’s oldest – but likely it was there before World War II.
You’d have to talk fast – like a caffeinated chipmunk – to do justice to Kalamazoo house history in a few minutes. But we do have time to touch on a few key points, hereby summarized as follows: Ancient Greece, streetcar, boom, boom, boom.
Let’s start with Ancient Greece – or rather, with the year 1838, when Kalamazoo’s first documented permanent house was built in a style that was trending out east: Greek Revival.
“It became popular in the United States at a time when we thought that we were an extension of Greek democracy," says Lynn Houghton, Curator of Regional History Collections at the WMU archives.
Houghton says that in Michigan, Ionia County and Athens Township both owe their names to the nineteenth-century American fascination with ancient Greece.
What do Greek Revivals look like? The size and shape varies, but think symmetry, and pillars real or fake.
“The windows are about the same shape and size. They have shutters on either side. Some are painted white to simulate Greek marble temples which they thought were white,” she says.
That original house moved – twice – and now sits at Vine Street and South Westnedge Avenue, somewhat disguised by fake brick siding.
That’s Ancient Greece. We’ll talk more about the styles that succeeded Greek Revival in Kalamazoo in the second part of this series.
On to the streetcar. Its role was simple but profound. Before that, Houghton says, people tended to build in the flatter parts of the city.
“We’re sort of designed as a salad bowl where the downtown and those core neighborhoods are at the base of the salad bowl,” she says.
But starting in 1884, and over the next few years, the streetcar made it easier to move up and down hills. Stuart is an example of a neighborhood where it allowed growth to take off.
Finally: Kalamazoo’s three housing booms. Number one began around 1895. People were moving to town to work in factories.
“A lot, lot, lot of houses were built in that time period,” says city Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro.
She says as people moved in, celery farms on the North Side became neighborhoods. And in Edison, the former National Driving Park – 60 acres of horse tracks, park and fairgrounds – went up for grabs after 1893.
Vine grew up as a largely rental neighborhood. Ferraro says that before the dawn of the mortgage in the 1920s, many people had to rent their homes.
“They’d take their wood stoves and move them from house to house when they moved,” she says.
Students began to rent in Vine when the university’s precursor, the Western State Normal School, opened – with no dorms – at the turn of the 20th century.
The second housing growth spurt started more than 20 years after the first one began, in the years that followed World War I. Returning soldiers looked for work in cities instead of going back to their homes.
“It was so crowded in Kalamazoo at that time that people were doing what was called hot bunking, which meant that you wouldn’t be renting a room, you’d be renting a space in a bed. And the other guy would have just gotten up when you came off of your shift and went to bed,” she says.
And housing boomed again in Kalamazoo – and across the country – after World War II.
“That would be the areas like – out on Milwood, along Parkview out in the Winchell neighborhood, and parts of the North side were all built up at that time period with the small homes for the GIs.”
Those postwar houses are now older than 50 – which means that from a preservationist’s point of view, they’re historic. Ferraro acknowledges that might seem strange.
“My kind of informal rule of thumb is your grandparents house is cool, your parents’ house is not. And especially your great-grandparents’ house is like really cool,” she says.
But Houghton counts a few ranch houses and cape cods among the city’s most notable recent homes; also a handful of Lustron houses. Built for just a few years in the late 1940s with a coated metal exterior, they look like colorful shoeboxes.
And Ferraro mentions the house she lives across from, built in 1956 with a bomb shelter in the yard.