Monday, October 6, 2014

A Ted Walk: Catalogue Houses of Old Sylvania

Did you know that 80-90% of the homes in some of the oldest parts of Sylvania are "catalogue" homes?

So said Prof. Ted Ligabel, of Eastern Michigan University, who led a house tour of the area around the Sylvania Heritage Museum on a cool, cloudy day. 
Samples of Sears and Montgomery Ward House catalogues.

No, most of us did not know that. Our first surprise! Mail-order homes!

The Tour, sponsored by the Sylvania Area Historical Society (SAHS), attracted a lively group of 15 history buffs who loved hearing about these homes, and were glad the rain held off! 

The 'Ted Walk' covered a walkable square that begins on Main at Maplewood (a hotel sat on the northwest corner before a fire destroyed it), goes north on Main, west onto Erie to Philips and the Plummer Park area, back to Philips, and east down Maplewood to Main.  

Prof. Ted Ligabel (left photos) leads SAHS walking tour of these fabulous homes. Historian Gayleen Gindy (right) stands in front of the house she grew up in, now the Soy Candle shop. 
We began at the Sylvania Heritage Museum, which is across from the Reeb funeral home on Main. Yes, the Reeb is a catalogue house that has undergone many additions and incarnations! So is the Museum house.  

Ted held up a copy of Sylvania Homes that told some of these stories.  It was an early and noteworthy effort to preserve and record our architectural history, but only 12 copies were printed and it is hard to find. A copy is at the Museum. Gayleen Gindy, an historian involved in that project, was on hand to fill in details and add historical context. She is working on new book that will re-tell and update the history.  If only these houses could talk, what stories they would tell! 
 Ted Ligabel holds up a rare copy of "Sylvania Homes" (bottom center).
Photos of some of the houses featured in the publication and/or on the walking tour.   Lovely!
So, if  you lived in the 19th century or early 20th century, and decided you wanted to build a house out in the Sylvania countryside among all the trees, all you had to do is browse through a house catalogue and place an order.  You would pick out a basic design or basic kit in the kind of architectural style you preferred and have it shipped.   Early on there was an Aladdin catalogue and a Tiffany Blue Book. Then came the illustrious and ubiquitous Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues. 

The growth of national roads, canals and especially railroads (and there's one very close by) made the process easier, and ever more popular.  

You would first build your own foundation--of brick, concrete blocks (from Chandler's in the late 19th century and up), or cobblestone (rarer but there are some)--then build your mail-order home upon it. The style and construction material of the foundation says a lot about the age of a home, Ted informed us.  We looked for and, to our delight, found a date imprinted on the bricks of some homes.
Greek Revival and Craftsman styles predominate in Old Sylvania. They are all shapes and sizes,  with interesting foundations and fantastic features & flourishes.
Grand or simple, originals or updated, these are all  catalogue homes.
Once you chose your basic design, you would select whatever additions and/or flourishes you liked, in a range of prices: certain styles of doors, windows, dormers, porches, columns, gables, fireplaces, all the interior cabinetry, hardware and fixtures, and everything you could dream of for your "designer" catalogue house.  Some were very expensive and grand, some simple and vernacular.  
Photos of the originals! Bottom house same
as Dague House on Erie; above is the Greek
 Revival with updates at corner of Erie &
Philips, which now has columns in front. 

Most of the homes around Old Sylvania are either Greek Revival style or Arts and Crafts (craftsman) style, the latter influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's "Prairie Style" and the reaction against Victorian architecture. The 1898 and 1893 World's Fairs in Chicago also had an important influence. Features of these two basic styles, in various configurations, are rich and abundant in old Sylvania, sometimes mixed, always glorious. 

This was the relatively inexpensive and convenient way to build the house of your dreams from the 1840s up to the early 20th century.  This is, indeed, how many homes went up in the forest of  Old Sylvania. Imagine the excitment of seeing a house plan become a reality!  

Of course at that time there was lots of land and lots of natural space between the new homes. The next big housing spurt came after WWII with the phenomenal growth of suburban America (we saw some examples of one-story brick ranch homes), and then a huge expansion in Sylvania itself in the 1970s and '80s.  By this time, the "catalogue" era of "houses by mail"was long over.  

As we walked from house to house, I learned that Ted had grown up in the neighborhood.  So had historian Gayleen Gindy, in the home that is now Heaven's Gate Soy Candles on Main. Mimi Malcolm, who traces her family to the earliest settlers, had family around here, too.  I say 'around here' because I live on Main, just a few houses north of the Heritage Museum.  Yes, it's a "catalogue" house, Ted confirmed, as we walked by, "and the houses on either side of it, too," Mitchell's Clock Shop and Harmony in Life.   

We stopped at the house next to Mitchell's, 5763 Main.  "Now that's a great example of the craftsman style,"  he enthused, built in 1915 with features including a porch supported by thick "fluting" (layered) brick columns and a "Model-T garage."   The owners, a young couple, spotted us admiring their house and came out to tell us more. We even learned that the pretty flowering bushes gracing the front of the house are called "limelight hydrangea." 

Directly across the street, the house with the bright yellow door, now Keith's hair salon, formerly the Christian Science Reading Room, is also "a very important home," Ted noted.  It's the Cosgrove home, built in 1848 in a Greek Revival style. Ted pointed out the wide frieze board under the roof and around the windows, the design, other nice features.  Most of us weren't architectural experts, but we took in what we could!
From Main Street, we turned the corner onto Erie. Ted pointed out the different styles of the houses, including a row of three in the exact same style, with some minor individual features. I always wondered about those three look-alike houses, painted pastel, like pretty maids all in a row.   

We passed the "the only" all-brown brick house, not pretty but distinctive.  We walked to Philips at Erie and talked about the large and elegant Greek Revival at the corner, now graced with tall columns, which were not part of the original design, and updated with Italianate features. Much of the original detail came from western New York state, Ted said, not surprising given the large migration from there to this part of Ohio and southeast Michigan. I love the way it's decorated for the holidays! 

We walked a few houses west toward Plummer pool to pay homage to one of "the oldest catalogue houses in the area," the Dague House, an old classic Greek Revival with typical pilasters at the sides of the house and a pretty cornice over the tall front door.  It once stood alone, during and after the Civil war, surrounded by farmland and trees.  Lots of trees. 

As we went back onto Philips to continue our tour, Ted said with a flourish: "Just about all of the houses in this block are catalogue houses:  this one, that, that, that, that one, and that and that."  Some of my favorite homes. All different.  He pointed and talked.  We followed his finger and listened. 

Amazing!  All the houses that I pass almost daily with my kids and grandkids now living in the same area, houses I had questions about, they were all ordered from a catalogue, put up on foundations, and embellished by individual tastes and touches that added to their basic character.  The owner's particular taste are still found in the details. 

I now know lots more about what I look at every day! It's intriguing how you can look at something a hundred times and not truly see it--the detail, context, meaning and purpose of it, see the history and mystery, all at the same time.

Our 'Ted Walk' made history come alive.   

"We've already lost many structures, many homes, just in the last five years, " Bob Smith, former SAHS president noted.  Maybe 
Prof. Ligabel's tour will inspire us to do something to make sure we don't lose more.  

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