Ypsi builder to renovate historic Starkweather house

Ronald Rupert has worked on some big renovation projects in his time, but bringing Ypsilanti's Starkweather Mansion back to its former grandeur might turn out to be his toughest project yet.

The retired builder/renovator and long-time Ypsilanti resident plans to begin refurbushing the 3,600-square-foot Greek Revival home on the 1200 block of Huron River Drive next spring when the weather breaks. He hopes to restore it to its mid 19th Century glory where it served as home to one of the earliest residents of Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University and even a stop in the Underground Railroad.

"This house has history up the wazoo," Rupert says. "It's absolutely incredible. I'm so glad nobody can tear it down."

John and Mary Ann Newberry Starkweather built the house in 1844 as the center of their farm. The farm employed Elijah McCoy, the famous African-American inventor who coined the phrase "The Real McCoy." McCoy made Ypsilanti his home for several years --including a stretch during the Civil War where the house served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The inventor was one of its conductors, helping escaped slaves make their way to Canada.

The farm was one of Ypsilanti's best-known estates through much of the later half of the 19th Century. The Starkweathers stayed there for about 30 years before moving to what is now the Ladies Library Association building on Michigan Avenue.

"It was their farm," Rupert says. "It was somewhere around 400 acres of orchards. He was a horticulturist and real-estate developer. Where Eastern Michigan University is now was all his orchards."

The Starkweathers were quite generous with their fortune. After John died in the 1870s Mary Ann gave money and property to the university and city, including the Hebe Fountain on South Huron Street, the Starkweather Memorial Chapel at Highland Cemetery, Starkweather Hall at EMU and the Starkweather Fountain that graced downtown for years.

The estate changed hands several times after the Starkweathers moved until the land was subdivided and developed into land for houses and EMU. The house suffered a similar fate, eventually being broken up into three apartments as the building deteriorated from decades of neglect.

Located in the heart of Ypsilanti's historic district --the second largest in the state-- Starkweather intrigued Rupert, even when it fell on hard times and he jumped at the chance to bring it back to prominence.  

Getting it to that point won't be easy, however. Although the house is structurally sound, large sections of it need work including portions of the foundation. Siding needs to be replaced, the front porch needs to be reattached and two large hand hewn oak beams are no longer sound.

And that's just the outside.

Starkweather's inside needs to be completely gutted, with all the electrical, heating and plumbing systems replaced and updated. The building was never hooked up to the city's sewers and its septic system, you guessed it, also needs replacing.

"The list is huge," Rupert says. "This isn't one of those projects that can be done in 30 minutes or 30 days. It's pretty much a five-year project."

Although Rupert is set to get the house from the city for the cost of transferring the title, he expects to spend several hundred thousand dollars rebuilding it. He adds he wouldn't be surprised if that number went up significantly because so much work needs to be done.

"People think you're getting something for nothing, but you're not," Rupert says. "It takes more time and money to preserve history than it would to tear it down and build new."

Source: Ronald Rupert, developer behind the Starkweather House renovation
Writer: Jon Zemke

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