Beginnings of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Autumn 2001,
Autumn 2001
Original Images:








Author: William P. Edmunds

The Ypsilanti Historical Museum had its beginning with the collection of material about Ypsilanti that was put together by Lewis White, who ran a photographic studio. Lewis White was a long time if not life time resident of Ypsilanti. He became extremely interested in its history and collected as much material as he could about what had gone on in the city with family histories, photos of family members, businesses, stories of businesses, etc. White borrowed many photos from many people, promising to have them copied and returned. However, many of them were never returned to the families and later were found among his archives. Included in some of the Elliott family albums were penciled notations that the photos had been loaned to Lewis White. At any rate White put together quite a collection. When the City became aware of White's collection, he was appointed the City Historian and given a modest stipend to continue his work. The collection accumulated and came to occupy part of a closet in the Ladies Library building on North Huron Street. When the City Library in the Ladies Library building was closed, those records were moved to the third floor of old City Hall. Because of the interest White stimulated in Ypsilanti of the City's history, a Historical Commission was appointed when the City Charter was changed. It was through the Historical Commission that Lewis White functioned. Upon White's death in 1963, there were a number of people both in the community and on the Historical Commission interested in putting together a local historical museum.

Creation of the Ypsilanti Historical Society

The first step in this direction was taken when the Historical Commission assisted in the creation of the Ypsilanti Historical Society. I can't give you the exact date this came into being, but it was in the early 1950's. Dr. Brad and Mildred Harris as well as Mary and Foster Fletcher were prime movers in this effort. During the early days of the Ypsilanti Historical Society, there was no specific place to meet and so meetings were held in various places such as in peoples' homes, in schools, and sometimes in a church basement.

Creation of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum

Concerned about the Lewis White collection and needing a home for the Society, there was a movement set afoot by Foster Fletcher and Brad Harris to create an Ypsilanti Historical Museum. They, in fact, got the Ypsilanti Historical Society to go on record that the Society wished to form this Ypsilanti Historical Museum. Around 1968, the Library Association felt that the Ladies Library building was no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the growing library. The library needed more space and they began stirring up interest to build a new Ypsilanti library. The funds were not quite evident then. About this same time, the United States Post Office vacated its building on the southeast corner of Adams and Michigan Avenue and moved to a location one block south and on the opposite side of the street. The new Post Office building was built to permit truck deliveries and was much better suited to their growing needs. The government then offered the vacated Post Office building to any local unit of government for $1.00 if they would take it over and utilize it. There was some suggestion the schools might take it over and when questioned about what they would use it for, they thought that it might possibly be used as a centrally located warehouse for the schools. Mostly they hated to see it go on the open market and turn into another gas station vis-a-vis Cleary College. Actually the government had no real need for the building.

Ladies Library Moves to Old Post Office Building

At that time a number of us in the community became concerned and felt that the old Post Office would make a very good Library for the City of Ypsilanti and be a whole lot cheaper than building a new one. It had considerably more space and was a stronger, sturdier building with good lighting and would be satisfactory for the needs of the Library. The comment was made that it looked like every Carnegie library that had been built by the Carnegie Foundation in towns across the eastern United States.

Judy Wyman (who was our next door neighbor) was incensed that the library group wasn't interested in the Post Office building. We talked about it and I believe I wrote up a petition requesting that the City pursue the acquisition of the Post Office for a City Library. We and others circulated this petition. I have no idea how many signatures it received, but a number of people circulated it to the community and it was presented to the City Council. Accepting the petition, the City Council acquired the Post Office building from the Federal government. When the City acquired the building and began moving the Library into the old Post Office, they were able to use it with relatively few alterations to the arrangements on the ground floor. However, the basement, aside from having toilet facilities at the bottom of the stairs, held no interest to the Library.

Acquiring Space in Library Basement

After looking at this space, Dr. Harris, Foster Fletcher and others felt this Library basement area would be an adequate place to start our Museum. So we approached the City through the Historical Commission to commit this basement space for our use as a museum and that was done.

Making the Basement Space Habitable

When we acquired the basement area, the furnace had been changed to oil or gas from stoker coal. The basement was a filthy mess. There was still probably four or five cubic yards of stoker coal still left in the room that had been used as a coal bin. If we wanted to use that space we had to get it carried out. Fortunately, we found a gentleman on the south side who was still burning coal in his furnace and he was happy to take it out one sack at a time and clear room for us. He got his winter supply of coal for a little bit of sweat. When that was done we looked around and it was still in a terrible mess. The walls seemed to be peeling and needed very badly to be washed down.

Ken Leighton was very active in the Historical Society at that time. He was an accountant who also managed some commercial properties within the community. He said he had a friend who did some cleaning for him that he knew pretty well and thought he could borrow steam cleaning equipment to clean the basement. We had tried looking at the paint to see if we could scrape it, but it appeared to be an interminable job and thought maybe we could wash it, give it a coat of paint and be done with it. So one Saturday afternoon, Ken Leighton and I showed up and his friend, with the cleaning equipment, came in wearing a pair of rubber boots. That is where I met John Barfield.

Barfield didn't want any amateurs using his professional equipment so he came in and ran the steam cleaner. We spent the afternoon hitting the walls down there with this pressure steam cleaner he had. Low and behold the walls in the basement were glazed yellow brick. They were really quite pleasant looking. It became apparent that every few years instead of washing down the walls, the Post Office Department had just thrown on another coat of white wash. The result was this stuff dissolved into a soup and left the walls nice and clean. Having gotten the coal out, the cleaner made short work of the coal bin. The upshot of it was that with about a day and a half of effort on that weekend, we had the basement pretty well cleaned up. Of course we had to dry it and mop it out.

When we took stock of the basement area to see what could be done with the space, we decided it needed some lighting for it to be reasonably presentable. The ceiling was still a bit of a mess and we didn't have a good solution to that. Ken Leighton came up with some acoustic tile which had been taken out when remodeling one of his buildings. There was sufficient of it for us to put the acoustic tile up in the basement. So we got some industrial adhesive and put it up. I can remember climbing the ladders with Court Snidecor, Ken Leighton and I've forgotten who else. When we got the acoustic tile up on the ceiling we needed some lighting. When the Ladies Library moved out of their building, the flourescent fixtures had been left with no particular use planned for them. Again we acquired permission from the City and Andy Smith, with his usual generosity, took the fixtures down from the Ladies Library, moved them over to the basement of the old Post Office and rehung them.

Suddenly we had very good lighting and this lighting showed us we had a very lousy looking floor. The Historical Society appropriated the money and purchased vinyl tile to put down and cover the basement floor. I've forgotten who the people were who put this down. I know I wasn't involved but I don't believe we did any more on a financial basis other than pay for the tile itself. Some of the membership and friends came out and put down the tile as well.

The City decided we needed a fire wall so they put up a bit of a cement block wall around the furnace to meet code. We were in business. We received our first display cabinets from the University of Michigan and set out our first displays. We now had a space adequate to hold our meetings and it worked out quite well for a year or two. This probably would have been about 1970 by the time we were moved in and functioning.

Kicked Out of the Library Basement…

However, once we got it all shined up and looking pretty neat and clean, suddenly the Library decided that, by golly the Historical Museum's area would make a very nice area for the children's reading room and other things. They really could use OUR space advantageously. It had two entrances: one to the back and one from the main library upstairs. And, it met fire codes. So the Library prevailed on the City to push us out into the street. We were kicking and screaming about all the work we had put into the clean up and the Library had done nothing. Without our efforts, the Library still wouldn't have had a useful space.

Acquiring Building at 220 North Huron Street…

At the time Dick Boatwright was Mayor of Ypsilanti (1970-72), we began kicking and screaming about being forced out of the Library basement. City offices were located in the old City Hall on North Huron Street. The City had acquired several pieces of property down Huron Street. As a matter of fact the City had acquired all the property on the east side from the corner of Cross Street down as far as St. Luke's Church. The City had no immediate plans for the building at 220 North Huron and Mayor Boatwright offered it to us for use as a museum. When we looked at the building, it was divided into what I recall as eight or more apartments. It seemed to have potential but we weren't wildly excited about it because it needed a lot of work. Although we would have more space. We went back to the City and pointed out they were kicking us out of the old Post Office building in which we had put over $1,000 of the Historical Society's money into buying tile, paint and things that were needed for the basement. Also, the membership had put a considerable amount of effort and hours and hours of work into it and felt we had a very significant sweat equity in the area from which we were being dispossessed. We told the City we would take the building at 220 North Huron but would need to have some money for restoration to make it useful to us.

Seeking Counsel and Advice…

I've forgotten whether we had bids on it but we received $28,000 from the City to do the beginning work on the Museum. At the time I was head of the so called Building Committee for the Museum and responsible for what renovations and things needed to be done. I was very concerned about this responsibility considering the significance of the building itself and the number of changes that would have to made in it. About that same time, the Ladies Literary Club was having some renovations done and my wife Nathalie was head of its Building Committee. Nathalie had done some checking through the State History Division seeking a preservation architect. They advised her to contact a firm in Lansing by the name of Frank and Stein which was rather memorable.

One of the partners Dick Frank did come. He came to Ypsilanti to look at the Ladies Literary Club and did a thorough analysis. From that he made drawings for renovations to the back end of their building. Everyone was quite pleased with the results. While he was involved with that project, I approached him about looking at our building at 220 North Huron in order to advise us on what we should or shouldn't do to the building. I explained to him that we were rather hard up and couldn't afford a great deal. He said he would look at it for us for a cost of about $150. When I came back to the Board, everybody was too tight fisted to cough up the money. I told the Board I was faced with a thing where I didn't want in 20 to 30 years someone coming back to me saying “why did you destroy this?” and “you ruined that!” and all this other stuff. So I told the Society I would pay for the architect but I'd write a check to the Museum and the Museum would pay the architect. This way I could deduct it. When that was done, architect Dick Frank came through and we spent about a day crawling over, under and around the building. Frank pointed out many of the unique features of the building. He used a term then which became much more significant as time went on. He said “we shouldn't do anything that would violate the original fabric of the building.” Whatever we did in the way of changes should be done in the direction of putting back what had originally been there. Frank suggested certain things for demolition and when that was done, he came back and looked at it again and advised us further. The upshot of it is basically the current Museum configuration.

One exception to the current configuration was that the current Archives space was not available to us in the beginning. There was an elderly lady (whose name I don't recall) who had occupancy of the Archive area. The terms of sale of the building to the City was that she would have occupancy as long as she wished. She was to continue paying rent and still have the right to stay there and not be moved out of her apartment. The City accepted those terms and we did also. Some years later, possibly four to five or longer, she became too old to remain independent and moved to a nursing home where she remained until she died. We were then given the opportunity to use her space for the Museum.

Continued in April 2002 issue of Gleanings.