There is something to be said about an old house. It has a certain charm, or panache created by the architect, or a history that makes for good story telling. The house that we live in isn’t old, unless you call 1984 ancient times, but it does have a particularly good feel about it that makes it our home. I have lived in older homes in Ann Arbor, and I have seen even more houses around town with intriguing stories behind them. Let me share a few of them with you.
During my last two years of undergrad at the University of Michigan, my friends and I lived in a house on Division Street near the campus. According to the realtor at the Charles Reinhart Company, the house was 100 years old at the time, and used to belong to a former mayor of Ann Arbor back in the “old days.” We never found out who that mysterious politician was or when he held office, but we did have fun exploring the various oddities of our dwelling. Directly off the kitchen was a servants’ stairway. Now there’s something you don’t see every day. Good help is so hard to find these days (sigh). In fact, it’s so hard, who has “help” anymore? We may have been college students, but we did our best not to trash the place. We knew that the house had a history, and we could still imagine its grand past.
Just down Division Street from that campus house sits the Kempf House. No one lives there now, but the house has been preserved as a museum. Built in 1853, it is a classic example of Greek revival architecture popular in the era. The house is named after the Kempf family, who lived there and were local music teachers. They purchased the city’s first Steinway grand piano, and you can still see it there. At the museum, you can learn about life in Ann Arbor during the late 1800s and how kids back then used to practice their instruments every day, how they appreciated the opportunity to be able to play an instrument, how they enjoyed making music, and how they didn’t complain when practicing got in the way of Wizards of Waverly Place. Wait, where was I going with this? Anyhoo, check out the Kempf House Museum’s website for hours of operation: www.kempfhousemuseum. org
If you’re looking to explore a house that isn’t quite as old, but is still unusual, look no further than the Frank Lloyd Wright Palmer House. Built in the 1950s, this home is one of the last residential examples of Wright’s genius. Math geeks will love this house, as the design is based upon the equilateral triangle. This is a good thing, because we all know what would happen if the design were based upon the trapezoid. Look out! The Frank Lloyd Wright Palmer House is located near Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, visiting isn’t that easy, or cheap. The house isn’t a museum, but you can rent it. Nightly rates range from $300-$450. For $2100, you can stay all week. Check out www.flwpalmerhouse.com for exact details.
Meandering around town
One final house that I’d like to talk about is the Robert Frost Home. Yes, the great poet, Mr. “Road Not Taken” himself, lived in Ann Arbor during the 1920s while doing a stint for the University as its first Fellow in Creative Arts. While in town, Frost spent his days writing and working with students and faculty. I’m told by a dubious source that he would occasionally stop off at the Diag for some hacky sack, and then meander over to Pinball Pete’s to play some Tetris. Maybe that’s where he got the inspiration for “Mending Wall.” Frost’s house was located on Pontiac Trail, on the north side of town. If you go there today, you won’t find it. Henry Ford relocated it to Greenfield Village.
While Ann Arbor holds many valuable treasures in the way of unusual or historic homes, I still have visions of discovering something cool about our own home. Maybe research will turn up that General William Henry Harrison once camped here during the War of 1812, or perhaps we’ll dig up mastodon bones in our garden. For now, however, I have to be content with this as the house where Molly and Gabbi learned how to ride a bike, where Molly took her first steps, where Gabbi sank her first basket in the driveway, where the dog threw up on that one area of the carpet at 2am, and where my wife and I are able to corral the kids once in a while for a nice family dinner on our back porch. You know what? I think I could be content with a home like this for a very long time.
Jim Keen is a freelance writer and life-long Ann Arborite. He lives in town with his wife, Bonnie, and daughters, Gabbi (15) and Molly (11). He is the author of Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Or follow him on Twitter: @jckeen