The Towner House: A Diamond in the Rough

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:




Author: James Mann

The streetscape of North Huron between Michigan Avenue and Cross Street is an almost complete textbook of the architectural styles of Michigan from the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Here are examples of Italianate Ville, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Ann, Georgian Revival and Neo Gothic. Each facility restored to former glory, outstanding examples of historic preservation. It is hard to believe these gems suffered years, if not decades, of neglect and abuse. By the 1970's a number of people in the City were ready to see each and every one of these buildings demolished. Now, each is a source of pride for the city. There is, however, one diamond in the rough to be found. This is the Towner House at 303 North Huron, on the corner with Emmet Street.

The Towner House is said to be the oldest house on its original foundation in Ypsilanti. The crossbeams in the basement are tree limbs, with the bark still on. The house is in the Greek Revival style of architecture, the first used in Michigan, after the log cabin. The style was made popular in America by builder guides, such as The American Builder's Companion by Asher Benjamin, The Builder's Assistant by John Haviland and Beauties of Modern Architecture by Minarl Lafever. Guides included plates showing examples of the style, as well as plans and instructions on how to build them. The professional architect was far in the future.

The site on which the Towner House stands was deeded to Marcus Lane and Arden H. Ballard on February 4, 1836, for a consideration of $181.37. Ballard and his wife quit their claim to the deed in April of 1837, for a consideration of $500. The rise in price on a property is usually the result of an improvement to the site, such as the construction of a house. Lane was one of the first attorneys in Washtenaw County. He was a delegate for Washtenaw County at the State Constitutional Convention in 1836. Ballard was a builder and it was he who built what is now the Ladies Literary Club House on North Washington Street and the original section of the Ballard-Breakey House on North Huron. Each was built in the Greek Revival style.

In most accounts of the Towner House, Lane is credited with the construction of the house. The date the house was built is not known, but accounts place it in about 1837. It is likely, that Lane partnered with Ballard to build the house in 1836, and once work was completed, Lane paid Ballard his fee.

“From the standpoint of architectural history,” wrote Kevin J. McDonough, in a paper dated February 7, 1982, “the Towner House is a rarity. It may possibly be the only house of post and beam barn type construction remaining in either Ypsilanti or Washtenaw County. Its' vernacular Greek Revival style, Gothic Revival porch, Michigan basement and haphazard additions make it a unique testament to the pioneer era of early Michigan. Because it stands on its' original site and foundation it is an important link in the physical evolution of the historic environment in which it is located. It's historical significance in this respect is unquestionable”

“The low pitched gable roof with a broken pediment and entablature serving as a base are evidence of its Greek Revival style,” notes a paper prepared by Preservation Eastern. “Adding to the significance of the house are several six-over-six double sash windows. Some of these have their original glass. Later additions to the house include an Egyptian Revival doorway and a Gothic Revival porch, demonstrating the evolution of taste and style in Ypsilanti.”

On April 4, 1840, Marcus Lane died and left his estate to his wife. As executor of the estate, he had named John Geddes. On March 2, 1842 Geddes presided over the sale of the property to the brother of Marcus, Charles. Then on April 19, 1842 Charles and his wife sold the site to William Field for $400. The property was returned to Charles one year later for a mortgage of $400.

“What occurred in the next five years is not totally clear,” wrote McDonough in his history of the Towner House, “but the property was presented by Mr. Field to John S. Worden by Warranty Deed for a consideration of $675. Two months later Mr. Worden sold the property for a profit of $25. The new owner was Lewis Morey and his wife Olive who sold the property on March 6, 1851 for a consideration of $900.”

The new owner was Nancy Spencer Towner, the widow of Ephraim Towner. Her late husband Ephraim is said to have arrived in Ypsilanti in 1835, with eight children by his first wife Anna. She had died giving birth to Norman on November 3, 1816. At Ypsilanti, Ephraim married Nancy, who had several children of her own, including Jeanette.

On May 16, 1854 Norman married Jeanette. They were step brother and step sister. For a time the couple lived in Chicago but then returned to Ypsilanti. The date of their return is uncertain, but it was most likely in the 1850's. The two lived in the house on North Huron Street, after the death of Nancy. The date of her death is not recorded.

The couple had five children. The first child was Caroline, born August 18, 1856. The second child was Guy Carlton Towner, who was born on August 24, 1858. He died at the age of six, on November 17, 1864. The next was Anna Hinsdale Towner, born on December 18, 1860. Tracy Lay Towner was born on March 2, 1864. Laura Magill Towner, the fifth child, was born on January 18,1866. She graduated from the Michigan State Normal College, with a degree in the Scientific Course. Laura died in 1884, at the age of eighteen. Their father, Norman, died at the age of 79, on October 1, 1895, of an “attack of inflammation of the bowels.” Jeanette died on July 11, 1920, in the house on North Huron, and there the funeral service was held.

“Mrs. Towner was a member of St. Luke's church and of the Parish Aid and Home Association and for many years was actively engaged in church work,” noted her obituary, published in The Ypsilanti Daily Press of July 13, 1920. “The last years of her life were spent rather quietly, a sprained ankle in October rendering her unable to go about freely thereafter. She was doubtless the oldest inhabitant of Ypsilanti, making her home in this city and her life has spanned the development of Ypsilanti from a small village to its present standing as a prosperous small city.”

“A most hospitable atmosphere has always pervaded Mrs. Towner's home. Her nearest friends visited her constantly and there are many who considered her their best and most esteemed friend,” continued the obituary. “Gracious and loving and sympathetic she embraced an entire neighborhood in her affection.” She is buried in Highland Cemetery.” The three surviving children lived most of their lives in Ypsilanti in the house on North Huron Street. None of the three married.

Tracy Towner graduated with the law class of the University of Michigan in June of 1888. He joined with Captain E. P. Allen in the practice of law in 1888. After the death of Captain Allen, he continued the practice alone. Their office was in the Ypsilanti Savings Bank Building, now City Hall. Tracy Towner was mayor of Ypsilanti from 1910 to 1912.

“He was one of the most active members of the Goodfellows Organization, and every year, despite rain, snow or sleet, he could be found on Michigan Avenue, selling papers to provide Christmas cheer for needy residents of the city,” noted The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Thursday, October 14, 1943. He died October 14, 1943, at the age of 79.

“Anna was attending grammar school in Ypsilanti in 1873,”, wrote Mary Anderson, in a paper dated February, 1983, “and graduated from Michigan State Normal College in Ypsilanti with an English-Latin Course in 1880 at the age of twenty. In 1885 and 1888-89 she was listed as teaching in the Central Building of Ypsilanti Union School.” She made a career as a teacher, and died at the age of 89, on August 7, 1949.

The last of the children was Caroline, who died at the age of 95, on April 4, 1951. “Miss Towner taught voice for many years at the Conservatory under Prof. Frederic Pease; taught in the Fifth Ward School; studied at the Julliard School of Music and the Louvre Conservatory in Paris, France. She was able to speak fluently in several languages,” reported her obituary.

After the death of Tracy Towner the property passed into the care of St. Luke's Episcopal Church at 120 North Huron Street. The sisters continued to live in the house until their deaths.

In 1951 the house was purchased by Gerald Stewart and his wife, Mary. The couple, with their daughter Susan, lived in the house until 1968. During the years of the Towner occupancy of the house, an addition had been added to the rear of the house. The daughter, Susan Stewart Schoeder, later wrote of these additions, “consisting of a nice dining room with leaded windows, a garden without and a trellis with wisterian vine. Beside the dining room was a smaller room with additional two steps reaching to the stairway, and a cellar door entrance. Behind these two rooms was a kitchen with iron sink and wooden cupboards. The only counter space was a kitchen table. A small porch was in an el behind the dining room and beside the kitchen. Behind the kitchen was a sort of storage room. A separate one car garage had been added behind all this with a lovely grape vine on a fence beside the driveway.”

She noted the house was surrounded by lovely old elm trees, but these succumbed to Dutch Elm disease in the 1950's. The house, she noted, was a very pleasant place to live. “My mother furnished it with lovely, appropriate antiques. Indeed several of them were from the Towners, however recovered and refurbished. Despite the very basic kitchen, there were lovely meals prepared for serving in the dining room and on warmer days on the side porch. I remember the grapes dripping their juice into a metal dishpan to make lovely tasty jelly.”

The property was purchased by the First Presbyterian Church for $61,741.78 on July 17, 1972. This was for future development of church facilities. According to some sources, the church planned to use the site for the expansion of the church parking lot, and others claim it was for the memorial garden. The Session voted unanimously on June 10, 1974, “to tear down the Huron Street property unless the Historical Society is interested in retaining and removing it.”

The intention of the church to demolish the Towner House created a controversy that would continue for years. The Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation was founded to preserve the historic houses and building of the city. The saving of the Towner House was a major goal of the Foundation. The church leased the house to the Heritage Foundation for $1.00 per year. The Foundation in turn sublet the house to Gary Decker, who paid $100 a month. This money went to the upkeep of the property. Decker lived in the house for six years, working to renovate it. It was during these years the house was painted a dark green color. In 1981 the Foundation requested a lease of more than one year. The request was turned down by the church. The church told the Foundation it could no longer have a year to year lease, but must now accept a month to month lease. The Foundation decided against renewing the lease with the church.

A new group, The Friends of the Towner House Children's Museum signed a lease for ten years with the church on August 2, 1982. Under the terms of the lease the committee overseeing the museum agreed to maintain the house, pay all bills, provide adequate insurance and complete specific improvements on the house. Completed improvements included: Stripping off the old roof, installation of new shingles on the roof, replacing and repairing unsound wood in the roof, replacing existing flashing, installing new basement stairs and handrail and reset bathroom stool. The Heritage Foundation donated $1,800 in 1983, for the installation of a new furnace.

Students from the Ypsilanti Public Schools visited the house to learn what life was like in a 19th century home. The home, turned museum, was the site of activities for children during the Heritage Festivals during the 1980's. Teachers from the public schools volunteered their time, to teach 19th century crafts. The Children's Museum sought a $36,000 State of Michigan Equity Grant for the restoration of the house. The grant required a long term lease with the church. The request for a long term lease was turned down by the church, which then told the museum it must now accept a month to month lease. This was rejected by the Children's Museum. The lease with the church was terminated on January 15, 1991.

Over the years the church has received offers to purchase the house, with the intention of restoring it. The church has turned down each offer, and was determined to either demolish the house, or see it moved to another location. The reasons the church gave for refusing to sell the house were: it would be a substantial financial loss, it would defeat the purpose for buying the property, it would interfere with the Memorial Garden, it would diminish the usefulness of whatever property would be left of the east church yard, it would require difficult negotiations with the City over the size of the lot, it would require the approval of the Presbytery of Detroit, and it would further limit future development of church facilities.

As a compromise, the church offered help in moving the house to another location, or restoring the exterior of the original structure, if the additions could be demolished. As part of a compromise, the additions at the rear of the house were demolished in 1999. The house now came under the care of the Towner House Committee, which has cared for it since then.

Now a new chapter in the history of the Towner House is about to begin.

(James Mann is a local author and historian, a volunteer in the YHS Archives, and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The Towner House at 303 North Huron Street.

Photo 2: The original log beams with the bark still intact in the basement of the Towner House.

Photo 3: The Towner House showing the additions that were added over the years to the original structure.

Photo 4: All of the additions were removed as part of a consent agreement between the City of Ypsilanti and the Presbyterian Church.