saginaw-rightsizing

Saginaw: City of Contrasts

Posted on: January 20th, 2011 by Guest Writer 4 Comments

 

Written by Brenna Moloney

The late 19th century Caskey House.

The late 19th century Caskey House.

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.

The mid-century Dow home.

The mid-century Dow home.

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.

An example of infill construction in Saginaw.

An example of infill construction in Saginaw.

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.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever: Rightsizing in Saginaw

Posted on: December 16th, 2010 by Guest Writer 12 Comments

 

Written by Brenna Moloney

The streets of West Saginaw are bleak this time of year. This is partially the effect of the season: indifferent gray skies, cutting Michigan winds, trees still and bare.

However, the austerity of Saginaw is not just a trick of the climate. It also arises from the built landscape. The streets are lined with monumental buildings, both residential and commercial. A few of these buildings--lovely Queen Annes, big-shouldered Prairie Four-Squares, Italian villas, Kahn steel-framed office blocks--are well-kept.

Many, however, are not. They linger sadly, everywhere, in various stages of decay. Ostensibly, this is a human environment and yet, one sees so few people as one explores the neighborhoods. This is what disinvestment and economic collapse look like.

Neighbors in the Saginaw City Center National Register Historic District have seen one house after another come down. But what are city leaders supposed to do? There is no one to live in these houses and many of the buildings have been abandoned for years. They have been stripped of their valuables and some stand open to weather. Others have even been gutted by fire. Faced with a crumbling housing stock, a diminished population, and high foreclosure rates, demolition seems all but inevitable.

Despite this, neighbors always gather to watch as a house is pulled down. No one speaks because they’ve seen this before and feel powerless to stop it. The crunch of hundred-year-old woodwork as it’s crushed by a bulldozer is a heart-rending sound. This is what a shrinking city feels like.

All of this is not to say that one should abandon hope. On the contrary, the people of Saginaw, who are filled with love and pride for their city and its important history, have drawn on vast stores of tenacious optimism to keep what is here intact and to create community in unthinkable conditions.

Community gardens, neighborhood meetings, and people who get up day after day to clean up and carry on despite the harrowing economic conditions are the reason the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network brought me here. They are the ones who will find a way to protect our shared built heritage. I will be here to help connect Saginaw residents to resources and provide education.

Make no mistake: What has happened to Saginaw is a tremendous tragedy, and it is a tragedy that is being duplicated in city after city across Middle America. The challenges are daunting, but now is not the time for preservationists to remain silent. Now, more than ever, we should fight for the places that matter because Saginaw is what the future of historic preservation looks like.

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.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.