Written by Brenna Moloney
Saginaw is a city of contrasts. Like many Michigan communities, it experienced two boom periods. The first was the lumber era of the late 19th century and the second, the age of the automobile with its peak in the mid-twentieth century. These periods of prosperity are written on the landscape in the buildings that the people of Saginaw chose to build at the time. Often the stylistic disparity of each era pops up in the space of a single block. This gives Saginaw its rich and interesting character.
My favorite example of this contrast is on Jefferson Avenue in the Central City Expansion Historic District. This district is home to several large lumber baron mansions and smaller homes based on this style. One stunning example of this is the Caskey House on the corner of Millard and Jefferson, seen above.
With its rich woodwork, complex form, and detailing, this beautifully restored home exemplifies the type of home built by the wealthy elite at the height of Michigan’s lumber industry. Compare this with the Alden B. Dow home built one block north.
This home displays many of the earmarks of Dow’s work: concrete block construction, simple geometric windows and detailing, and copper decorative elements. The result is a building that reflects the aesthetics of its era: the mid-20th century and the height of the auto industry in Michigan. That these two buildings exist only a stone’s throw from one another gives the reader some idea of the texture of Saginaw’s built heritage.
The challenge of this contrast, especially as it exists in the historic districts, is to find a way to build new housing that is sensitive to and conversant with the old. Saginaw is a participant community in the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), a HUD program that allots money to communities for demolition, construction and rehabilitation. Saginaw has received $17.5 million dollars through this program and has been able to demolish many dangerous and neglected buildings. There has been much criticism about which buildings have been demolished and this was part of the impetus for the creation of my position, as I mentioned in my previous post.
My job however, is to not to divide or to vilify, but to bring people together to do what is best for their community. To this end, helping city employees to design and write the specs for new in-fill housing in the historic districts has become part of my job. In the past, government funded housing projects have not always taken the design of surrounding houses in to account. A contrast has been created, as can been seen in the photo below.
The building at center reflects the history and economic trajectory of Saginaw just as vividly as the Caskey mansion and the Dow house. Instead of enriching the landscape, however, the contrast it creates in the historic district is unappealing and indifferent to its surroundings or the social needs of its inhabitants. The Caskey mansion and Dow house are triumphs of design and quality. The above pictured in-fill home is not. So how can we avoid a jarring sort of contrast and encourage new in-fill that is interesting, beautiful and humane? Additionally, how can this be done within the time constraints of the NSP program and with a staff that is already stretched thin?
I have tried to approach the answers to these questions in several ways. Most importantly, I’ve done this by identifying historic preservation resources and making them available to the NSP planning board. This involves getting a State Historic Preservation Office architect to help write rehabilitation specifications. It involves creating an in-fill design guide that the city inspectors can reference while they do their work. It means identifying contractors that are familiar with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and know how to repair windows. It involves creating a crash course in historic district legislation and architecture for the NSP board. Knowing what’s out there and how to connect people to it is half the battle. My dearest hope is that these efforts will contribute positively to the built environment, adding another rich layer to Saginaw’s history, with buildings that add interest and value to the neighborhoods.
In October, Brenna Moloney was hired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network as a preservation specialist in the city of Saginaw, Michigan. She advises city and county employees on historic preservation, and works to educate the community on the importance and benefits of historic preservation by strengthening their Historic District Commission, offering workshops, and by starting a community advocacy group. Her employment was made possible through a grant from the Americana Foundation. Brenna will be blogging here about her experiences in Saginaw. Read her first post here.
Update, 1/21/11: When initially published, the third and fourth paragraphs above were mistakenly omitted. Apologies for any confusion this may have caused.
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