Stuart Neighborhood

Kalamazoo's Stuart Neighborhood: Where every house has its own story and there's a lot to love

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Stuart Neighborhood series.

People who know the Stuart Neighborhood in Kalamazoo love its large ornate houses, its fascinating history, and its convenient central location.

But, more than that, they say they love the interesting people who live there now and those who lived there in the past.

"I love the people in Stuart and I love my neighbors," says Gary Wark, president of the Stuart Area Restoration Association. The 48-year-old organization is also called the Stuart Neighborhood Association.

“I’ve got Shirley Coleman down the road,” he says speaking of the longtime community resident and founding member of the neighborhood association.

“And she lives next to Mayor (David) Anderson. And (former Kalamazoo Mayor) Bobby Hopewell lives a couple of doors down from David."

He says that at the same time the neighborhood has some new people moving in and they seem to gravitate toward people who have lived here longer.

"It's a place where every time you walk out the door, someone says, 'Hi,'" says Staci Gibson, who looked at only two houses in the Stuart Neighborhood before she and her husband Justin decided to buy their home there eight years ago.

They bought a 1,900-square-foot, four-bedroom house built in 1903. It has a long yard with a huge oak tree in back.

"I was sold when I saw the tree," Gibson says with a laugh. "It is so big, it would take two people to wrap their arms around it." 

 A middle-class suburb

Before people of means pushed south of downtown Kalamazoo to create what are now the Westnedge Hill, Oakland Drive, and Bronson Boulevard areas, they built homes just west of the central business district. And during the latter half of the 1800s, they made Stuart one of the area's first middle- to upper-middle-class suburbs.

"It was not so much money," says local historian Lynn Smith Houghton. It was more about the type of people who lived there. "... They were the people that owned the businesses, professional people, doctors, lawyers, politicians."

Houghton is the regional history collections coordinator for Western Michigan University's Zhang Legacy Collection Center.

Stuart continues as a relatively small, tree-lined community of sturdy, well-preserved homes just west and north of downtown Kalamazoo. Their construction began in the mid-1800s and boomed in the 1880s when horse-drawn streetcar service made the area more accessible. With about 536 households, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, it is bordered on the north by North Street, on the west by Douglas Avenue, on the south by Main Street, and on the east generally by the Michigan Central Railroad tracks.

The area was a preserve for a Potawatomi band of Native Americans until a treaty changed things in 1827 and made the land available for settlers to buy. (Kalamazoo was the Village of Bronson until 1835.) The area that later became the Stuart Neighborhood was then available for home building.

A large portion of land was acquired by Charles E. Stuart and parcels were sold over the years. Stuart was an influential and politically active early settler. He was an attorney and landowner who served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1847-1849 and 1851-1853) and in the U.S. Senate (1853-1859). Home owners included the professionals mentioned by Houghton as well as skilled craftsmen and businessmen who helped Kalamazoo become a large producer of carriages, cigars, and agricultural implements.

Before streetcars and better roads began to make the going easier in the 1880s, it was difficult to walk from downtown Kalamazoo to the Stuart Neighborhood, Houghton explains. There were plenty of horse droppings and mud and most people needed a horse or a horse-drawn buggy to travel regularly from Kalamazoo's growing central business district to the Stuart Neighborhood.

Influential names everywhere

The neighborhood, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 (with additions in 1995), is named for Charles Stuart. The Italianate house in which he lived was built in 1858 and had posh features such as an observatory, imported Italian marble, mahogany-paneled walls, six rooms on each floor, and a chandelier. It may have also been the first house in the area to have an indoor bathroom. Known as the Stuart Mansion or Stuart House, it is still located on the street that bears his name.

Some of the neighborhood's prominent streets were named for other individuals who were early settlers or prominent people in Kalamazoo. They included Epaphroditus Ransom, the only Kalamazooan to be elected governor of Michigan. He was born in March of 1798 and died in November of 1859 at age 61; and Steven Douglas, an Illinois attorney who campaigned unsuccessfully to become the Democratic Party's nominee for president in a race won by Republican Abraham Lincoln in1860. Douglas was a guest of Stuart in Kalamazoo and their friendship inspired Stuart to have a street named for him.

Every house has a story

"You stay here from any period of time, you start to wonder who lived here before and what was their story," says local historian Sharon Carlson of homes in the Stuart Neighborhood.

Carlson retired last year as a professor of University Libraries and director of the Zhang Legacy Collection Center. She was a 22-year-old college student who had just started working full-time as a secretary in WMU's College of Education when she and her first husband "walked into a 1905 house on Eleanor Street, a Foursquare house with woodwork" and loved it.

She has lived in the Vine Neighborhood and on Kalamazoo's East Side. And she has had three homes in Stuart:

• The Foursquare house she bought in 1985 on Eleanor Street when she was a student. After an amicable split, her first husband continues to reside there;

• A rental property they bought directly across the street from the first house. Sharon lived there for about three years after the couple divorced;

• And her present home at 430 Elm St., a 1,600-square-foot Italianate house on the corner of Willard and Elm streets. She bought that house in 1997 and lives there now with her current husband Tom Dietz, a historian and curator emeritus at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.

"I liked the lines, the location (and) it had more trees," Carlson says. "I knew some of the people who would become my neighbors."

They were calling the house the Richard Pengelly House, Carlson says, and she bought the house after she learned more. "I found out a little more about Pengelly’s wife and I was hooked," she says. Richard and Mary Pengelly "were here for a long time and were the most interesting people who lived here," Carlson says.

Richard was a Methodist minister who became a physician and created a treatment for women called Zoa-Phora. Advertised as "a woman's friend," it was a celery and alcohol-based medicine that was supposedly good for treating "anything that could be troublesome or bothersome for a woman," Carlson says.

Mary Pengelly was a prohibitionist, Carlson says, and was the leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Kalamazoo. It was known to help women, possibly those looking to escape abusive family situations. Mary was also involved in pushing for social reforms, including the women's suffrage movement. In 1901, she became the first woman to vote in a municipal election.

Passionate about the place

People who want to live in the Stuart Neighborhood, really want to live there, says Realtor Jim Hess.

"I could list a house in Westwood and have 50 people look at it," says Hess, a longtime home seller with Jaqua Realtors. "In Stuart, I could list a house and have five look at it. But those five people would be very passionate about living there."

Buyers can find a range of homes in the neighborhood, in terms of size and price, he says. "You can go four blocks and it could go from $400,000 to $80,000," says Hess.

Three homes sold by Jaqua last year in the heart of the historic neighborhood ranged from $250,000 to $355,000. They ranged in size from 2,568 square feet to 4,183 square feet. The oldest was built in 1861. The newest was built in 1994. Three homes that sold outside of the neighborhood's historic center, fetched $89,900 to $146,000. Each was a three-bedroom house with 1,226 to 1,526 square feet of space. The oldest was built in 1895. The newest was built in 1912.

People appreciate the architectural styles in the neighborhood, Hess and others say. The styles include Victorian, Queen Anne, Renaissance, Italianate, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Colonial Revival, Craftsman and Foursquare.

Happy with the location

"I wanted someplace where I can walk if I wanted to," says Gibson, who works as marketing director at Circa Design, a brand and advertising management firm in downtown Kalamazoo. She is 38. Her husband Justin, 37, is a graphic designer for the South County News and teaches a writing class at Western Michigan University. The couple has a 4-year-old named Gus.

Neither Staci nor Justin drive. So Staci says, "I knew I needed to be close to downtown. And Stuart was known for being a quiet, adjacent place. It allows me to be able to walk out my front door and be a hop and a skip from downtown."

Gary Wark and his wife, Kim, relocated from East Lansing to Kalamazoo in 2001. She is a registered nurse. He works in commercial sales and leasing, and property investment.

"I actually bought my home with a couple of partners as an investment property and I was going to rent it out to students," Wark says. "My wife at the time and I quickly realized we just loved the neighborhood and the people. So we decided we were going to live there."

At the time, they had two children, one was age 4 and the other was an infant. The older child, Alexandra, is now age 24. The second child, Gabrielle, is 19. A third child, Sam, followed. He is now 15.

"He was born in the house," Wark says of Sam. "It wasn't planned. We couldn't make it to Bronson in time."

But Kalamazoo Public Safety had a fire station nearby on Douglas Avenue at North Street "and within two minutes they had two fire trucks, probably eight police cars and two ambulances here. "Everybody was huddled in the bedroom."

Like many other Stuart Neighborhood homeowners, their house has an interesting history. It is called the Bride's House. It was built directly across the street from the Charles Stuart Mansion. Stuart had it built in 1873 as a wedding gift for his daughter.

A few intangibles

Carlson says she likes the demographics of the Stuart Neighborhood. It is racially mixed and economically diverse. "I think there are some people who are struggling and people who aren't," she says. There are people who have aged and stayed, as well as people who are new to the neighborhood, she says.

"There are a fair share of young couples and empty nesters," Carlson says. Included in the mix are people who would identify with the LGBT community and college students who rent space "but tend to want more of a neighborhood experience."

Stuart has a lot of a creative people, Staci Gibson says. She can name a painter, a photographer and at least one writer -- not counting her husband Justin, who is also a playwright. The neighborhood also seems to have a lot of socially conscious people and individuals involved in volunteerism, she says. Many embraced the calls for social justice that brought protests to downtown Kalamazoo last summer.

"I just like our neighbors," Gibson says. "All of our neighbors are so wonderful. I'm just going to be sad if anyone moves."

Other neighborhoods probably have some similar characteristics, she says.

"Vine was nice when we were students," she says of her years at WMU. But Stuart is older and seems to have more established residents and retired families. "It's calming that way and I think I appreciate that. ... It's kind of nice to have."

"It's very connected and pedestrian-friendly," Gibson says. People walk their dogs "and everyone just kind of knows everyone. I don't think it was like that when I lived in other places."

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.