Thursday, June 11, 2009

Our Historic Homes: 211 N. Huron

First in a series of profiles of area homes, as requested by their owners. Click a photo for a larger image.

This profile is in 3 parts:
1. History of owners
2. Longest-running owner, U-M violin professor Anthony J. Whitmire
3. Photo tour of interior

On first glimpsing this stately white Georgian Colonial home (map and streetview), here seen in a late-1980s photo, the viewer wonders, "Hmm...why is the front door facing north, and not on the street?"

Owned by the Dreamland Theater's Naia Venturi, 211 N. Huron is known as "the house that was turned 90 degrees." No one knows when. Not even local historian James Mann, who says, "It's just an oral tradition...but I think it was sometime early in the 20th century." You'd think that a little thing like, oh, I don't know, jacking up a huge home and rotating it, with early 20th century technology, might have made a paper or two. If it has, no one remembers.

One of the oldest buildings in Ypsilanti, this 1848 home has had a dizzying string of owners and renters for the first half of its history, but only one for much of the 20th century. The nineteenth-century owners listed in old directories include:

1873-4 Jerome Stephenson
1883 Charles H. Travis, Laborer
1888-9 Charles H. Travis, Teamster
1892 Charles H. Travis, Teamster
1894 C. H. Travis, Teamster
1895 G. J. Geis
1896-7 W. P. Olcott, Insurance, Scales & Windmills
1899 M. Burrows (Melissa, widow of Leonard)
1901 Robert J. Cooley
1905 Everett W. Wheeler, Insurance (also wife May)
1907 Oliver H. Westfall
1912-14 Rev. William H. Gardam
1916 Vacant
1917 Ralph D. Goodrich (renter)
1918 Oliver J. Purnell

In 1920, the house was occupied by well-known U-M violin professor Anthony Whitmire, who with his wife would remain there for the rest of their lives. Left photo shows Mr. Whitmire in 1966.

This undated clipping, likely from the 60s, reveals that Mr. Whitmire owned a 240-year-old violin (later stolen from him in his old age) and was the first musician to play the very first musical note in Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium.
When Mrs. Whitmire became bedridden late in life, Anthony nursed her until her death in 1957.

DD stresses that she intends no disrespect by posting her death certificate here. It is posted only because it shows some interesting family connections to some of Ypsilanti's oldest families, the Deubels and the Cornwells. Mrs. Whitmire's father and his two brothers owned the two Deubel Flour Mills in Ypsilanti.

At the time of her death, Mrs. Whitmire was the last living charter member of the Washtenaw Country Club, which she helped found in 1897. At left are checks for club expenses. She loved to golf and was active in tournaments. Mrs. Whitmire devoted so much time to the Red Cross during WWI that she was given a special citation by the Governor of Michigan and the Mayor and City Council of Ypsilanti. She met Anthony in 1901, and married him in 1919.

After her death, 91 years old and blind, Anthony was listening to a Detroit Tigers game on the radio when his cigarette caused a fire that ended his own life in 1975.

After Anthony's death, the house stood vacant in 1976.

1977 Darrell Scaggs (renter)
1980 Vacant
1981 Listed as "vacant" but also lists as renter one Don Wardell
1983-5 Vacant

During the 80s the home's neglect became obvious as in this 1985 photo. The wraparound half-porch sagged and it had a forlorn air. Luckily the home escaped demolition. The porch was removed in the late 80s and the home is now neat and charming.

Care to take a tour?

The home's floor plan consists of two halves joined by a central stairway and hall to the rear pantry. To the left, there's a spacious living room.

At right is a charming parlor with a fireplace.

Black-bordered tan linoleum, old and in excellent condition, covers the parlor floor.

Naia's unique and artistic taste in decorating offers an enchanting contrast between the austerity of the original home's architecture and its eclectic contents. Some of the items were made by Naia, such as this beautiful twinkly DIY chandelier in the parlor.

South of the parlor, the pantry offers a range of old cupboards and a huge counterspace. Leading west off the pantry is a pretty green kitchen. West off the kitchen is an addition, uninsulated, that owner Naia notes is freezing cold in winter.

On the way upstairs, an interesting array of art lines the wall, ranging from a photograph of Frida Kahlo to original outsider art. Throughout the house, massive and beautiful woodwork lines each doorway and is also found at the top of the stairs.

On the east side of the upstairs are two bedrooms about equal in size. On the west side there's a small bathroom and a larger bedroom. The bedroom features a cozy reading nook that instantly evokes an image of snuggling on the cushions on a rainy day with a cup of tea and a book.

In the bedroom floor is a feature Naia particularly enjoys and plans to restore: a tiny door originally connected to a laundry chute. The downstairs kitchen cabinets currently block the chute-space.

One of the home's quirks is that many corners are not square, but rounded, as seen at left. Another is that every doorway in the home has a closeable door, unlike modern homes with doorless interior doorways. This may have been to retain heat in the home's early history before a central heating system was installed.

And now it's time to close the door on this beautiful and venerable home. Many thanks to Naia Venturi who graciously allowed us to peek inside! Hope you enjoyed your visit.


Fritz said...

Cool post!

It's looks like a big house. But no doctors or factory owners on the the list of residents.

I noticed one other, completely trivial, thing. But it kind of got me thinking. One of the checks is printed with, "Protected by the William J. Burns I??. Detective Agency, Inc."

Dusty D said...

Fritz: Thank you! It was so fun to visit in person. Naia was very kind.

Yes, I had the same thought regarding Mr. Travis: "How would a 'laborer,' which I imagine is a pretty low-paying position, afford a comparatively huge house for its day?" I do not know, but would love to find out.

I did not notice the detective detail on the Ypsi Savings Bank check, but you are right--there it is at the bottom in microscopic type: "Protected by the William J. Burns Int. Detective Agency, Inc." Hm. Hired by the bank to combat check fraud?

Interestingly, the Ypsi Savings Bank check is from 1924, and the Washtenaw Women's Golf Association check is from 1930. The latter does not have the detective warning, but merely states at the bottom, "Insured against fraudulent alteration."

Great observation!

James Mann said...

Now here is some information that might be of use to you.

The story is, the house was moved 90 degrees, so the sister of the owner, who lived in the house next door, could add an addition to her house. The sister next door asked her sister if she would move her house to the side, so the addition could be built. The sister, of course said yes, and the addition was added, and is still there today.

Now on the check, protected by the William Burns Detective agency. William Burns was a private detective in the early 20th century, and was called the American Sherlock Homes. Burns was called in on every major case of the day, and had an impressive recorded of cases solved. The agency disappeared after he died.

Hope this was of help.

Dusty D said...

James: That is very valuable info; thank you!

Regarding the addition, you can see it in the "streetview" view linked above; it is the little sunroom on the right side of the photo.

"The sister, of course said yes..."

Well, as much as I love my own sister, if she asked me to ROTATE MY ENTIRE HOUSE so that she could build a li'l sunroom, I'd:

1. Give her a folding chair
2. Instruct her to put it in the front yard.
3. "There's your sunroom."

p.s. The building depicted in the top left side of the checks is the Ypsi Savings Bank. Today, shorn of its pointy roof, it is the downtown City Hall at Michigan Ave. and Huron.

naia said...

This is all so wonderful to know! Thank you DD, and you too, James.

Dusty D said...

Yep, James is definitely my go-to guy whenever I have a question; I really rely on his expertise. Thanks James!

naia said...

Someday I'd like to restore that wrap-around porch (I have some of the original parts in my basement).

jml said...

According to the link below, the Burns Detective Agency was continued by William Burns' sons, and survives today as a division of Borg-Warner Security Corporation.

Other info from the same link and Wikipedia: Burns was a Secret Service agent and later a private detective with a reputation for incorruptability. In its first year, Burns' agency got the job of protecting - presumably from forgeries - the 12,000+ banks in the American Bankers Association (replacing his bigger rival, Pinkerton). Burns later got into trouble as the head of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) for intimidating a Congressman and journalists, and was replaced by J. Edgar Hoover. He was later charged with jury tampering in the Teapot Dome trial.

Dusty D said...

Naia: I remember you said you had a number of the columns still in the basement. That would be very cool to restore the porch.

The ironic thing is that according to the Historic District Commission's "Porch Fact Sheet":

...a restoration would actually make the restored porch different from the historic porch in the pictures above. The HDC requires a "guard rail" and also a "hand rail."

The Porch Fact Sheet says "Guard rail shall consist of three parts: top rail shall be a minimum 2x4 placed flat & shall have beveled top edges; balusters shall be a minimum 2x2 and be spaced so that a 4” sphere cannot pass through; bottom rail shall be a maximum 2x4 placed flat with beveled top edges, shall be at least 3” off of porch decking and shall have support blocks if
guard rail exceeds 8’ between posts. All members shall be centered on the porch posts with butt joints."

In the 1985 photo, you can see a solid low wall lining the porch (not a guard rail with balusters) and what appears to be a DIY plumbing-pipe hand rail. I wonder if the HDC would make an exception about the guard rail requirement since the original porch apparently never had such a structure. Hm.

Dusty D said...

jml: very interesting extra info about Hoover's predecessor; I never knew that. Thank you for the info!

Lisele said...

I've ridden along that stretch of Huron a million times and somehow never noticed this interesting residence. Today, I made a special effort to notice the house. What a gem! It sure was a lovely porch in its day -- it would be wonderful to restore it. The front porch on our house had been enclosed with jalousies and screens, but we restored it to an open air porch and have never regretted it for a moment. We use it constantly. Thanks for this profile -- I enjoyed it alot.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure the house was moved? It looks perfectly normal in the photo's that show it with the porch on it, not odd at all then to have the door to the side. It's not until the porch is gone that things look a little off.

Susan M.

Dusty D said...

Lisele: You're very welcome. It is indeed a gem! May I ask, how difficult was it to restore your porch? Just curious; seems like a big job.

Dusty D said...

Susan M.: You raise a good question. Given the apparent lack of documentation showing the alleged turning of the house, could it be that the moving of the *entrance*, from east (on the porch, facing Huron) to north, was garbled through time and rendered as a tale about the moving of the whole house?

naia said...

There is one piece on evidence that makes me believe the story - The cement basement, which includes four distinct rooms (seperated by doors) as well as a toilet stall seems a bit more modern than 1848.