Vine Neighborhood

Owners of historic homes cherish their caretaking role 'in the stream of American history' in Vine

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

As a designated historic district in Kalamazoo, the Vine neighborhood is unique in that it is also low-income, primarily renter-occupied, and heavily populated with students. And yet Vine is also home to singles, couples and young families who have purchased historic homes and chosen to restore and preserve them. As most owners of older homes agree, it’s a labor of love.

“We’ve got houses that date back as far as 1850,” says Sharon Ferraro, Historic Preservation Coordinator with the City of Kalamazoo who has also lived in Vine all of her life. “The housing stock, by and large, is more sturdy than what you can buy today.”

After a neighborhood master plan was conceived in the late '70s, born out of a desire to want to maintain the charm and character of the neighborhood, the official historic designation took another 10 years, says Ferraro. 

“In the time since the designation, we’ve lost a maximum of two dozen houses total,” she says, “and those have been to fire or something other than just deterioration and neglect. The historic district designation has really been protective.”

Featured in this story are three houses, all older than a century, that have been adopted by current owners who felt a kinship with the energy, location, and neighborhood, and who have chosen to take seriously their roles as stewards of their homes.

These historic homes are filled with unusual features, character, stories, and charm that inspires affection in their owners who each know their homes by name.

Old Bird in a big nest

Jennifer McVey and her partner, Susan Lindemann, have lived in their house on Merrill for 22 years. McVey, who grew up along the shores of Lake Michigan, visited relatives in the Vine neighborhood as a child and always wanted to live there, but never thought she could afford to do so.

In 1997, the Merrill Street house was a duplex, which made it more feasible as part of it could be rented out. Since purchasing the house, the couple has converted the structure into a single-family home.

When McVey and Lindemann speak of their home, they refer to her as “the old bird,” as in “the old bird needs the porch painted.”

The old bird has a large nest, surrounded by double lots, one which is part of the property and one which belongs to a neighbor. Behind the house is Western Michigan University land, which makes the house a rarity in Vine, where most houses feature long, narrow lots.

McVey says that what she most likes about living in the 1912 Queen Anne is the character “and being a small part of something bigger.”

“Someone has to be a steward of these old homes,” says McVey.  She and  Lindemann have done most of the renovation of the house by themselves. “We’ve been able to work with the historic district restrictions,” says McVey. “We understand the value of them, but we also have the financial means to do it.”

And though McVey says she appreciates the historic designation, she also sees ways in which she thinks the restrictions could be tweaked, such as the requirement to use cedar while the world is faced with issues such as deforestation. “Some aspects could be updated with common sense rather than taking a purist approach,” she says, expressing appreciation that the city has been more flexible in recent years.

“Owning an older home is a labor of love,” says McVey. “Things break, and the older things are, the more they’re going to break. One problem with historic houses is a lot of them have been neglected for a number of years so if somebody takes possession of one, there’s going to be a lot of problems to address.

“And you’re going to endless paint, just endlessly paint,” she says laughing. “Strip, paint and repaint. Rinse and repeat.” 

The Tree House

Sarah Ruggles, who lives on Cedar, will be celebrating her home’s 115th  birthday next year. 

When she purchased the house in 2008, there was a sign above the front door that said, “The Tree House.” That sign is still there, and it’s a name that neighbors recognize as Ruggles hosts frequent neighborhood gatherings.

“I love the old architectural style with nooks and crannies and cordoning off areas into smaller spaces,” says Ruggles, chair of the Vine Neighborhood Association. “I love having beautiful, tall ceilings and a house where you have a lot of separate rooms, which you don’t see in modern design.”

Visitors to Sarah Ruggles Cedar Street home are greeted with a welcoming porch and lots of growing things.Ruggles, who has done most of the renovation work herself or with friends, including taking both the kitchen and bathroom down to the studs, is most proud of the bathroom in which she was able to paint and restore the claw-footed tub.

As much as Ruggles enjoys the history and character of living in a centennial home, as a VNA board chair and Vine resident, Ruggles is also sensitive to the expense of making repairs on older homes in keeping with historic district requirements for residents who are often already struggling financially.

“Often historic districts are outrageously wealthy neighborhoods,” says Ruggles. “The dilemma in Vine is it is a predominantly low-income neighborhood.”

Ruggles says she wishes for some type of remediation for the “disproportionate financial burden that the restrictions put on residences in the historic district,” where often repairs are expensive.

“I love that we are a historic-designated neighborhood. I do not want these houses to become vinyl-sided and vinyl-windowed, losing the character of the neighborhood, but there is such cognitive dissonance.”

While she acknowledges the city has offered various incentive programs over the years,  homeowners are sometimes reluctant to make necessary repairs, as well, which can result in blight, now affected by the city’s new blight ordinance, a situation that can cause additional financial stress. She says the VNA board is currently addressing this disparity with the city.

Even with the expense of maintaining a historic home, Ruggles is grateful for her Cedar Street Tree House, which sits on a corner “wrapped around with some trees.” 

She has a theory about why people are attracted to wood.

“Human beings have an innate magnetism to trees,” says Ruggles. “Part of what we all seem to love about this old, beautiful wood, wood flooring, wood trim, is that there is something deep down in our nature that makes us feel somehow closer to the trees.” 

The Ira Bixby House

If Ira Bixby, a Kalamazoo lumber baron in the mid-1800s, were alive today, he would surely approve of the care and conscientiousness that the Dannison family has bestowed upon the house Bixby built for himself and his wife in 1866.

Built-in shelves and original kitchen cabinetry add character to the Dannison's historic home.The Victorian Italianate on the corner of Rose and Walnut is distinctive for its square angles and cupola, and its name designation and accompanying stories make it special.

“The Vine neighborhood has a really spectacular range of historical homes,” says Nathan Dannison, who with his wife Heather, daughter JoJo, 3, and son, Teddy, 1, live in the Bixby house that they have been creatively renovating over the years. “We were at a point in our lives where we realized we could fulfill this dream of taking something old and restoring it to its present beauty.”

They also liked the neighborhood’s close proximity to downtown, where Dannison is a senior pastor at First Congregational Church.

“We made the decision very intentionally to live downtown because we wanted to be in a diverse neighborhood and we saw an amazing opportunity to take part in preserving the history of our neighborhood,” says Dannison

Along the road to restoration, the Dannisons have discovered unique ways in which their lives intersect with Bixby’s and the history of the house. “Ira built this house at roughly the same age I was, in my early 30s, when I started restoring it,” he says, as one example. 

“Whenever you’re doing work on the house, you see this fingerprint. Four bronze mailboxes in the foyer harken back to when it was four different apartment units. When we were redoing the kitchen floor, we popped out an old transition and found an 1865 penny. When you come to own a house like this, you are stepping into a stream of history that will hopefully outlive you.”

In addition to the history and location, Dannison says he loves the marble, the rococo details, the high ceilings on both the lower and upper level, and the distinctive cupola. “They had a different idea about space back in those days,” says Dannison. “I love the openness of the house.”

The cupola, which Ira built as an art studio for his wife, Mary, a landscape painter, featured views of hills, farmland, and downtown as it was then on the edge of town.

Dannison says he can look north and see “all of the steeples of the downtown churches,” a fitting view for a pastor.

Purchasing a historic home is not to be undertaken lightly, but it has its rewards.

“Restoring an old house really has to be a work of passion,” says Dannison. “For people who treat housing like a commodity, it’s probably not the best choice for them. But for us, we share an aesthetic that we want to live in the stream of American history.”

Before the Dannison family purchased their home, they walked through with Ferraro so they were clear about what needed to be repaired, says Dannison, who admits he had modest renovation skills. He credits local woodworker Neil Reeder for having the vision and craftsmanship to help restore the Bixby house to its former glory.

“I would advise young people, especially families, if they’re thinking about purchasing an old house, just go for it. As long as you can commit to being honest about your skills, you can take on a project like this.

“And it’s so much fun to be a part of this amazing neighborhood filled with historic homes.”

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn. See more of her work here.
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.