By Jan Worth-Nelson
For staff and historians of the only Victorian home left from the row of mansions that once graced Kearsley Street, the fire of 2015 was a crushing blow. One November day, a welding torch left by roofers working on copper gutters at the Whaley Historic House Museum ignited a blaze that, along with smoke and water damage, ruined every room.
Following a settlement and fundraising campaign, restoration work began. Workers had to take down the interior to its original timbers on all three floors. The $2 million restoration project of the two and a half years since is almost done, and the result, as with its near neighbor the Capitol Theater, is astonishing and heartwarming for a city needing evidence of beauty reclaimed from tragedy.
The C.S. Mott Foundation, which also supported the Capitol Theater restoration, contributed about $200,000 to the Whaley renovation.
The Gilded Age house opens to the public from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission for the re-opening celebration will be free.
Both Whaley Executive Director Daniel Conner and David White, president of the Whaley board, now agree the fire had an upside.
“While the fire was devastating at first, we quickly realized that it was a blessing in disguise and an opportunity,” White said. “Engineers and architects determined that the top of exterior brick walls were buckling from the weight of the roof . Over time the top of the house would have collapsed. As a result we were able to run steel supports from the basement to the roof to give added support to the house and relay the upper bricks.”
Also, White said, “It was an opportunity to restore the house more closely to the period using research from over the years. Period wallpapers were more accessible than they were when we started in the 1970’s. Floors were restored to their original parquet and borders copied from 1890’s wood flooring catalogs.
“It was an opportunity to bring the wiring up to code, restore lost interior shutters, and replace the long lost wood storm windows.”
All the artifacts in the house had to be moved out and stored and/or restored, White said. “In all, only a dozen pieces were destroyed. Many pieces were refinished, reupholstered, and cleaned.
“Whaley House is more authentic today than ever before,” White stated.
The new parquet floors built by Belfor Restoration of Fenton were laid in the four downstairs rooms. Elaborate plastering by hand and inlaid wallpaper was painstakingly completed by Stephen Heddy’s Artistic Decorating, Inc.– the same crew who recently completed interior transformation of the Capitol Theater. Heddy and his cousin Bill Heddy are fourth generation painters and restorers.
The wallpaper designs are different in each room — all authentic Victorian patterns — Japanese influences evident on the first floor and dragon flies and spiderwebs in an upstairs bedroom.
For Executive Director Daniel Conner, who started in his position last July, the re-opening culminates a journey from heartbreak to exuberance.
A UM – Flint history graduate, Conner was walking back to the campus that November day from his then-internship at Applewood Estate, C.S. Mott’s family home further east on Kearsley, when he saw the fire. He and his faculty mentor at UM – Flint, public history professor Thomas Henthorn, stood outside watching the devastation with sinking hearts. UM – Flint had co-sponsored popular “History Happy Hours” at the museum; Conner had been in and out of the building many times, and he understood its significance.
Built in two phases — an Italianate original in 1859, one of the first houses built in Central Park — and a later, Victorian remodel in 1884, the house is a “Victorian gem,” Conner said. In 1885, Robert Jeremiah and Mary McFarlan Whaley moved in.
R.J. Whaley, president of Citizen’s Bank for over 40 years, played a crucial role in Flint’s history, when in 1886 he gave a loan to Dallas Dort and Billy Durant’s Flint Road Cart Company–and that led to the creation of General Motors in 1908. Grieving after the death of their 10-year-old son Donald, who had been saving up himself to give to an orphanage, R.J. and Mary gave $500,000, an immense amount at the time, to start the Whaley Children’s Home.
The house, at 624 E. Kearsley St. at northbound Chavez, is the last mansion left on Kearsley Street, where once stood homes occupied by Flint legendary families including the Bishops and Whitings. The house was rescued from the wrecking ball in 1976 by a coalition of seven volunteer organizations when I-475 went in.
“It’s amazing to see the house come alive again,” Conner said. “In a way, It’s better than ever. This has been a special opportunity to begin a new life.”
“We’re doing this for the people who started us, those who have kept with the Whaley House for all these years,” he said. “We want to be part of this community.” He said he hopes to open up the home in its new life with outreach to the whole community and programming that will draw people in.
Flint Handmade will resume its quilting gatherings in the house in August, and the History Happy Hours will resume at 7 p.m. July 5.
“It is a monument to the pioneers that created the Vehicle City and to a family who left a legacy to care for Flint’s children and seniors with Whaley Children’s Center and McFarlan Home,” White added.
“My 40-year career as a Flint curator/historian came to an end three days after the fire. It was my privilege to spend the last two and a half years volunteering my time, just as I did in the 1970’s, to oversee the restoration of Flint’s Historic House Museum,” he said.
Conner, 28, is a Flint native born in Hurley Hospital, and hails from a family of three generations of General Motors workers. He is, he says, “entrenched in the area’s history.” Driving in from a six-minute commute from his apartment in Grand Blanc, Conner says for him, the Whaley position is a dream job.
“It is very cool to have the opportunity to put my love, my interests, my passion to work. I truly enjoy it here.”
After Sunday’s opening, standard admission is $5 for adults and children 13 and up; $3 for seniors, college students with ID, and children 13 and below. Children under three get in free.
The Whaley House will be open the first and third Saturdays of the month and by appointment to set up a tour. More information is available at 810-471-4714.
[This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Friday to add comments by Whaley board president David White. It was updated again on Sunday, June 24 to add the fact of the C.S. Mott Foundation contribution to the renovation.]
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.