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Media Relations and Communications Manager Emily Davis and her family have renovated their historic Hillsdale home / Courtesy Emily Davis

The Victorian double parlor on the ground floor of 112 Broad St. takes visitors back a century. The grand, winding staircase, the large wooden doorframes with classic egg-and-dart moldings, the flamboyant floral wallpaper, and the time-honored touch of a record player and an upright piano all give the room an aura of comfortable living and sophisticated age.

The house was likely built between 1900 and 1915, said Emily Carrington, wife of Assistant Professor of Politics Adam Carrington. Having worked with historic homes in the past, Emily Carrington said she fully appreciates the home’s historic “character and spirit.”

The Carringtons are one of several college faculty and staff families renovating and restoring homes around town. Carol Lackey, the owner and broker for Historic Homes of Hillsdale, a real estate company through the Hillsdale County Board of Realtors, said she’s familiar with the hard work these projects require.

“People get frustrated because they feel there should be funds available to restore properties,” Lackey said. “It’s not easy. When you do it, you need to use original products, something that is dated from back then… It will take a lot out of you, physically and financially.”

Emily Carrington knew retaining her home’s history and updating it would be challenging. She did have the freedom to make stylistic decisions because her renovations weren’t bound by a museum or historical society’s demand for period accuracy.

“It’s hard to keep things in the appropriate time period because it’s been 100 years, and many people have lived here,” Carrington said. “You can see many things that are incongruent within the house; for example, the wallpaper and the separation between the rooms probably would have been added on later.”

While Carrington bemoans losing the wraparound porch, she does appreciate one update: the bathrooms.

“The house didn’t need to be quite 1900-style, because I like warm, running water,” she said.

Hillsdale used to be a railroad town, so many grand homes in Hillsdale resembled the Carringtons’ during the 1800s and 1900s, said Lackey, who also serves as a board member on the Hillsdale County Historical Society and volunteers at the Mitchell Research Center.

“The railroad brought great prosperity,” Lackey said. “At one point, this was the end of the railroad from Detroit before it went on to Chicago.”

The railroad also brought early stages of mass-produced homes to the area. Customers could choose from the Sears Modern Homes catalogue of designs and the company would ship pre-cut materials on trains. Between 1908 and 1940, more than 70,000 homes were built through the program, eliminating the demand for professional carpenters. Lackey said she once discovered a beam labeled “Sears” in the basement of a Jonesville home during a renovation project.

Unfortunately, some of these old homes haven’t survived the decades. For example, the home of resident William Waldron became the old Hillsdale Hospital before being razed for a parking lot for the Hillsdale High Rise Apartments.

“There are buildings in town I would love to see done, but a lot of them are gone,” Lackey said.

Associate Professor of English Patricia Bart moved into her 3,000-square foot house at 40 S. Broad St. about four years ago and has since completed extensive renovations.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be a 19th-century house,” Bart said. “I had to say that vinyl windows are going to be OK here, whereas the museum-quality is going to say you have to restore these to wood.” But she took extra care to preserve original elements, such as the front door and wooden stairs.

Bart guesses her house was built in three stages: The original house was constructed in 1883, followed by an addition near the end of World War II, judging from the cinder block foundation, the moldings, and baseboards. A third addition dates to the 1970s, characterized by smaller baseboards, thinner walls, a lower ceiling, and countertops painted with “that avocado green we all love.”

For Bart, buying a historic home was par for the course, since she has lived in old homes her entire life. As a child, she lived in a 1920s Sears home in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and later, she rented an apartment at the Palazzo Rucellai, the old palace of a wealthy Renaissance magnate in Florence, Italy, where the Rucellai family lives today.

Not all of the restored homes are downtown. Media Relations and Communications Manager Emily Davis and her family reside in an old stone farmhouse from 1846 that rests on 40 acres of land, just on the outskirts of town.

According to Lackey and the Mitchell Research Center, the house, known as “Stonehome,” was built by Severus Roberts, who took a train from New York in 1840 when he was 18 years old. He originally built a log cabin and then spent five years building his stone house out of native fieldstone. A century later, the home was occupied by Harry and Sarah Dimmers, the namesake of Dimmers Road south of the college.

Davis said the previous owner of the house, former professor of English John Reist, maintained a “notorious” library that filled an entire garage and an additional room. (He donated many volumes to Mossey Library.) Davis opted to remove some bookshelves to tear down a wall, making the room feel homier.

“We’re Hillsdale grads, but we’re not quite as committed to that extensive of a library,” she said.

While Davis’ personal Victorian style motivates her to keep some “froufrou,” she and her husband compromised with a simpler, more natural arts-and-crafts look, a stylistic choice they could make because strict guidelines for farmhouses don’t exist.

“We needed something where we can both live in it and buy furniture that won’t fall apart with four kids, but we also don’t want it to be a house that is just built in the suburb and got copy-and-pasted out of Pottery Barn,” she said.  

Like Bart, Davis grew up in a historic home. She remembers her parents were always busy remodeling their Victorian home.  

“My parents were both art majors and always knew about different artistic movements,” she said. “I remember going to architectural salvage places to find pieces before they were the cool place for hipsters to go.”

While many college faculty members have only recently begun renovating their homes, Professor of Religion and Philosophy Thomas Burke moved into his house in 1994, and for the first 15 years he and his wife lived there, he said people worked on the house almost daily.

“We had no idea what we were doing or how to do it right,” he said. “We did it all backwards.”

Originally a very modest Victorian-style home built around 1867, Burke’s home was later given a more Spanish look, with arches going from room to room and grand Palladian windows. Burke estimates his house is between 4,500 and 5,000 square feet, having undergone a couple of expansions over the years. Now that most of the renovations are done, he said the whole house is “wonderful.”

“I like big homes,” Burke said. “If I had the money, I’d buy a castle. When I see a place like Downton Abbey on TV, I think it would be neat to have… Since I’ll never get to own a mansion, this is the closest thing to it. It’s a really wonderful house to live in.”

Historic homes inspire enthusiasm for more than aesthetic reasons. While working at a home on Howell Street, Lackey remembers being asked why she would take on such a project. She responded that those who have to ask “why” would never really understand her love for historic homes.

“I’m crazy, I guess,” she said. “I just love it.”