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Dwelling in the Past

The exterior of the Marlborough shows two legs of the H-style architecture of the building located at 471 W. South St.
City’s first downtown apartment building turns 100

If you’re walking around downtown Kalamazoo, it’s easy to see the evidence of the recent explosion in residential apartment construction. There’s the towering Exchange building as well as the four-story midrises on Rose, Cedar and Park streets. But often overlooked is the downtown building that started it all: the Marlborough.

To the random passerby on South Street, the Marlborough might be seen as just another big brick building. But this H-shaped structure holds an interesting history and still holds great appeal for those who call it home.

When it was constructed 100 years ago, the Marlborough represented a big change in downtown Kalamazoo, just as its modern counterparts do today. In a July 8,1922, article in the Kalamazoo Gazette, it was described as “Kalamazoo’s first big metropolitan building, not only from the standpoint of construction and design, but also services and conveniences offered to tenants.”

The building was originally paid for and owned by Kalamazoo Apartments Corp., which hired the local firm Billingham & Cobb for the architectural planning and Henry L. Vander Horst as the construction contractor. The construction cost somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000, which would be $5 million to $7 million in today’s dollars. The building opened in 1923 with 75 residential units and a garden level for commercial space.

As an apartment building, the Marlborough was home to many prominent Kalamazoo residents, such as local grocer August Scheid; former City Assessor Lucy Little, who was Kalamazoo’s first female administrator; and broadcasting magnate John Fetzer.

The building’s commercial space housed several well-known stores of the time. “The commercial garden units were the birthplaces of the Athena Book Shop and (what has been described as) ‘The (legendary) Knitting Bee,’ which was perhaps only legendary in the eyes of knitters,” says Pam O’Connor, a local historian and former Marlborough resident.

Converting to condos

For nearly half a century, the Marlborough was an apartment building, but in the 1970s Ted Little, the nephew of former resident Lucy Little, purchased the building with the intent of updating it and turning it into condominiums.

“I think he loved the place. He remembered being here when he was a kid to visit his aunt, and he was fascinated by it,” says O’Connor. “I knew Ted, and he told me a couple of times that it was not a money-making project for him.

Little combined apartment spaces within the building to create 35 condos. The condos are about 1,600 square feet each, some bigger and some smaller. The interiors were designed to their new owners’ specifications with the help of local contractor Bob Shannon.This transformation to the Marlborough Condominiums took about 15 years, says O’Connor, during which the building gained a listing on the National Register of Historic Places based on its architectural style that represented the era of its construction. It was classified as a Mission-style building with simplified parapets, deep eaves topped with barrel tiles, paired brackets and decorative wrought iron. At the time of construction, it was also the only “alphabet style” building in Kalamazoo, having been built in the shape of an H.

In its new chapter as condominiums, the building’s history and architecture would prove to be attractive to those wanting to be a part of its story.

“I was attracted to living in the Marlborough because I was trained as an architectural historian. I had been in love with it from the day I first met it. It only took me a half century to get here,” says O’Connor, who lived in the building from 2002 to 2022.

The Marlborough’s current residents own their units, and there is a board that makes decisions regarding the maintenance of the building, such as replacing windows or fixing the roof. Many of the residents say that among the benefits of owning a unit in the Marlborough is that they have no yard work or exterior repairs and maintenance to do.

“We had a big house out in Richland, and we just decided that it was too much, too much yard, actually, ” says Janet Riley, who lives in the Marlborough with her husband, Arthur. “I used to work up at Kalamazoo College, and when I walked downtown, I’d think to myself, ‘If I was on my own looking for a place to live, I’d probably look at this place.’ I’ve always found this building very attractive.”

Downtown living

Residents say another of the Marlborough’s benefits is its close proximity to downtown Kalamazoo.

“Our kids had just gone to college, and we were looking to change our lifestyle. We had a house out in Portage, and we wanted to come downtown,” says Marlborough resident and board member Derl Oberland. “We wanted to come and enjoy life. We wanted to be able to walk to restaurants. We could walk to bars. It was just the lifestyle we were looking for. I was tired of yards, I was tired of all of that stuff.”

Arthur Riley lists multiple things that he thinks bring people to the Marlborough: its location downtown within walking distance of many restaurants and events; the size of the condos, which he says are larger than many apartments; and the building’s construction, which he says creates privacy, since residents rarely hear neighbors through the walls. Lastly, he cites the “wonderful” community that exists within the building, where “people are friendly.”

Riley’s observation about the community at the Marlborough was backed up by the experience of this writer during interviews of residents and a tour of the building for this story. The friendliness of residents was apparent the minute I walked into the entryway. In this cozy little hideaway, a number of residents sat and chatted with those who came through the door, asking about each other’s families and days. And the building tour was often interrupted by residents coming out of their units to talk with board members giving the tour.

Also creating a sense of community are the frequent events for residents, such as a bourbon night, clubs to watch specific television shows, and a monthly breakfast discussion.

“It’s not snobbish like gated communities, but it does have a secure feeling,” says John Meyer, who has lived in two different units in the Marlborough. “Everybody kind of looks after each other, and that’s part of the community.”

Jarret Whitenack

An intern at Encore, Jarret hails from Oregon, where he recently graduated from Portland State University with a degree in history.

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