Back Story

Sharon Ferraro

Historic Preservation Coordinator, City of Kalamazoo

When Sharon Ferraro was a young girl, she fell in love. Hard.

The object of her affection was the Delos Chappell-Stewart House at 213 Elm St., where her best friend lived.

“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” Ferraro says. “It had an attic, a basement, fireplaces and a carriage barn. It was just cool, cool, cool.”

It wasn’t the last old building she became smitten with. After visiting the Sand Hills Light Station as a teenager, she “found a whole new category of old buildings to fall in love with.”

That love drives Ferraro today as the city of Kalamazoo’s historic preservation coordinator. She works with building owners, homeowners and others to preserve and restore historic structures within the city. She is also helping to coordinate June’s Hidden Kalamazoo event, which is a walking tour of unseen historic spots in downtown Kalamazoo.

How did you get where you are today?

I grew up here, I was one of six kids and my dad (Lance Ferraro) was a photographer. I worked on an undergrad degree at Western (Michigan University) and dropped out, got married and had kids. I went back in 1990 to get a history degree and wondered what I was going to do with it. In my last class, which I took from Peter Schmitt, he revealed to us that there were people who got paid to do histories of old buildings and to preserve them. I thought “This is the perfect job for me.”

I applied to Eastern (Michigan University), which had a really good historic preservation program, got a graduate assistantship and went there for two years. I came back to Kalamazoo and worked as an independent contractor doing projects, including a citywide Reconnaissance Level Historic Resource Survey, which is an inventory of everything in Kalamazoo that’s historic and where it’s located. In 2001, the historic preservation coordinator job came up, I applied for it, got it and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

Which of your projects are you most proud?

Oh, there’s so many of them! There’s the 100 block of Michigan Avenue now the Metropolitan Center. Downtown Tomorrow Inc. owned the buildings and wanted to tear them down. The Historic Preservation Commission was trying to keep them up. We worked together and DTI found investors. The developer MavCon took it on, and it was their first brownfield project.

Also, the state hospital water tower. In 1975-76, the tower was owned by the state, and they wanted to tear it down. People were so upset that they raised $210,000 from donors, grants and kids collecting money on Halloween. At that point, ownership of the tower passed to the state’s Bureau of History. Seven or eight years ago they wanted to know what condition it was in and what they do needed to do for it. I worked with the State Historic Preservation Office and contractors on a grant to do a refurbishment assessment. The outcome was that if we just keep the tower’s roof in good shape, we probably have another 20 years before we have to worry about anything.

Why do you do what you do?

My job is to open people’s eyes to the fact that history is still all around us. I see the whole culture in the U.S. turning in the direction of having a greater appreciation of history. People love old buildings and are just getting into the idea of inserting the modern day into those old buildings. On television, everyone lives in a Craftsman house or an apartment in an old building, and there’s this whole aesthetic that living in old building is cool.

Is there any old building in town you don’t know?

Oh, I am sure there are a few… I frighten people sometimes because I know their houses. I once asked a guy if the attic in his house was still open, and he looked at me like I was weird, so I told him I used to babysit there.

What’s an ideal day for you?

I like advising people and being able to tell them the history of their buildings. You’ve just gotta know what you’re seeing. It’s like being able to walk down the street and identify the trees. I see styles and materials and rooflines and all these other things. Foundations are a dead giveaway every time. I love doing that kind of thing and showing people that.

What do you do when you aren’t looking at old buildings?

I quilt. I figured it out – I like taking lots of little things and putting them together so they make coherent sense, like historical research, jigsaw puzzles and quilting.

I also like long-distance walking. I love walking in the city looking at the houses. My dream is to walk the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail, which is 184 miles from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C. You’re walking through history.

Choose one word to describe yourself.

Authentic. I like the real thing. The replica is not good enough. I want the real thing, and I want to keep the real thing.

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