Newly settled Mt. Pleasant residents find their historic forever home

When Susan and David Sickelka set out to relocate to Mt. Pleasant, they weren’t planning on buying one of the area's most prominent historic homes. 

Susan’s father lives in a nearby town, and the couple decided it was time to leave their residence in Des Moines, Iowa to be closer to him. The moving process was full of Zillow searches to narrow down the top contenders for possible homes, but Susan says they just kept returning to 301 E. High St.

“We looked at lots of different towns and different houses,” she says. “We kept coming back to looking at this house, so it was as simple as that.”

Unique features throughout the home drew the Sickelkas back to the listing.It wasn’t until after they had closed the deal on the home that the Sickelkas found out about its ties to Central Michigan University. Both Dr. Eugene Warriner and Charles Grawn were previous CMU presidents and owners of the large, white Colonial-style home.

Mt. Pleasant City Planner Jacob Kain says that President Grawn was the first owner of the home, which was built in 1906. Grawn served as president of CMU from 1890 to 1918. 

During Grawn’s presidential period, Kain said Mt. Pleasant, as well as CMU’s campus, were experiencing a great amount of growth. 

Today, Grawn Hall, named after President Grawn, is one of CMU’s oldest campus buildings, as it was constructed in 1915.

Woodwork throughout the home is one of Susan Sickelka's favorite features.“So this house, this neighborhood, really, I think, when I look back at some of the really old photos of the community, it’s almost kind of like campus north and downtown south kind of grew together over time, and they were connected by streets,” Kain says.

The home’s establishment in the city was also during a time when CMU was still known as a normal school, which is an institution that educated teachers. 

Following President Grawn was President and Dr. Eugene Warriner, who has also since had a CMU building constructed in his name. Warriner Hall is a popular location for photos because of its classic brick exterior and proximity to the CMU seal.

Warriner’s time in office began in 1918 and ended in 1939. Kain suspects that, based on the timeline, he may have purchased the home directly from Grawn. 

The most recent owner of the home before the Sickelkas took over was the Shurtliff family. In fact, the home is most commonly known as the Shurtliff House. Jay Shurtliff was an art professor at CMU, and his family resided in the home from around the 1970s until about 2017.

When the Sickelkas purchased the home in 2020, it had been vacant for nearly three years, but they were told that Shurtliff’s wife, Louise, had left the home almost completely untouched.
Kain’s record of the home states that it’s about 3,000 square feet all together, with seven bedrooms and two bathrooms, although the Sickelkas are shifting things around to fit their own needs within the home. 

Taking on the project of a historic home is not new to the Sickelkas. The couple’s home in Iowa was built by a man who came from a lumber family. They say he collaborated with prolific architect Frank Lloyd Wright on furniture design for the home.

“So we kind of got interested in sort of the historic architecture of that house. I wouldn't call it a fancy house, and it's not like a McMansion house, but it just had a lot of character and a lot of interesting design features,” David says. “So that kind of got us hooked on the idea of a home that wasn't just, in terms of its structure, a sound hall, but also in terms of its design and its importance architecturally.”

301 E. High St. is the third house the Sickelkas have owned that’s over 100 years old, so they’re well versed in the effort it takes to maintain and update a historic home.

In that way, homes with old bones have become a fascination of the Sickelkas, and they often take historic home tours when they vacation in other towns. It’s David’s opinion that older homes also have a more reliable foundation than new builds.

“I remember listening to a talk show on the radio one time, and they had a guy who rehabs old buildings, and he said, ‘you know, the most efficient home is the one that's already built,’” David says. “And that really kind of stuck with me, but there's an efficiency aspect to it.”

Ensuring the safety and efficiency of the home was one of the first things the Sickelkas tackled. Before they could even move in, the water line had to be replaced, along with some rewiring, a replacement furnace, and a completely renovated kitchen. 
The historic home serves both as a residence and a place of ministry.
There’s even more work to be done now that the couple has settled and plans to host gatherings with their ministry in the home. David and Susan are both Reverends of Mount Pleasant United Church of Christ. 

David says “the germ” of the idea had been there when they moved in, but without really knowing how the home would come together, it was hard to say whether their ministry would run out of 301 E. High St.

When they discovered that the home actually had a long history of large group gatherings, and some church gatherings, the plan just fell into place. 

Original pocket doors allow for the interior to be opened up during gatherings.Several features of the home are indicative of its entertainment purpose, one of which being the wooden pocket door that creates a barrier between the foyer and the living room. If guests were coming by, the door could slide into the wall and open up the space, making it easier for everyone to move about the rooms. 

A favored feature of the home for Susan is the abundance of original woodwork placed throughout the home. 

Including the history of the home has been an important task to the Sickelkas as they discover more about their new abode. They’d been gifted a few select pieces of Jay Shurtliff’s art to keep in the home, and they plan to keep a majority of the home’s original design and architectural elements.

“Our philosophy of reclaiming, renovating old houses is to not lose the stories that go with the house, like keeping some of that wallpaper is part of it,” Susan says. “We want to be able to show the longer life of the house; we don't want to just make it all clean and spiffy.”

In the Sickelka’s bedroom, there is a portion of wallpaper peeled back from the wall. They were attempting to find out whether the paper was original, and since they only found plaster behind it, David’s assumption is that it predates the Shurtliffs. 

Over the course of the next few years, the Sickelkas plan to strip and replace some flooring on the second level and repaint the exterior of the home. A second-floor balcony leading to the master bedroom is also in the works, along with a brick patio out near the barn, which at one point acted as Jay Shurtliff’s studio. 
301 E. High St. property.Historic homes are an important facet of Mt. Pleasant’s ever-changing landscape, and Kain says it’s always a joy when he discovers that someone has taken on the task of living in an older home. 

“My experience is that most of the owners of those homes take their role in taking care of those homes very seriously, and they really prioritize the character of their neighborhood being historic,” Kain says. “So we're always excited when folks express an interest in the history of their house and then maintaining that history, because it's Mt. Pleasant history, and it makes us a great place to live.”
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Read more articles by Riley Connell.

Riley Connell is a senior at Central Michigan University majoring in journalism and minoring in broadcast and cinematic arts. She has written for CMU's student-run publication Grand Central Magazine for two years and is now the editor-in-chief. After obtaining her degree, Riley would like to become a full-time feature writer. In her free time, Riley enjoys listening to music, trying new food, and collecting vintage clothing. She grew up in Metro Detroit and currently resides in Mt. Pleasant.