REGIONAL HISTORY LINES THE STREETS OF GREAT LAKES BAY COMMUNITIES
By Rich Adams
Publisher Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
If that’s the case, community roots run deep in the Great Lakes Bay region. Very deep.
Take Bay City, for example. The Center Avenue Historic District alone has more than 250 structures on the National Historic Register. The city’s Downtown Historic District boasts 67 notable buildings.
The National Historic Register lists 26 homes, two bridges and the Oxbow Archeological District in Midland. The city is also home to the West Main Street Historical District.
Saginaw has four historic business districts and the Central City Historic Residential District, which contains more than 300 structures in a 40-block area.
In Mount Pleasant there are houses dated before the Civil War. There are historic sections of Central Michigan University, which began as Central Michigan Normal School and Business Institute. The initial class of 31 students took lessons in business and stenography. Some homes are special because of their status as the oldest remaining structure in a city, like the Mount Pleasant home of Central Michigan Normal School and Business Institute founder Wilkinson Doughty.
Others are stunning, like Bay City’s City Hall and the Castle Museum in Saginaw.
The Castle Museum began life as a U.S. post office in 1898. Designed by William Martin Aiken, the structure is unique in design, even for that era.
“The supervising architect of the Treasury had a policy in the 1890s that construction should reflect the heritage of the community,” said Museum Chief Historian Tom Trombley. “He supposedly had read a book about Saginaw County’s history and chose the French Renaissance style.”
Trombley said Aiken took the building’s location in consideration, adding a steep roof so snow won’t accumulate. He also modeled designs on the building after the local fauna and flora – sort of.
“The leaves and foliage are close, but on the east tower there is a mountain ram,” Trombley said. “I have never seen a mountain ram in Saginaw.”
In the early 1900s, a few additions were built, but the post office was not functioning properly at the start of the Great Depression. The building was deemed too small to handle the postal load for what was considered a major public building in an important Michigan city. The people of Saginaw strongly opposed demolishing the castle, and it underwent a major renovation and expansion. It was rededicated a post office in 1937.
“In the 1960s a new main post office was constructed in Saginaw, and by the 1970s the castle was surplus government property,” Trombley said. “It was taken over by Saginaw County, and in 1979 the museum moved in.”
The building also was added to the National Register of Historic Places during that period.
While the Castle Museum is showing its age, Trombley said it is remarkably well maintained.
“We do perform ongoing maintenance, and we have always kept it in great shape,” he said. “I think it is always in need of more care, but we have never allowed it to deteriorate.”
A few years ago, Trombley said, the custom art deco light fixtures that hung above the main lobby were returned to service.
“We had two of the fixtures that we restored, and then we had others replicated,” Trombley said. “These lights have had a profound impact on the lobby, and its oak ceiling is spectacular.”
The grand, sweeping, ornate cast-iron stairway was also reopened to the public, Trombley said.
In November of last year, voters rejected a millage renewal to support the museum. The museum is funded through 2020, so it is in no immediate danger of closing its doors.
In an MLive report, Castle Museum President Jonathan Webb said museum supporters will regroup and re-evaluate their options going forward.
History you can Visit
There is, as noted, an abundance of history in the Great Lakes Bay region. The lumber boom that ran from the middle of the 19th century to the late 1800s resulted in the construction of many ornate mansions and public buildings throughout the region.
Here are a few of the unique historic structures still standing in the area.
City Hall, Bay City
This Richardsonian Romanesque building constructed of Indiana limestone, sandstone and granite has served residents of Bay City since 1897. It underwent major renovations in the 1970s and was re-roofed in 2010. A construction fire during the re-roofing caused significant damage to the building, and it was closed for three years to repair the damage, reopening in 2013.
Mount Pleasant Indian
Industrial Boarding School
The school was established on Jan. 3, 1893, when the eight-classroom building opened to the first 17 students providing basic academic instruction in kindergarten through eighth grade, focusing on vocational and religious education. From 1934 until 2008, the Michigan Department of Mental Health utilized the building to support developmentally disabled boys. The school is now a property of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Nation, which plans to make the former school a museum.
Not every historic house was a result of the lumber boom. The historic Midland County Courthouse, a Tudor-style construction, was built in 1924. Located in downtown Midland on Main Street, the historic structure is still in use.