Land bank seeks to restore historic Battle Creek homes
Battle Creek — For seven decades, 26 Fremont St. was home to one Battle Creek family.
Members of the Barber family died here, got married here and operated a small gift shop inside.
But the house passed to other owners in the 1950s, became apartments and then was abandoned. The Calhoun County Land Bank Authority took it over in a 2015 tax foreclosure.
Three years later, the land bank plans to restore it.
“Often when buildings are restored, it serves as a catalyst for other investment in nearby homes,” said land bank executive director Krista Trout-Edwards. “Preservation of these assets, especially in local historic districts, has also been documented to increase property value.”
The house “could be a lot of different things,” she said. This summer, it’s been a laboratory of sorts, the site of “practical preservation” workshops conducted with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, where homeowners learn from tradespeople how to restore older homes.
The land bank owns 26 historic homes that it doesn’t want to demolish, but that need to be rehabbed. It wants to use the workshops to get the word out.
One such home is 373 Riverside Drive, known locally as the Warren B. Shepard house and considered Battle Creek’s oldest.
The land bank took ownership of the Shepard house last year after a tax foreclosure. Since then, the home has been evaluated by an engineer and found to be structurally sound.
The house at 26 Fremont is an 1870s Victorian with five bedrooms, intricate woodwork, stained-glass windows and a turret or small tower that faces the street.
To rehab it would probably cost $200,000 to $300,000, Trout-Edwards estimated. Funding to restore historic homes comes from a variety of sources including grants, loans and the land bank’s own fund.
It was built for John Carlos Barber and his family, who moved into the home in 1876. John Carlos owned his own livery on East Canal Street and was a Deputy United States Marshal. He died at the home in 1916.
John Carlos and his wife, Sarah, had one child, a daughter named Nellie Barber. Nellie married her husband, Arthur W. Davis, at the house in 1884 and in 1934 they celebrated their golden anniversary there.
Their daughter, Louise Davis started “The What Not Shop” at 26 Fremont in 1926 and kept it open for about 20 years. She lived in the house until she died in 1952 at age 66.
After Louise’s death, the property left the Barber family. The ownership of 26 Fremont changed hands several times. In the late 1970s or early 1980s, the interior was converted to house apartments, which are still evident today.
Since 2010, 26 Fremont has been on the city’s vacant and abandoned list.
“We have been working on this house since 2015,” Trout-Edwards said.
The land bank has tried other programs to get historic homes like 26 Fremont rehabbed, including the “Transform this Home” program, in which homes could be sold at a reduced price with the cost of the rehab taken into consideration. Buyers would have to create a rehabilitation plan and complete it within 12 months.
“That wasn’t real successful, because it’s a heavy lift to rehab these houses, so you end up putting in more than you can get out,” Trout-Edwards said.
Looking at what was needed at 26 Fremont, 373 Riverside and other historic homes, the land bank decided to create a learning lab at the house to start a conversation about preserving historic homes in the area while getting some work done on the property.
“We spent a lot of time and effort on this 26 Fremont project this summer in hopes that we can build some momentum. …” Trout-Edwards said. “I think we have built some momentum.”
The land bank replaced the roof at 26 Fremont and, through the workshops, had work done to its interior doors, porch, foundation, windows and plaster. Next, the house will have its rotting periwinkle-painted wood siding restored and repainted.
The house at 373 Riverside needs a roof and “a whole lot of work on the inside,” Trout-Edwards said.
It was built for Warren B. Shepard in 1852. Shepard, who is credited with shaping the beginning of Battle Creek’s schools, lived at the home until his death in 1875.
The house remained a family home until the early 1980s and then it fell into a state of disrepair. In 1988, a bid to convert the home to an interior decorating and gift boutique business was rejected by the Battle Creek commissioners. The Historical Society of Battle Creek acquired the home in 1990 and had plans to renovate it, but those fell through.
The society sold the home in 2008 to a Florida Realtor who planned to restore it, but that didn’t happen. The home was taken over by the Calhoun County Treasurer’s office in an April 2017 tax foreclosure.
“The direction the land bank is going where they are actually trying to use these homes to educate people is great,” Battle Creek historian and author Kurt Thornton said. “They represent a time when the city was growing and industry was growing and people were spending money on their homes.”