Features

The History of a House

A little sleuthing can help uncover a home’s past

One family’s history lesson: Learning from the layers

When Elizabeth and Aaron Lane-Davies bought a house at 611 Park Street, they knew it was in a historic district and that it was old. Relics left in the house’s rock-wall basement — including a giant steam press for ironing bed linens and antique furniture — told them that. What they didn’t know, though, was what the house looked like when it was originally built in the 1870s and that the house they bought wasn’t just one house but three.

“Back then, labor was cheaper than materials, so when the owners wanted to expand their house, they bought two smaller houses and moved them and tacked them onto the original structure,” says Elizabeth Lane-Davies.

This knowledge came from a little sleuthing using historical resources that are surprisingly abundant in Kalamazoo, thanks to excellent collections kept by Western Michigan University, the Kalamazoo Public Library, government offices and other institutions.

“It’s like detective work, where you find bits of information and put together a puzzle,” says Lynn Houghton, WMU regional history collections curator. “You may not find all the pieces, but you gather what you can and maybe down the road you find out more. It’s always a work in progress when you do a ‘genealogy of a house.’”

The Lane-Davies family has lived in Kalamazoo for the past 17 years, since they came here for Aaron’s medical residency at what was then the Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies-Bronson. Aaron, a native of Kalamazoo, is now the chief of staff at Bronson Methodist Hospital.

Two years ago the couple decided to buy a historic house in the Vine neighborhood that they could restore and eventually rent out. Because of the house’s proximity to the WMU medical school and based on their own experiences during Aaron’s time as a medical student, the couple hoped they could provide housing attractive to the school’s students.

“We came and we stayed, and we believe it’s important for medical students to be comfortable when they are going to school,” Elizabeth says. “Providing housing for them is a way of keeping good talent in Kalamazoo, so we became landlords in the Vine neighborhood. We love this old neighborhood.”

It turns out that medical students favor this neighbor-hood not only because it is a walkable and bikeable distance to downtown Kalamazoo and the medical school’s campus, but also because it is abundant with character.

When finished, the Lane-Davies house will have an apartment for a couple on one side and a larger space on the other side, encompassing the first and second floors, for six other renters to share. Aaron and Elizabeth hope that the co-housing unit will be used by medical students because research has shown, Elizabeth says, that medical students who live with other medical students have a higher level of success, due to increased support, connections and accountability.

But before the couple launched into renovating the house, which has certain historic district restrictions on what can be done to the exterior, they enlisted the help of their twins, Hayden and Hannah, 17, to research the house’s history. The family is living in the house while they work on it, and having the twins use their research skills to discover the history of the house helped engage them in the project.

While such research might seem like a daunting task, Hayden says he was rather unruffled by it.

“I spent some time on the second floor of the Kalamazoo Public Library, where I got opinions about where to look for this information,” he says, referring to the library’s local history department located on its upper level.

Hayden looked at microfilm records and picture books of the city’s oldest houses and found evidence of the original Park Street house as a genteel single-family dwelling. The house was later divided into smaller rooms to be used as a boarding house. Hayden also checked telephone books and Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for background on the house and its owners.

“There was a surprising amount of information available,” he says. “What it took at this point was visualizing the house as it was, based on the physical evidence, imagining what it used to look like and studying a bit of architectural history of the period.”

He also talked to the previous owners of the house, from whom he learned that Edna Ferber, author of So Big (1924), Showboat (1926), Cimarron (1929) and Giant (1952), had lived in a house next door as a toddler before her shopkeeper parents moved the family elsewhere. The house later burned down and was replaced by two other houses.

When the Lane-Davieses tackled the interior renovation of their house, they learned that what is now their first-floor “media room” was once a kitchen with a crawl space.

“The foundation of a house below the rooms is key to understanding the shape of the house,” says Elizabeth, who learned that trick from Sharon Ferraro, coordinator of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. “Sharon was an invaluable help to us.”

Renovating a house can reveal other information, like its age and the materials used. Peeling back old wallpaper and seeing the colors of previously used paint showed the Lane-Davieses that the house was really three houses put together. This fact was confirmed by the different kinds of molding used around the windows in different sections of the house and by the difference in wood flooring from one room to the next.

In one part of the house, the Lane-Davieses tried to save the plaster and in the process learned that it was made with horsehair. “We try to protect and preserve as much of the old materials as possible,” says Elizabeth.

They also uncovered pocket doors unique to the period of the house that had been hidden in the walls during one of many renovations of the structure, and they uncovered the original wood shake shingles on the roof.

The house also has a majestic curved staircase that had been obscured when the home was divided into apartments. The Lane-Davieses removed closets to open it up and uncovered a window on the staircase that was covered over. That’s when they discovered the house’s wraparound porch was not original to the structure but added on sometime between 1910 and 1920, after the three houses had been joined together. As a result, the porch's roof blocks the lower half of the window on the staircase.

“People used to cobble things together in their house to meet particular needs,” says Elizabeth, who says the thought is that the wrap-around porch was added to make the structure “more stately” like the homes built a few blocks away on South Street. In September, at a garage sale, the Lane-Davieses happened upon an 1883 illustrated drawing showing a bird’s-eye view of Kalamazoo. The illustration shows not only its home’s original shape but the homes of their neighbors. They found that not only did their house not have a porch, but it had a third-floor tower above the entryway that is no longer there. They are now thinking about restoring the tower.

But through it all, a renovation which is taking years, rather than the months they hoped, the Lane-Davieses are sticking to one principle: “We are trying to bring back and highlight the original beauty of the house,” says Elizabeth.

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