The Carl Roethke Home - Will the Wrecking Ball Claim One of Saginaw’s Architectural Treasures?

    icon Jan 31, 2019
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“Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.”

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

Not counting Sports and Rock stars, Saginaw in particular and the Great Lakes Bay Region in general have few significant cultural figures with an enduring legacy that withstands the test of time such as poet Theodore Roethke.  Born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan, Roethke is regarded as one of the most accomplished and influential poets of his generation. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his book The Waking, he also won two National Book Awards for Poetry. Indeed, former U.S. Poet Laureate and author James Dickey, author of Deliverance, wrote Roethke was “in my opinion the greatest poet this country has yet produced.”

Presently the original home of Roethke, along with his Uncle Carl’s home which is integrally tied into both Roethke’s past and his work, are still proudly standing protected under the guardianship of the Friends of Theodore Roethke, a non-profit foundation whose mission is to maintain the poet’s  childhood home at  1805 Gratiot as a museum affording the experience of writing and reading in a poet’s house, and to avail visiting writers, students, and researchers of the archives and artifacts of the Roethke family. The intent of the poet’s Uncle Carl’s stone house (1759 Gratiot) is to develop a cultural and educational center.

So it was with equal parts shock and dismay that I learned on January 21st that the Friends of Theodore Roethke (FOTR) Board of Directors voted at an October 23, 2018 meeting to demolish the stone structure at 1759 Gratiot.

Let me add the word ‘disgust’ to describe my reaction. In 40-years of publishing The Review, and living here for a majority of my own life; why does the propensity to tear down Saginaw’s hard-fought legacy run so rampant? From The Saginaw Auditorium to the Arthur Hill House to the historic landmarks whose signs flicker in the neon graveyard of Robert Maul’s Park in Old Town - why does the knee-jerk reaction of demolition (apart from the fact it is a simple solution) flow with such fluidity through our circulatory system?

Both of these structures commanded a Michigan Historical Marker between them, a National Literary Landmark designation from Librarians’ Association for the poet’s house and listing on the National Registry of Historic Sites under the National Park Service for both.

Anatomy of a Decision

Current Board FOTR Board Members consist of Annie Ransford (President), Michael Kolleth (Vice-President), Frederick Overdier (Secretary); William Keys (Treasurer), Carlos Ramet, Joyce Seals and Marilyn Crane.   Minutes from the October 23, 2018 meeting where this motion to demolish was adopted show that Officers and Board members present were: Mike Kolleth, Bill Keys, Fred Overdier, Carlos Ramet, Annie Ransford, and Joyce Seals, constituting a quorum. The Treasurer’s Report states that assets in the Friends of Theodore Roethke bank accounts total $36,935.

It was observed that a priority for discussion at this meeting should be the status of 1759 Gratiot property, given the increased quotation for work associated with roof and foundation issues presented. Annie distributed to the board an estimate from Vondette Roofing in excess of $18,000 for the roof only.

Discussion observed that the cost of stabilization of the 1759 Gratiot premises is no longer within the budgets of the FOTR particularly given ongoing obligations to maintain 1805 Gratiot. Comparison was made to a situation of the Warren Avenue Presbyterian Church, which is now closing due to the maintenance and restoration costs of the building.

After discussion, a motion was made by Carlos Ramet, that FOTR shall continue to promote, preserve and protect the historic home and museum at 1805 Gratiot, and that FOTR shall takes steps to remove the structure at 1759 and repurpose that premises for a use such as that of an outdoor cultural center.  The motion was supported by Mike Kolleth.  After brief further discussion, the motion carried, 5-1, with only Annie Ransford dissenting.

A second motion was made by Kolleth that FOTR shall authorize two parallel capital fundraising campaigns, one of which would seek an endowment with a lead gift of $250,000 and the second campaign would be for the repurpose of the land at 1759 and adjoining property, which would seek a lead gift of $100,000.   After brief further discussion, the motion carried, 6-0.

The Aftermath

Vice President Michael Kolleth responded to this piece with this statement: “The board did not set a timeline for action related to 1759 Gratiot. If there are volunteers willing to pay for the stabilization of the dwelling, a new roof and insurance on an ongoing basis to delay or postpone any action, we are certainly willing to listen. However, the cost to simply maintain – let alone remodel -- an unusable and structurally compromised property can be financially overwhelming for a small non-profit organization.”

Carlos Ramet, The Roethke Board Member who made the motion for demolition issued this statement:

“The minutes from the October 2018 meeting state that we voted 5-1 to support a motion "to continue to promote, preserve and protect the historic home and museum at 1805 Gratiot, and that FOTR shall take steps to remove the structure at 1759 and repurpose the premises for use such as that of an outdoor cultural center.   This is in the context of two other items we discussed and also referenced in the minutes:  FOTR has assets in its bank accounts of $36,935; Vondette Roofing provided an estimate in excess of $18,000 for the roof only at 1759.  The math is clear.  We stabilize 1759 and jeopardize limited resources for the protection of the historic home. The Board made its decision after careful deliberation.”

Annie Ransford has been president, advocate, and the glue behind the Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation that has held it together since its inception.  She issued the following statement to The Review:

“The Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation has my heart.  It is my life work.  But even after dedicating time and out of pocket monies (I paid mortgages on two houses from 1998 until Dow Chemical Company expunged both in 2014), the foundation has not been able to realize its original mission to preserve, promote, and protect both Roethke houses. 

The decision to remove 1759 was a business decision based on finances that I continue to grieve. Architectural plans, a gift from Leslie Tincknell, FAIA, written about ten years ago, and not as yet realized, show handicap accessibility for both houses. Instead of offering language and art camps only in July, with a second Roethke house we would be able to offer year-around tutoring for students in a neighborhood that has low test scores in reading and writing. 

Instead of writing workshops with writers for one day visits, we would be able to offer residencies for writers to teach and mentor writers on site and in schools - more possibilities emerge with the space of two houses, such as including a mental health outreach informed by the arts, in consideration of Theodore Roethke’s own struggles with mental illness.

We’ve paid our dues and been a nonprofit foundation for twenty years, offering literary picnics (In a poet’s backyard) during summers with visiting writers reviewing their work; language and art camps for young children (“Child on Top of a Greenhouse”); birthday parties with a poet in residence for a day; tours and writing workshops, all made possible through multiple grants. 

The decision to demolish was based on having one house as a realistic approach, since we are a small foundation with modest operating expenses and expanding to two structures would increase bills and the need for paid staff to oversee year around programs.  We have no paid staff. If we remove the poet’s Uncle’s house, we’d have space for much needed parking.  At present parking is limited to three driveways and concern for visitors’ safety is an issue when they back out onto busy M-46. Also,  maintaining one house is a prudent approach, knowing that there are more historic house museums than any other kind in America and knowing that most historic house museums fail. The fear of the Board is that we could over extend and lose what we have.

In 2009, when we applied for Federal Stimulus Funds (which we didn’t receive), the board thought beyond utilizing two houses, to consuming the whole block with a parking lot to west (removal of apartment complex) and working greenhouse to east (removal of 1745 Gratiot).  With this additional land, we’d be able to offer safe access and room for a working greenhouse to teach gardening for healthier life styles in Saginaw that hosts too many uncertain food sources.  What would be more fitting than to have a working greenhouse for a nature poet who wrote greenhouse poetry while creating a beautiful place for writers to write, surrounded by living plants!  By becoming more than a museum, Roethke’s literary life could become a living arts celebration by serving his hometown.”

Climb the Mountain to see Through the Valley

Unfortunately, the house targeted for demolition is one of the most architecturally pleasing homes in the city of Saginaw and certainly on the west side. This large stone house makes a huge statement coming into that area. Saginaw can ill afford to lose another of its marvelous structures, especially in an area of the city that is still secure.

Suggestions that have been submitted to the Board, along with my own thoughts, consist of the following:

If you’re going to run a fundraising campaign for $100,000 to repurpose the demolished property for a cultural center or a parking lot, why not focus the campaign on securing the structure?  The cost for demolition can be equally expensive as replacing a roof and securing the structure. A small 500 sq. foot duplex in the city was recently torn down for the ripe price of $7000 and during the process destroyed everything around it, in addition to the issue of filling in the vacant space with decent soil.

What would be the cost of constructing a parking facility? Again, this could run as much as the cost of replacing the roof and securing the structure. One house restoration expert noted that the house could be secured structurally for 1/10th cost of demolition and constructing a parking lot and left safely for years to come. Simply secure the roof and open windows and back porch and there is no reason to tear it down, as that way if funds are not available now it would be stabilized and able to be restored in the future. Delta College has a trade school that could possibly do this for a reasonable cost, as does Carrollton; in addition to the building trades program that Jimmy Greene heads.

Restoration & Rental. The Board could fix the Carl Roethke house and rent to tenants as a way of making money to finance the restoration. One example of this is the Fox Theatre in Detroit - all businesses about the theater help sustain the building and pay for its operation.

Reach out to Dow Chemical, Saginaw Community Foundation & Historical Registry Grants. Dow Chemical helped to pay off the mortgage for this structure. One would think they would be very upset the board just voted to tear it down.  It is a board's responsibility to not do something this drastic and to explore every avenue to avoid it. Moreover, if both houses are on the National Registry of Historic Places, what are the implications this might have when it comes to tearing one of them down?  There is no other stone house in Saginaw like it. Many improvements were done and money spent by individuals to make it look great.  It just needs a new roof to be secured.

A Call to Arms

“At our January 22nd  meeting, five people who had left the group ten years before, arrived to give us suggestions. We took notes and we listened for the entire meeting. Suggestions are always good starting points, and we are open to them, but what we need goes beyond suggestions to funding and service,” reflects Annie Ransford.

“If we have a chance of making the Roethke historical site with two family homes a reality, we need a fundraising campaign and a larger board invested to see it through. We need people skilled in finance and fundraising and endowment planning and technology and grant writing.  We need to mine the best Saginaw has to offer to see this project to completion.”

We need community fathers to pay attention.  We need signs to guide visitors to Roethke’s neighborhood and haven’t managed to make this happen.  Placed no longer on the sidelines, we need to be accepted in Saginaw as a museum that has Local, State, and National standing, worthy of being included in the next Saginaw Museum Millage as a major player.

“We need a groundswell of community action and energy to save Saginaw’s historic house treasures and endow them in order to draw visitors to our City and influence future generations schooled in the Pulitzer Prize winning poet’s hometown. We need Saginaw to step up to make this happen.”

If willing to step up, please send your response to Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation, PO Box 6001, Saginaw, Michigan 48608.

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