The endearing history of homes

On May 18, the Tri-Cities Historical Museum will launch the 28th year of its historic home tour program, exploring and sharing the legacy of area residences and how they both shape and reflect the community in which we live.
Mar 22, 2013

There will be many wonderful stories to tell. 

During my tenure as curator at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, I had the privilege to own and intimately experience the values of an historic home. A fixer-upper, the residence was selected for its prime location, and to affordably accommodate the comforts and needs of a growing family of five. 

It was only later, and over an extended period of time, that I was able to discover some of the fascinating stories associated with this home’s history. 

The two-story structure was solidly built in 1890 using an architecture commonly referred to as Victorian-stick style. Its most outstanding feature was the quality and craftsmanship of the woodwork in its interior spaces — wood that, thankfully, had never been painted. 

I marveled at the details of the sculpted red and white oak crown molding and baseboards that respectively joined the ceilings to walls, and walls to floors. In the parlor, beautiful oak beams and wall panels were accompanied by a massive mantel piece overhanging the fireplace. An intricately carved staircase led to the upper level. 

Remarkably, all of the wood was knot-free, reflecting a quality of selection, and a time and place when such oak was in more plentiful supply. I came to speculate that the original owner of this home must have held some prominence in the community.               

As curator of a maritime museum, I was delighted to learn of a remarkable coincidence. The house I purchased had been built for a local steamer captain. The home’s proximity to river and lake made perfect sense for someone so engaged in the maritime trades. Similarly, ship masters of this era were paid well for their services and expertise, allowing for the construction of such a quality building. 

In light of the owner’s maritime connections, I wondered if the interior woodwork might have been crafted by local shipbuilders, an active industry in South Haven at the time of the home’s construction. I also knew it was not uncommon for shipwrights, the most masterful of wood craftsmen, to work alternatively in the house construction industry in their off-season. Sadly, I was not able to learn any further details about this aspect of the home’s heritage.

Still, the story did not end there. A related Associated Press article was written and circulated about a “maritime curator living in a lake captain’s home.” This article, which identified the captain, was discovered by his niece, an elderly woman now living in Germany, who had regularly summered as a young girl in her mariner uncle’s South Haven domicile. She graciously asked to visit, to walk through the house and to share her memories with us.

Among other things, we learned where family members lived — the captain’s room naturally looking out toward the lake — and the smaller space where a “dark-haired” daughter had tragically died. We were astounded. One of our daughters, who occupied the same room, had told us years before of occasionally waking at night to what she described as the visage of a young girl with long black hair seated at the end of her bed. Could this have been the captain’s daughter? 

As we strolled through the space, there were many other details delightfully shared by the captain’s niece about everything from original furnishings to how the house was enjoyed by family, and even the personality of the captain himself, which further endeared us to our home and its historic occupants. 

In the end, it was a difficult place to leave. The house, like so many others in that South Haven neighborhood, was eventually sold to Chicago buyers for use as a summer residence. Yet, the ties for us remain strong, serving as an important setting and context for the shared memory and history of our family.

Exploring and sharing the history of our community’s houses and neighborhoods is an important part of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum’s mission. Please join us on May 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as we offer the opportunity to visit 11 historic homes extending along the Second Street corridor from Franklin Avenue to Woodlawn Avenue in Grand Haven. Museum docents and homeowners will acquaint you with the architectural styles and histories of each house (and where we can, its past residents) along with engaging interior tours. 

Tickets, ticket prices, historic home tour brochures and other information are available by visiting the Tri-Cities Historical Museum at 200 Washington Avenue, or our website at tri-citiesmuseum.org, or by calling 616-842-0700.       

— By Kenneth Pott, director of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum

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