As the historic preservation coordinator for the city of Kalamazoo, I see a lot of historic buildings and their befores and afters. For many years, the Kalamazoo Historical Preservation Committee has given out Awards of Merit for the best preservation projects in the community. So far, the committee has given out more than 100 awards. These are some of my favorites:
213 Elm St.
Built in 1880, this peculiar house sparked my interest in old houses when my best friend’s family bought it in 1963. We found an umbrella in the attic that was so big that two 10-year-olds could sit under it and stay dry in the rain. We roamed through the house exploring every closet and room. The whimsical design, with unexpected angles and jutting decorations, makes it unique. In 2005, the fourth owners restored the house, replicating missing trim inside, choosing period-appropriate wallpaper, restoring the gaslights — along with the electric lights — in the gasolier chandeliers, installing a handsome iron fence and fixing the servant call button system. Stepping inside is like entering a time machine — you expect women in long skirts, men in suits, and servants to greet you.
George and Emma Steers House
318 Woodward Ave.
Finished in 1887, this 4,900-square-foot home was originally an elegant, upscale single-family home. In the 1920s, the house was split into apartments. Then, on Aug. 28, 2014, a fire destroyed the third floor and the home’s roof almost completely. Two chimneys poked up through the attic floor like fingers. The owner explored demolition, but by February 2015 he found Jim Pejka, a landlord, to take on the project and sold him the house for $1. Pejka started by cleaning the house out, sorting through debris for parts to reuse. The roof was rebuilt to match the original, and the surviving trim fit into the gables perfectly. Inside, he turned the house into an eight-unit apartment building with updated plumbing, heating, cooling and fire suppression. This house has set a high bar for rehabilitation after a devastating loss.
Upjohn World Headquarters
301 John St.
(now Bronson Healthcare Group)
In 1936, Kalamazoo’s Upjohn Co. was booming, and the company needed more space — for both offices and manufacturing. Upjohn contracted in 1934 with Albert Kahn of Detroit to design both. The factory tower was demolished in 2005, and the same year Pfizer donated the World Headquarters building to Bronson Methodist Hospital. Bronson rehabilitated the building carefully, retaining the Art Moderne design details and bringing the infrastructure of the building handily into the 21st century. Fiber optics and new electrical and other systems were all installed so carefully that they are impossible to detect. The cozy office fireplaces remain, along with the sleek, curving central staircase handrails. New lighting fixtures fit well with the historic ornamentation throughout the building.
R. Dexter Walker House
628 S. Park St.
(now William VanderSalm office)
When he bought this lot in about 1856, 23-year-old Richard Dexter Walker started digging the foundation and, according to historic sources, used the clay he removed to make bricks. In two years, the house was complete, and Walker sold it in 1859 and probably never lived there. Over the years since, the house has been a family home, an optometrist clinic and several varieties of office. In 2008, the home was purchased by an attorney, William VanderSalm, who loved old houses and gardening. Using the Michigan Historic Preservation Income Tax Credit, he brought this house into the 21st century, upgrading it as needed and repairing it to match the original materials.
Fire Station 5
619 Douglas Ave.
(now a community center)
Like the fire stations at the corner of Wheaton and Westnedge avenues and on Charlotte Avenue, this station was designed by Forrest Van Volkenburg. When it was completed in 1908, fire rigs were still pulled by horses and there was a “manure closet” next to the rear wall. Shortly after the turn of the 21st century, the station was decommissioned by the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. It sat empty until 2015, when combined funds from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation and Community Development Block Grants were committed to rehabilitate and update the building to be a community center and to host afterschool programs for the Kalamazoo Parks and Recreation Department. This is the last historic fire station still owned by the city. Work commenced in the summer of 2016, starting with a new roof; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; and removal of the dividing walls on the first floor to make one large space. The bathroom was upgraded, the walls painted, and the tin ceiling repaired and painted. In the spring of 2016, the station hosted a three-day window rehabilitation workshop for homeowners, during which nine windows on the second floor were fixed. The work on the building concluded in the fall of 2016, and the afterschool program held there has recently finished its second year.