Who needs a time machine? Edison preserves the past for you

You might feel that you’ve stepped back a hundred years if you take a walk in the Edison Neighborhood. One of the homes was built during the American Civil War (in the 1860s). Most were built in the early 1900s. Many are big, majestic, elegant; they have character and heritage—and they’re a lot less expensive than similar homes in other parts of town. Sharon Ferraro, Kalamazoo’s Historical Preservation Coordinator, says many could qualify to be designated as “historic homes.”
The oldest home in the neighborhood is on Brownell, a little dirt road, just a block long. Yes, a dirt road, right in the middle of town! (Talk about going back in time!) And the house is an unpretentious “box,” that was built by Daniel and Sarah Allen, as a farmhouse surrounded by large celery fields. Before being the “Mall City” and the “Paper City,” Kalamazoo was nationally known as the “Celery City.”
Hollie DeHaan has lived in the house for several years but says she’s not a historian. She says what she knows about it she learned from former county commissioner Rob Barnard. And while the neighborhood's oldest home is modest, the Allens built the second-oldest home, a large, Italianate house for their daughter and son-in-law. It’s right across the street on Brownell and is being restored by Barnard, who owns a construction company.
The son-in-law was Alfred Brownell (thus the street name), who owned Kalamazoo’s large windmill factory (in the mid- to late-1800s the city was also known for making windmills). The house is more than 3,000 square feet, Barnard says, with ornate plaster designs in the 9-1/2-foot tall ceilings, and originally had a wide, second-story porch with large pillars. It was built in 1878. The soffits (roof overhang) are 24 inches deep, with 22-inch by 60-inch windows, and a 9-foot-tall entry door. A maid’s quarters was built into the rear of the house.

But most people couldn’t afford a home like that then. In fact, prior to 1920, according to Ferraro, 80 percent of the homes in Kalamazoo were rentals. That’s because back then you had to put 50 percent down to buy a house. (No wonder they called homeownership the American “dream.”)
Sharon Ferraro says many homes in Edison qualify as historical homes. That changed in the 1920s, according to Ferraro. The Russian Revolution of 1918 caused the first “Red Scare,” and our leaders felt that if Americans owned their homes, they’d be less likely to want to rebel. Thus, down-payments dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, and for the same reason, a 10 percent down-payment became commonplace.
Homes were still relatively expensive, however. They were constructed by hand, by experienced carpenters, and individual boards had to be cut with a handsaw, one by one, on-site (“zoopa-zoopa-zoopa-zoopa”). That began to change in 1912-1914, when Sears Roebuck (yes, the Sears that's now at the mall) began to sell complete home kits. Blueprints were provided and all the lumber was pre-cut and ready to assemble. They were called “Precut Homes.” All you had to do is put them together, like large Lego kits. That’s why you see, basically, the same homes in many places. Soon, the Montgomery Ward catalog also included home kits.
Local lumber yards started to lose business to the mass-produced kit suppliers, shipped in on the railroad. But they fought back. There was no reason local lumber yards couldn’t pre-cut lumber, too, and so, home building became easier and less expensive. The local businesses would design homes, or simply copy the nationally designed floor plans. Home ownership boomed.
The area featured several lumber yards. As late as the 1970s, Southside Lumber was where Aunt Millie’s is now, at Portage and Alcott. Just a few blocks north, was North Lumber Company, and Lake Street Lumber was only a few blocks east of Portage.
You can see one of the Sears kit houses at 1501 Egleston. The style was “The Walton,” and it was owned by Howard Chenery, after whom Chenery Auditorium was named.
Ferraro says there are many homes in Edison that could qualify as “historic homes.” She says the benefit is that the designation is sought after by home buyers. A recent study showed that the per-square-foot market value of a historic home is an average of 16 percent higher than equivalent homes. There are also generous tax credits for the owners.

Some people worry that if their home is designated “historic” that they won’t be able to remodel, but Ferraro says that 96 percent of improvements are immediately approved by the city, and many of the rest are approved after only minor adjustments.
Many of the homes in the neighborhood might be called “mansions,” with a square-foot cost that makes them attractive for home buyers, even if they’re not historically minded. But Edison also has many “starter homes.” In the southern part of the neighborhood, small homes line many streets. They were built to house the soldiers returning from World War II, wanting to put down roots and start families.
The same thing happened after World War I (“The Great War”), which ended in 1918. Many homes were quickly built then, too. Although they still have plenty of charm and character. In fact, Ferraro says she would like to designate one such section, an entire four-block area west of Town & Country Market, as a historic district. 
The plat was known as “Linden Park.” An October 1920 Kalamazoo Gazette article announced the construction by the Kalamazoo Land Company, noting that a “model home” could be toured at the corner of Melrose and Elgin streets. At that time, the idea of a fully furnished model home was a unique idea. The furniture was on loan from E.L. Yapel, draperies and rugs came from Gilmore Brothers Department Store, and the kitchen was courtesy, Edwards and Chamberlain. The merchants used the home as a showroom for their own merchandise.
At the time that the article was written, 28 homes had been completed, eight were occupied, and nine had been sold. A total of 56 homes were planned for the plot. The article noted that the plot was located, “but a block west of the Portage Street School” (now Washington Writers Academy).

Whether you’re looking for a starter home, or one to house the entire extended family, you’ll find heritage at an “Ikea” price in Edison.
This home is found in what used to be the Linden Park part of the Edison neighborhood.

Read more articles by Gerry Hoffmann.

Gerry Hoffmann has lived on the same corner in Edison since 1969 and is past president of the Board of the Edison Neighborhood Association.