Neglected Treasures • The Fight to Preserve a Rare Lumber Baron Mansion with a Rich & Significant History

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    icon May 19, 2016
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Saginaw...there is a quiet richness here. A silent wealth that towers, benevolent, yet solemn watching over downtown Saginaw. Their windows, like eyes brimming rich with history with stories of the buildings, the cathedrals, a castle, a grand library and the few remaining lumber baron mansions. There are few that have been restored. The Bancroft Hotel thrives while an adjacent property, with similar architectural features and stone eagles standing out along the edges of it’s ornate stone trim stands strong, built to last, yet with smashed out window panes and violent interior disrepair. It is a building holding on, whispering still, even in a state of slow decay.

The First Merit Bank across the street thrives, a stunning stone winged Lion looks out over the downtown from several stories above Washington Avenue. Grecian faces, representative of our founding fathers, stone reliefs along each side of the bank look out as well, only their expressions seem to have become stern, ashamed throughout the years of watchfulness as the City has destroyed most of the historic buildings in downtown to replace them with parking lots, or to build expensive, steely structures, with blank exterior walls and severe angles, a testament to the city leaders whose prime goal has been fueled by a love of money, power and greed. “A handful of people are fighting like hell to keep what we have left,” states Bill Ostash, member of the Saginaw Historic Preservation.  

Time is running out for one of Saginaw’s most significant lumber Baron mansions, the former Charles Lee/DeGesero home, a red brick Queen Anne Mansion that sits on the southern edge of downtown on the corner of Hoyt and Washington.  On April 25, 2016, Saginaw City Council members voted for this historic landmark to be demolished; and then in May 2016, after an outcry from numerous preservationists and residents, the City Council rescinded the vote and the house is now for sale once again. If a buyer does not step forward to claim this beauty, within months she could be facing the wrecking ball.

This is a home where legends once lived and breathed. Beginning nearly 140 years ago, the mansion was built in 1885 by one of Saginaw’s first lumber barons, Charles Lee, who also owned two sawmills. The woodwork for the home, the sashes, trim, doors, flooring and stairways were produced at his sawmill. It was evident that Charles Lee upheld the city of Saginaw in the same gratuitous manner as our founding fathers. Near to his home he also built and owned the Academy of Music (another important building that was demolished in 1914) that promoted stage performances of all kinds.  “He contributed heavily to church societies of every faith as well as to numerous benevolent societies,” notes historian Tom Mudd.

Through research it is clear Charles Lee, along with” Saginaw’s many founding fathers, Arthur Hill, Burt Wellington and Jesse Hoyt, to name a few, wanted the city to flourish and made that happen by building these extraordinary monuments, statues, libraries, cathedrals and mansions and then giving them to the City”, adds historian and educator Kevin Mark Rooker. “If our city leaders could adopt that same attitude today, one that preserves instead of destroys, what an incredible downtown area could be maintained. The purpose of historic preservation is to bring awareness, education and a strong sense of value for the City’s history into the community. Historic preservation represents the city’s cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history.” 

The Saginaw Historic Preservation has been working and fighting to protect the Lee/DeGesero mansion. Natalie Davis, a resident of Saginaw has been actively pursuing ways to preserve the home since 2012, after the last private owner, Rosemary DeGesero passed away and the home was sold to the City of Saginaw.

The City then did nothing to secure the home and it was raped of it’s valuable stained glass and lead windows, sashes and mantles stripped away by looters in the night. After Natalie Davis went to Greg Branch and complained, the city had it boarded up. Irreversible damage had already been done. On April 26, 2016, after city council voted 4 to 3 to demolish the home, Natalie started a GoFundMe page to raise funds to restore the property. The Saginaw Historic Preservation was working on a project to have the home moved across the street to the Cathedral District where it would be safe from demolition, the plan being put in place with the intention to uphold the property should it once again be listed for sale, purchased and restored. The home is now for sale; the plan is there. There is the urgent need for a buyer.

A recent interview with the current resident owners of the fully restored Wolfarth House, located on Hoyt just blocks from the Lee/DeGesero mansion, was informative as well as awe inspiring. Built in 1893, the Wolfarth House has endured for 123 years, but not without it’s own seasons of neglect, and state of disrepair. Despite those long ago days when renters destroyed and neglected it, when thieves raped the home of it’s very essence by looting the main entrance leaded glass door that featured a fleur de lis, thankfully that door has now been replaced. Wolfarth House stands, proud, a benevolent work of masterful art, a labor of love, fully restored and in pristine condition.

For more than two decades, owner Kevin Rooker has restored and enhanced the historic home. It is a presence in Saginaw that comforts and lures one to venture further into Saginaw’s Cathedral District, hoping for more, dreaming of possibility. This home contains over a century of unique stories, of culture and historical relics, it is visually stunning. A true testament to the value of what it means to it’s current owner/residents, Kevin Rooker, Bill Ostash and Scott Schouest.

“Our founding fathers had a strong desire to see Saginaw thrive, and they were fully vested in the city of Saginaw, continuously giving back to the city of their immense fortune. A few examples of how what they gave to the city - The Clock Tower Building, the fountain, and grand Franklin Theater/Auditorium that has long been demolished. They sparred old tax policies to create new ones that allow tax write offs that in turn create unity which brings creative urban development. The old ‘Everybody Wins” policy. Think of Carnegie, giving Libraries to communities. Our current tax policies promote only greed and hoarding,” says Kevin Rooker.

“You can’t manage something you don’t know,“ says Bill Ostash, in regard to city leaders who don’t live in the city, know the city, or even have the ability to navigate the downtown area without getting lost, yet somehow have influence over major decisions that affect our historical buildings and homes.”

Michael Balls, a city council member who voted in the April to have the Lee/Degesero mansion razed, stated in a recent MLive that “It’ll probably take a million dollars to fix, that place is falling apart.” Yet it began with less than 15k, and took 128k over the span of 26 years to restore Wolfarth House to the pristine condition that it is today. Rooker purchased the home in 1992 for less than 15k. Well worth the return. Today the grand home could easily be listed for 150k.

Of the Lee/DeGesero home: “Restored, this home could be the jewel of Washington Avenue,” states historian Tom Mudd. “The Charles Lee site is also extremely important because Charles Duryea, the man who built and sold the first automobile in America and whose car also won the first road race in America (Chicago 1895) --came to Saginaw in 1911 and used the old Charles Lee planing mill to build “motor buggy” trucks and autos. The planing mill was located directly behind the Lee/DeGesero Mansion, on the southeast corner of (then S. Tilden) now Water St. and Hoyt. With an appropriate marker, photographs, along the River Walk, pointing out this site would be an excellent attraction.”

In 1899 one of Saginaw’s Founding Fathers, Lumber Baron Charles Lee passed away in the home, at 633 S. Washington, surrounded by 7 of his 8 children. Lee and his family occupied the home for approximately 14 years. It was then purchased by the second of the in total three owners. The new proprietor of the mansion was Dr. Michael Ryan, one of Saginaw’s pioneer doctors. After his arrival in Saginaw in 1893 he became the first and longest Resident Physician on staff at St. Mary’s Hospital for 55 years.

It is an interesting and important fact that Dr. Ryan preserved the mindset of Saginaw’s Founding Fathers and Lumber Baron Charles Lee as well. He helped the city to thrive in numerous ways, and unselfishly gave of his time and talents to uphold the community he loved. He was a philanthropist and a local hero of astounding proportion. Dr. Ryan was the last of the horse and buggy doctors in the area, and journeyed to the rural regions of the area no matter what the weather conditions were. He also walked from lumber camp to lumber camp selling St. Mary’s famous $5 insurance plan that ensured medical treatment for the shanty boys for a period of one year.

During Saginaw’s horrendous Great Fire of 1893, Dr. Ryan led the bucket brigade on the roof of St. Mary’s Hospital, dousing embers sent by extremely high winds. The hospital was saved by the bucket brigade’s valiant efforts. In 1910, Dr. Ryan worked night and day during a smallpox epidemic which killed 44 people in five weeks. And, again, during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, Dr. Ryan worked around the clock, helping to save lives. Over 170 died in that epidemic.

Dr. Michael Ryan passed away in the home at the age of 89, on April 18,1957. The mansion then became the property of his daughter, Rosemary (Ryan) DeGesero and her husband Attorney Roy DeGesero. The DeGesero’s continued to weave the thread of passion and honor into the city of Saginaw, keeping with the traditions of the Founding Fathers of Saginaw and the two previous owners. They led honorable and dedicated lives making a profusion of contributions to Saginaw’s culture and societies--one that embraced a diverse, passionate and artistic community and encouraged people of all kinds to feel at home and welcome in the city of Saginaw.

Attorney Roy DeGesero was one of the founding members of a group that formed in 1958 called “the Committee to Save the Webber Mansion”, as a result of another decision made by the city to demolish yet another significant historical mansion and put a parking lot in it’s place. Four years of legal battles regretfully resulted with the city moving forward and razing the stunning Webber Mansion in 1962.

Attorney Roy DeGesero passed away in 1984, making Rosemary DeGesero the sole remaining owner, and the last private owner to date of the Lee/DeGesero mansion.

Rosemary was a remarkable woman, endowing the city with the gift of unique culture and she herself has become a vivid legend in Saginaw’s history. In 1960 when she heard the city planned to raze the historic Saginaw Daily News Building, she began a movement to halt the demolition, but unfortunately the city destroyed the building. However, because of her lion-hearted attempts to save the historic building, she was given the four terra-cotta lion heads once poised on the historic Saginaw Daily News building.

Mementos of an act to once more preserve and protect Saginaw’s culture, the noble terra cotta lion heads stood sentry, gracing the pillars of her front porch for 52 years. After Rosemary’s death, on May 5, 2012, the Lion Heads were removed and are now protected and displayed at the Castle Museum in downtown Saginaw.

Rosemary had a certain mythos that surrounded her, that remains as part of an important legend. She was a person of extreme compassion in caring for animals, although she was most locally famous for her pet leopard ChiChu, she also  kept many cats, dogs and once for a brief period of time, had a black panther as well. This garnered her the nickname “The Cat Lady”.

Her beloved pet leopard ChiChu was impeccably cared for. She invented a strong leash made of two thick leather belts and fashioned them into a heavy duty restraining device for when she or her hired helpers took him for his many daily walks. She is remembered largely for the days when she walked her full grown leopard down Washington Avenue and Water Street or down by the river. ChiChu dined on the finest cuts of steaks, had regular visits to the vet, and lived as her faithful companion for 25 years. He was given to Rosemary by friends of hers that were in the circus when he was a mere cub. She and her son took ChiChu to visit local schools and the children were able to pet and play with him, and feed him from a bottle. When he was full grown, he loved to sit near the front porch, on the handcrafted leash of course, and look out at all the people and activities happening on Washington Avenue. His favorite perch was shifting his bulk neatly inside the basin of a large stone urn that still exists in the front yard today. Indeed, here is a strong possibility that ChiChu’s final resting place is in the yard at 633 S. Washington, as it was an understandable habit of Rosemary’s to bury her beloved pets in her yard.

Rosemary was an actress who held lead roles in several performances at Pit and Balcony Theatre in Saginaw. She is remembered by her many friends as being one of Saginaw’s legendary artists, who was accepting of everyone, embracing people of all backgrounds, heritages and faiths. This made her an integral part of the community of Saginaw and its growth as a diverse, open-minded and open-hearted community, where culture and the arts can be celebrated and preserved.

Scott Schouest, resident of the stately Wolfarth House, provides insightful perspectives on how the people of a community can work together toward preserving and restoring the city that they love. It begins with encouraging a “Love it or Leave” atmosphere. Scott is originally from New Orleans and recalls that this kind of attitude and a time where people came together stood up and said (of destroying rather than restoring) “Over our dead and our ancestors’ dead bodies! This is what knit community members together in the wake of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. It is shameful that the city of Saginaw was not destroyed by a natural disaster, but instead by it’s own greedy, self-serving city leaders. This is a hurricane of another magnitude. One that recurs again and again.”

It is left to the people of Saginaw and to it’s community to rise up against this destructive force and fight to save what little remains. City Officials are not preservation minded (previous actions have shown clearly that even those who claim to be of staunch preservation mindsets are not) and because of this Saginaw is notorious for razing historic structures and replacing them with barren parking lots.  In November there will be five seats open for new City Council members to come in, ones with a preservation mindset are a must if we are to start to see change in the city.

Saginaw is my hometown, my roots and my passion will always exist within this city. There are many people who feel this way. Whether near or far, living or dead, I am not the only one with passion for the past and the future of our city. Its up to us to come together and work toward the preservation and restoration of this once thriving downtown area. The possibilities for it are limitless, And while there is little one person can do, many like minded individuals can move mountains.

The City has put the Lee/DeGesero mansion back on the market and there is a small window of time for a buyer to come forward and purchase her at a very low cost (est. $17-20,000).  The Wolfarth House is a prime example of what can be accomplished with very little overhead cost, (less than $15,000 to purchase and $128,000 to restore over a period of 24 yrs, with a current market value of 150k, with an investment of around 133k).

It is a win-win when there is much passion, integrity and hard work put into it. The DeGesero mansion is no different, as not much is required to bring her up to code. There is a plan through the Saginaw Preservation Society, a gofundme page that is actively raising funds and all of that will go toward the restoration of the home. There are local builders and contractors more than willing to lend a hand. The first step forward for the home is a buyer.

There is a plaque on the wall at Wolfarth House, just under the original clock from the Wolfarth Bakery with the words “Home is Where Your Story Begins”. Over time Saginaw has been stripped of her integrity, her honor and her history. Perhaps, the most devastating aspect, is that the stories of her people and her history are being lost. As the historical buildings are being demolished the stories of our ancestors are beginning to decay as well. It is time to hold on to these things and to fight! Rosemary’s front porch alone was by far the most famous one in Saginaw.  There are layers upon layers of rich history in connection with this crumbling mansion.

If the Lee/DeGesero mansion is lost, a significant portion of our history will be destroyed along with it. Saginaw, don’t let that happen! Rise up and stand behind your city, the time for action is now! Please visit the GoFundMe page set up by Natalie Davis, you can google Help Save Rosemary’s House! There is also a facebook page called Save Rosemary’s (the Cat Lady’s House) that you can visit for more information.



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