Land bank seeks to restore historic homes

BATTLE CREEK — For seven decades, 26 Fremont St. was home to one Battle Creek family.

Members of the Barber family died here, got married here and operated a small gift shop inside.

But the house passed to other owners in the 1950s, became apartments and then became empty, abandoned. The Calhoun County Land Bank Authority took it over in a 2015 tax foreclosure.

The land bank now has plans to restore it, the Battle Creek Enquirer reported.

“Often when buildings are restored, it serves as a catalyst for other investment in nearby homes,” said Land Bank Executive Director Krista Trout-Edwards. “Preservation of these assets, especially in local historic districts, has also been documented to increase property value.”

The house at 26 Fremont St. “could be a lot of different things,” she said. This summer, it’s been a laboratory of sorts, the site of “practical preservation” workshops conducted with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, where homeowners learn from tradespeople how to restore older homes.

The land bank owns 26 historic homes that it doesn’t want to demolish, but that need to be rehabbed. It wants to use the workshops to get the word out.

It also has other homes it wants to restore, like 373 Riverside Drive, known locally as the Warren B. Shepard house and considered Battle Creek’s oldest home.

The land bank took ownership of the Shepard house last year after a tax foreclosure. Since then, the home has been evaluated by an engineer and found to be structurally sound.

The house at 26 Fremont is an 1870s Victorian with five bedrooms, intricate woodwork, stained-glass windows and a turret or small tower that faces the street.

To rehab it would probably cost $200,000 to $300,000, Trout-Edwards estimated. Funding to restore historic homes comes from a variety of sources including grants, loans and the land bank’s own fund.

It was built for John Carlos Barber and his family, who moved into the home in 1876. John Carlos owned his own livery on East Canal Street and was a Deputy United States Marshal. He died at the home in 1916.

John Carlos and his wife, Sarah, had one child, a daughter named Nellie Barber. Nellie married her husband, Arthur W. Davis, at the house in 1884 and in 1934 they celebrated their golden anniversary there.

Their daughter, Louise Davis started “The What Not Shop” at 26 Fremont in 1926 and kept it open for about 20 years. She lived in the house until she died in 1952 at age 66.

After Louise’s death, the property left the Barber family. The ownership of 26 Fremont changed hands several times. In the late 1970s or early 1980s, the interior was converted to house apartments, which are still evident today.

Since 2010, 26 Fremont has been on the city’s vacant and abandoned list.

“We have been working on this house since 2015,” Trout-Edwards said.

The land bank has tried other programs to get historic homes like 26 Fremont rehabbed including the “Transform this Home” program in which homes could be sold at a reduced price with the cost of the rehab taken into consideration and buyers would have to create a rehabilitation plan and complete it within 12 months.

“That wasn’t real successful, because it’s a heavy lift to rehab these houses, so you end up putting in more than you can get out,” Trout-Edwards said.

Looking at what was needed at 26 Fremont, 373 Riverside and other historic homes, the land bank decided to create a learning lab at 26 Fremont to start a conversation about preserving historic homes in the area while getting some work done at the house.

“We spent a lot of time and effort on this 26 Fremont project this summer in hopes that we can build some momentum…” Trout-Edwards said. “I think we have built some momentum.”

The land bank replaced the roof at 26 Fremont and, through the workshops, had work done to its interior doors, porch, foundation, windows and plaster. Next, the house will have its rotting periwinkle-painted wood siding restored and repainted.

373 Riverside needs a roof and “a whole lot of work on the inside,” Trout-Edwards said.

It was built for Warren B. Shepard in 1852. Shepard, who is credited with shaping the beginning of Battle Creek’s schools, lived at the home until his death in 1875