Beginnings of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum, A Narrative History, Part II

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, April 2002,
April 2002
Original Images:










Author: William P. Edmunds

Continued from Part I

Going back to the original remodeling, we were very fortunate in being able to get in touch with two young men who were just starting out in the contracting business in Ann Arbor, Tom Armstrong and Jack Nuttal. Tom had grown up around this area. I think he may have come from Ypsilanti originally. Jack Nuttal was an English trained carpenter who in this country is the equal of a fine cabinet maker. Tom Armstrong's interest had been in plastering. Both Tom and Jack were able to put the wall back on the north side of the building between what is now used as the dining room and the front salon. If you look up at the top, you can see the place where the stenciling is absent and where it picks up. There was no wall where the stenciling stops. It was possible after some of the dry wall or plaster board had been taken down to determine the width of the doorway and the height of the door. That wall had been messed up because a bathroom and kitchen had been put in. There were kitchen cabinets in that front room which we took out. Behind the cabinets we discovered the original stencil decoration of the room. It is still visible to the right of the fireplace. There was an added window there, too, and if you look at the area from the outside you can see where the wall has been rebricked and the opening removed.

Tom Armstrong was able to cut a pattern to match the molding on the ceiling and to “shoot” a plaster molding in place. Sometime later after we had it done, someone from Greenfield Village came out and was taken through the Museum to see what suggestions we could get about restoration of some of the stenciling. He looked at it and said it was a shame we didn't have the inserts for that plaster molding and we really ought to see about getting some inserts made. They explained to him what he was looking at was all new plaster matched to the other and he hadn't recognized it. He didn't believe you could find a technician who could do work as fine as that. So we felt very blessed with it. Of course, as everyone knows, there were drop ceilings in all the downstairs rooms and that was what preserved the stenciling along the ceiling as well as the plaster molding and medallions in each of the rooms, which we are extremely fortunate to have.

When Jack Nuttal was done I think he said there were 17 separate pieces of molding on each side of the door from the salon to the dining room. The overall molding was built up from several separate pieces and I thought it was a beautiful job when it was done. Now 30 years later you still can't slip a piece of paper into any of his mitered joints. They have held absolutely perfect all this time. Tom Armstrong and Jack Nuttal did that work for us and were the ones who took down some of the ceilings plus did some touch up plaster work, removed all the bathrooms and kitchens which pretty well took care of the City's first $28,000.

From time to time as things came up that we had to do, we kept going back to the City and kind of nickel and dimed them to death.

Fortunately nobody there kept and accurate account of how much money the Museum did cost the City-we were fortunate for that and we and they will never know the total.

When it came time to do the archives room, I don't remember what it cost but I remember there was $400 in it for demolition. Laverne Howard and I said” hell, that seemed like an awful lot of money for tearing out plaster” so we got together, recruited my high school age son Bill and we went down there. We were knocking things out with a hammer and prybar. Laverne looked at the plaster wall and said “stand back” and he hauled back his size thirteens and stomped the plaster wall. We found out we could stomp the plaster down about 5 times as fast as we could have taken it down any other way. So we literally kicked the walls apart that divided up that space. And in the present archives space there was a kitchen, a bathroom, a couple of closets and a bedroom which had been framed in. So all that came out leaving it in its present configuration. Then the fun began. The floors had to be refinished and a number of other things done. But at any rate we saved $400 out of the budget to spend on something else and of course like everything the original estimates were quite optimistic and that $400 disappeared into some other things that needed to be done for that space.

About the same time, we had the advice of another architect Ward Swartz who had retired back to Ypsilanti. Originally he had been in partnership with Gwen Morehouse. They had been pretty successful architects here in town. Both of them were trained at the University of Michigan and understood the classic elements in architecture and how they should be incorporated. Ward Swartz was recruited to become the head architect for Colonial Williamsburg and the work that was being done in Williamsburg at that time in the 1950's. He and his wife Rhea had great interest in Ypsilanti. And always intended to return to Ypsilanti. Rhea was involved as a docent and I don't know what else at the Williamsburg restoration while Ward was the architect. When they did move back we were looking toward having a Director. Doris Milliman at that time had been Director of the Museum and she felt that being Director of the Museum was requiring more time than we had a right to expect on a volunteer basis. She wasn't asking for money and wanted to resign. So she suggested we go to Rhea Swartz and offer her some money to take over as a Museum Director. (Somewhere in this sequence Phoebe Miller was also Museum Director for a while.) We did go to Rhea and she became the first paid Director of Ypsilanti Historical Museum. I don't recall how many years Rhea served. I would guess 3 to 5 years.

The city at that time, through the Historical Commission, did approve her salary and so we were able to continue to function. Ward Swartz became interested in the museum and he looked it over and suggested that we might eventually be able to use the basement for meeting rooms and exhibit space by providing a back entrance to the museum coming in on grade from the rear. Ramp access could be provided since the floor of the basement was something less than five feet below the surface of the ground. No drawings were made of this to my knowledge. Ward felt, what we needed most urgently was humidity control and the air conditioning and that the heating system for the whole building needed to be changed from steam heat. The old gravity flow steam, boilers and radiators were barely able to make the grade and were a constant source of headache for maintenance. So he laid out a heating system where we went to forced air heat and the radiators and boiler were taken out.

Foster Fletcher then did his magic and came up with funds to put a cement floor in the basement because the large meeting room down there, plus some other part in the hall, was still just a dirt floor. So an inch or two of concrete was put in to create a dirt and dust free area and the building was air-conditioned along with this change in the heating system. The great bulk of that was paid by the city. Foster Fletcher did obtain funds from various sources that, as I understand it, paid for the air-conditioning. That was where the building rested for some period of time. There was lighting put down there and it was used for storage and we always looked rather regretfully at it not being able to go on to get decent access to the space and utilization of it for meetings, etc.

Then back around about 1989 or 1990 we talked to Liz Knibbe who had shown great interest in historical buildings. Liz was kind enough to make drawings for us for a entrance on grade from the back with a ramp down to it across the back of the property and an emergency exit on the north side. The exit would be on a well which would involve taking down a window opening to the floor level but the lintel over the window would serve as well for a door and wouldn't weaken the foundation significantly.

This was all worked out on paper but, when we came to that point our finances seemed to pretty much have dried up. Block grant funds were terminated so the city did not have the money available to give us to accomplish this and so the project came to a standstill.

Before Lew White died, there had been many people who had things, which they told Lew they would like to give to a museum, but they were leery of giving them to the city. When the Historical Society came up with its constitution and bylaws, there was a section provided that if we were unable to continue functioning, anything we received would pass to the State Historical Society. We were very reassuring to the community and as a consequence of it when we got the museum, we were able to accept larger artifacts and were the grateful recipients of many items that came to us from local families. People who were unwilling to give to the city gave to the Historical Society. This includes many of the records we have, not only the artifacts, but albums and records of family businesses and all types of other relevant materials.

In view of this, a long time back, even after the city had committed the present museum building to our use, a number of us were very concerned about the future of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum. We had gone into the post office building with good faith and had put a lot of effort into it; only to have the city kick us out and move us to our present location. We were and are equally concerned that the city's development plans might at some point include the museum for city offices, etc. and that we would again have to move elsewhere.

When the Lewis House became available, we took it on viewing it as a possible museum site were we again dispossessed. We received it from Eastern Michigan University and attempted to maintain it. We rented part of it and it was self-sustaining barely, but we weren't able to put much into maintenance. It became evident that if we were to continue to use the building that the building would need significant investment. We lacked the funds and rather than subject the Lewis House to demolition by neglect, we elected to sell it with restrictions for its on the deed. Therefore the Lewis House was sold with the restrictions on the deed that the building could not be changed significantly, internally or externally and certainly the present owner has done a magnificent job.

We were not dispossessed and as time went on it looked less and less likely that we would be. In the vicinity of 1980 (I would guess) we began talking about the fact that we needed to have some kind of long term financial security for the Museum. I wrote the first check to start an Endowment and Development Fund for the Ypsilanti Historical Society. Later on, this was altered slightly and became an Endowment Fund and was redrawn I think about 1989. In reality the fund has been in existence longer than that. After the Endowment Fund was created, it became the receptacle for money we received from the sale of the Lewis House. We also had some significant bequests that came to the Endowment Fund through Foster Fletcher's efforts especially the Nanry Bequest. There was also Chuck and Kottie Hagler, (great friends of Dr. and Mrs. Harris) who remembered us in their will. Both of the Hagler's had unexpected health problems, died within a few years of each other and each left us a significant bequest. Therefore the Endowment Fund was able to continue to grow and thrive through grace and compound interest.

One point that needs to be recognized is, that by and large, the Historical Society's funds have been expended primarily on decoration, operation and presentation of the collection to the public. The city's funds have been for the maintenance of the building externally and internally.

What I started to say was that after we first acquired this building for a museum, there were a number of us concerned about the fact that we had gone into the library with good faith and had put a lot of effort into it only to have the city kick us out and move us to our present location. We were equally concerned that the city's development plans might at some point include the museum for city offices, etc. and that we would again have to move elsewhere.

I haven't been terribly specific about all the things I recall about the beginnings of the museum, but this is a general outline of how it grew.

When Rhea Swartz left, Sharon Patterson came in and did a very good job as Director of the Museum. I can't say exactly how long that was. During this time, Foster Fletcher was the City Historian and was given a modest stipend from the city. Foster hired Dottie Disbrow to be his secretary and she did a lot of the typing for the City Historian. After a year or so, Foster went to the city and said he didn't like to take money he had to pay income tax on and turn around and pay Dottie when he couldn't deduct it. He suggested the city put Dottie on the city payroll directly which they did. And it was the outgrowth of that that the archivist became a paid position within the museum.

Again it was a time when monies were getting tighter and our Museum Director Sharon Patterson left. The city felt it could no longer carry her salary and we weren't able to, so the position of Museum Director was left vacant.

Continuing this dictation at a later date, I would like to go back to the things I omitted earlier particularly about Dick Frank's analysis of the building itself.

One of the features that Dick pointed out is one in the basement in which there is evidence of what would be called sleepers attached to the floor joists, the front rooms and hallway. The sleepers hold short cross boards laid upon them and then cement was poured in between these floor joists. What it amounted to was a stiffening for the floor joists which would give the floors a sense of solidity which would otherwise be lacking. Dick Frank's comment was that he had seen this done in commercial buildings of the period, but he had never seen it done in a private residence. That was one of the unusual features of the building.

Others I alluded to earlier being the front windows that slide up to get access to the front porch and to the method of controlling ventilation and air circulation through the solarium on the south side.

One other thing that was of minor interest —in the basement between two rooms, we also found a vertically mounted window, both the upper and lower sash, the immediate trim around it, and I believe, a prime coat on it, but it had never really been painted.

On the outside of the building it was evident on the second floor that they had ordered a window for that place and then found in construction that they had allowed insufficient room for the window on the southeast corner of the second floor and that the window would have to be a foot or more narrower than the rest of the windows on the second floor. Proof of this is the fact that there is a stone sill that extends beyond the window to the north. Apparently they had to special order a window. Since they had already paid for the other and couldn't return it, they kept it on hand in case it was needed some time in the future.

The possibility of using one or more of those sashes to replace ones which have seen better days is a definite possibility. The other thing that Dick Frank noticed at the time of our evaluation of the building was the brick on the outside had all been painted red to protect the soft fired bricks. They then ruled on white lines over the mortar joints and most of these have long since faded and disappeared. However under the protection of the roof of the porch and under the eaves on the back porch, they can still be seen. There are white vertical lines which do not follow the exact pattern of the exact brick laying, but were ruled on to produce a nice neat appearance. A somewhat similar technique was on the foundation. There is evidence the original limestone which is cut to fit but somewhat irregular was covered with mortar and grooved to suggest a more formal ashlar laid stone foundation to contribute to the general grandeur of the building.

Although Mr. Quirk and Mr. Dow were partners, the birds eye of 1860 reveals the presence of our current museum building, Mr. Dow's house, but has no evidence of the old city hall which was built by Daniel Lace Quirk. One of the newspapers commented on the single joint driveway shared by Mr. Dow and Mr. Quirk. This apparently was put in after the Quirk Building was erected.

When we first obtained the museum, the Carriage House apartments were also put under our control. The city received the rents for it, however we had the problems with the maintenance. All the water, gas and utilities seemed to come to our building first, then go to the Carriage House. Because of the inconvenience of it and the difficulties we had with it, we eventually prevailed upon the city to separate the two buildings completely as far as utilities were concerned and to relieve us from any responsibilities for the building.

Hopefully this information will be of some use. The exact dates I am a bit uncertain about. However, the general chronology I believe to be reasonably accurate. I hope you find this worthy of your reading efforts.

CHANGES IN CONSTITUTION PASSED AT QUARTERLY MEETING

At the Quarterly Meeting, held at the Museum on Sunday, February 17th, 2002, a change in Article V, Section 3 (a) was voted upon and passed with only one dissenting vote.

The past Article read as follows:

Article V Board of Directors and Officers
Section 3 The Officers serving the Society shall be as follows:
(a) A President who shall be elected for a term of one year by The Board of Directors from its membership at the first Board meeting following the Annual meeting….

The change in the above Article reads as follows:

Article V Board of Directors and Officers
Section 3 (a) A President, who is a sitting member of the Board, shall be elected by the Board for an indefinite term of office, serving at the pleasure of the Board and subject to annual ratification at the second monthly meeting of the Board following the annual meeting of the Society and elections of new Board members….

The members present also adopted the following addition to the Constitution to be inserted in the appropriate section.

No volunteer or employee of the Society who has not yet attained the age of eighteen (18) shall be permitted to serve alcoholic beverages at any function hosted or sponsored by the society.

The above propositions were presented at the February 17, 2002 Membership Meeting.