The Many Lives of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Summer 2007,
Summer 2007
Original Images:

Author: Laurie Turkawski

Asa Dow was the original owner of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum building, but what is the story behind the house? Many changes take place in the lifetime of a building, and the Dow home is no exception. What did it originally look like? When did it change and why? These questions can be surmised by looking at the owners and occupants of the house over time.

Many of the stories about Asa Dow and his business partner Daniel L. Quirk tell of how Dow followed Quirk to Ypsilanti. But it was Dow who first built his home on North Huron Street around 1860. Dow and Quirk's impact on the city would be felt for years to come, as they organized several early influential businesses in Ypsilanti. Dow and Quirk were founders of the Ypsilanti Woolen Mills and organizers of the First National Bank of Ypsilanti, of which Dow became the first president.

Dow purchased the lot at 220 N. Huron Street and built a large single-family home there. The 1865 Birdseye map reveals the look and shape of Dow's home, which can be seen next to earlier buildings on the Quirk lot. Dow's home was originally the only building on his property. The original floor plan of the house was four rooms with a central hall on both the first and second floors, and a one-story kitchen off the back. Kitchens were commonly isolated from the main house for several reasons. If a fire broke out in the kitchen, it would be separated from the house and cause less damage. The house would also remain cooler in the summer when the cooking took place in the back kitchen.

Dow and his wife Minerva only lived in the house on Huron Street for a few years before Minerva's death in 1864. Dow moved to Chicago and sold his house in 1865 to Aaron H. Goodrich, who came to Ypsilanti to manage the Follett House Hotel in Depot Town. 1870 census records indicate that Goodrich and his wife Julia lived in the house with several servants and boarders. The local newspaper reported that Goodrich had a fence installed in the yard at the same time that Daniel Quirk installed one in his own yard. Goodrich and his wife lived in their house until 1879, when they moved to nearby Saline and sold the property to Mr. and Mrs. Lambert Barnes.

Members of the Barnes family lived in the house longer than any other family did during its configuration as a single family dwelling. Lambert Barnes was a prominent man in Ypsilanti. He served as president of Peninsular Paper Company, Mayor of Ypsilanti from 1875–78 and again from 1879–1880, and then became vice-president of First National Bank of Ypsilanti. Mrs. Lambert Barnes was Jane Geddes, daughter of Washtenaw County pioneer Robert Geddes.

Sometime between 1865 and 1893, a major change to the house seems to have occurred. A second (half) story was added above the back kitchen, possibly to provide living accommodations for the Goodriches servants or the Barneses live-in housekeeper. This change was documented on the 1893 Sanborn fire insurance map, and can currently be observed on the house. Slightly off-colored bricks are present at the top of the walls of the kitchen section, which can be viewed from either the outside or from the interior exposed wall of the kitchen. The dashed lines on the map indicate there was once a porch which wrapped around the south and east sides of the kitchen. Also added to the property during this period was a two-story carriage barn behind the house.

Lambert Barnes passed away in 1887 and his wife Jane passed on in 1893. It is unknown exactly how long the house stayed in the Barnes family's name, but city directories show that two of the Barnes children, Alice and Robert, alternately lived there until at least 1920.

By 1922, the property was reportedly purchased by Laverne Ross, daughter of long-time Ypsilanti High School science instructor DeForrest Ross. There is no evidence that Laverne Ross ever lived in the house, but she instead converted it into apartments, possibly as early as 1922. Sanborn fire insurance maps from 1927 indicate the house had been turned into flats, and the carriage house had been converted into an automobile garage. A parking lot was also added. Drawings prepared in 1969 of the “Existing Ross House” indicate where walls had been erected to split the house up into apartments, possibly six in total, which included additional connecting bathrooms and kitchens. The apartments hosted many residents between the years of 1922 through 1966.

The house remained in Laverne Ross's name until 1966, when the City of Ypsilanti purchased it from her estate with the intention of turning it into the Ypsilanti Historical Museum. The house was converted back into a single-family dwelling with alternations for a house museum. False ceilings and walls were removed to reveal the original finishes of the house, including beautiful stenciled walls and elaborate plaster molding.

Since the Ypsilanti Historical Society purchased the museum in 2006, the society has continued the tradition of upgrading the house to its best current use. Alterations in the basement will bring the archives back into the museum building and also create better storage and a multi-purpose room. A new ADA accessible entrance on the north side of the house will ensure that all persons can enjoy these updates to the museum building.

Would Asa Dow have ever imagined the fate of his Ypsilanti home of only a few short years? Subsequent owners, including a mayor, enlarged the house to make room for their servants and boarders. In the 20th century, the house became an apartment building and provided shelter for many renters. Finally, the house was returned to its late 19th century roots and became the Ypsilanti Historical Museum, the keeper of Ypsilanti's history. Asa Dow would surely be proud.