Storied structures: Builders working to preserve historic homes in UP
Marquette – While many community business owners and institutions are raising new infrastructure to meet the needs of today’s consumer market, others are busy working on structures that are currently standing, or mostly standing.
One unique example lies in a set of logs that were housed this fall in the Marquette shop of Marvin Kantola and Ian Zender, owner-operators of Third Coast Builders.
Not just any logs, but a 200-year-old set of piece-en-piece logs.
Piece-en-piece construction was a style of log homes that were used across Europe for hundreds of years before and introduced to North America by French explorers. This fall, Third Coast Builders was hired by the Musser family on Mackinac Island to reconstruct a nineteenth-century French fur trapper’s cabin.
“We’ve done similar type projects with historic timber frame details,” Kantola said. “We’ve basically been using historic joinery and construction methods for new buildings and kind of bring them into newer forms of architecture or interfacing them with modern materials.”
With pieces of the original structure and newly milled lumber from the region, the builders worked to form a 3D model that was taken from drawings done by the Mackinac State Park office to bring the cabin back to life. The builders would take the freshly cut lumber and then work it over with hand tools to simulate the appearance of older construction methods.
“Carpenters from the 1800s would have just taken a log and gone to town with an ax basically and turned the log into a timber,” Kantola said. “We’re taking timber that’s already been sawed, and are perfectly good, and trying to distress them with axes, hand tool marks, hewing chops, things to texture them to create a similar aesthetic to what would have originally been there with hand-hewed tools.”
After hatching ax marks to the surface of a milled beam, Zender uses a wire brush to give the timber a driftwood look.
This was probably a cabin some Frenchmen were trying to use to get out of the winter weather, Kantola said.
“They weren’t thinking of it as an architectural statement or anything like that,” he said.
These historic structures, he said, have the ability to connect people to a piece of history.
A building’s materials and style of its construction can become records of the past, a living artifact on display in downtown districts, public parks and neighborhoods. Private and public preservation of these artifacts can be a costly endeavor.
However, both Negaunee and Ishpeming are working to gain a designation on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District, which could have several benefits, including eligibility for certain tax credits, as well as qualification for federal grants for historic preservation and heritage tourism drive, to name a few.
During a phone interview, Jessica Flores – an architectural historian and historic building pathologist who has been hired by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to help Ishpeming and Negaunee gain these designations – said historic preservation is a tool for downtown revitalization.
Flores estimated a single dollar spent on a local building turns over about six times in that community before it leaves.
“It’s often said that historic preservation – when a preservation project is happening – they hire local labor to do the work because people often hire who they’re familiar with, and that dollar is part of the local labor takes a while to leave the community,” she said.
According to the Michigan Historic Preservation Network’s 2018 economic report, since 1971, rehabilitation activities in Michigan have created 20,252 jobs and generated a total of $1.7 billion in direct and indirect economic impacts. Preservation also attracts visitors.
“They (tourists) want a sense of place that’s unique to Negaunee,” Flores said. “They want authenticity.”
Flores is in the middle of a two-year process to help Ishpeming and Negaunee gain a designation on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.
If approved, building owners of historic spaces, within the historical designation, will be able to leverage their investments with grants and federal tax credits to help pay for restoration cost.
Many of the structures, like the piece-en-piece cabin that Third Coast Builders reconstructed, reveal information about the people who lived in the area.
“Historic buildings tell a story from generations ago,” she said. “They were built by artisans and craftsmen that brought their craft to Michigan.”
Main Street Antique Mall owner David Aeh, who is also chairman of the Ishpeming Downtown Development Authority, has been preserving historic structures over two-decades in the Upper Peninsula.
Aeh, a self-proclaimed “history geek,” had performed restoration work on his commercial properties, such as the Butler Theater, before he sold it in 2010, and his business Main Street Antiques – which originally housed Gately’s Department Store – in downtown Ishpeming.
Aeh has been actively restoring residential properties as well. His previous residence in Ishpeming and his current home in Three Lakes have appeared in publications such as April’s edition of Old House Journal and in local author Sunny Longtine’s book, “Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Magnificent Mansions & Courtly Cottages.’
Through his experiences and interest in historic buildings, Aeh has developed a specific approach and philosophy to restoration work.
“You let the house tell you what it needs,” Aeh said. “While you own an old house like that, it’s your responsibility to be the best steward of the house while you own it within your skill set and your budget.”
Aeh’s approach includes maintaining the look and feel of the house by using materials, colors and styles from the time period from when the home was constructed. By doing this, he said, you can maintain the originality and the artistic integrity of the structure.
“Don’t get rid of original doors, windows, trim, molding, woodwork, flooring, light fixtures. Save it and put it back into the house,” he said. “When you can do it in a green fashion, meaning when you can, go to the restore with Habitat (for Humanity), find things that are old components and try to use recycled old components.”
Aeh is not against modernization, to a degree, but believes restoration should “reasonably” recreate the original look and look appropriate in the space. For Aeh, historic preservation is about honoring the history of the building by preserving its initial design. He said that drastically modifying the structure diminishes the building’s innate authenticity, which in turn diminishes the area where the building is located.
“Old houses have a history, and they have a karma, and they have a certain quality to them that every time you diminish those original fixtures, and every time you take and modernize it, you diminish it,” Aeh said. “If you go and diminish it enough, the skills will tip in the wrong direction and then you have a train wreck. Do you have this old house that is just a house and not any longer a place (with) that feeling of history?”
While there are many types of historic buildings and numerous potential approaches to restoration, one thing is for sure, Flores said: “The stories will continue as long as the buildings stand and the people have the desire to continue that story.”