The foyer of the Norton’s home boasts a beau­tiful stained glass window. Nolan Ryan | Col­legian
The dining hall of the his­toric George Deal home includes a 20th-century chan­delier imported from France. Nolan Ryan | Col­legian
The third floor ballroom still has the original sky­light and electric wires from the early 1900s. Nolan Ryan | Col­legian

A local couple has recently fin­ished ren­o­vating a his­toric home after 27 months of work. The house, built in 1901, has been designed to look as if a family has main­tained the home for more than a century.

Bob Norton, the general counsel for Hillsdale College, and his wife Kathy pur­chased and ren­o­vated the his­toric George Deal home in Jonesville. While the con­struction of the house was com­pleted in 1905, it would have been lost were it not for the Nortons, though.

“Kathy and I like antique things. We were con­vinced, or tricked, to take this house on as a project of love,” Norton said with a laugh. “It was going to become four apart­ments. It was up before the city council, and it had been a deadlock vote. We decided we had to save the house. I was sold on the idea; Kathy was not quite as quick to say yes. I think we went through it four times before she said, ‘Are you serious? Do you really want to do this?’”

The beau­tiful home was built in the Federal Revival style, a clas­sical archi­tecture popular in the United States during the late 18th century into the early 19th century. The home also has Ital­ianate influ­ences, according to Norton.

George Deal, the original owner of the house, and his father, Jacob, ran the Deal Buggy Company as partners. George decided to begin man­u­fac­turing auto­mo­biles in addition to car­riages, planning to compete with Michigan auto-man­u­fac­turers such as Henry Ford.

“He was going to give Henry Ford a run for his money,” Norton said. “There’s a lot of debate that he could have. He had a network already, and he was known for quality. And we had a railroad here. He built the car. Everyone said it was inno­v­ative, a good car. It was reliable. Deal stuck to quality building.”

The plan changed sud­denly, however, when Deal came home from work one day, feeling unwell. The Deals con­sulted three doctors. Deal had an ear infection. The doctors operated on him  while he lay on his kitchen table, but he died during the oper­ation.

Assistant Pro­fessor of Physics Paul Hosmer, a board member for the his­torical Grosvenor House across the street from the Deal home, found this story par­tic­u­larly inter­esting.

“Per­sonally, my favorite thing is the fact that George Varnum Deal died on the table in the kitchen,” he said. “I think that’s a really inter­esting story. I’m into ghost stories. We have a haunted sto­ry­telling at the Grosvenor House, and I thought of incor­po­rating that story.”

Deal’s company even­tually went out of business in 1915. But his house still stands, thanks to the Nortons and the tireless work of con­tractors, car­penters, and archi­tects. Entering the Deal house after the Nortons’ ren­o­va­tions, feels like stepping into a time machine.

“The grand hall was meant to make an impression,” Norton said.

The hall boasts a beau­tiful stairway with an original stained-glass window and the original coal fire­place. The mantle above the fire­place includes intricate, detailed pat­terns which give it a Vic­torian-era feel. Most of the ren­o­va­tions are thanks to Brian Cox, a car­penter from Jackson. Norton praised Cox on his mas­terful work, noting how closely the new wood matches the old.

“You could orig­i­nally walk through the house and point out where it looked like new wood we got from Home Depot,” Norton said. “But Brian was great. He would take the wood out to the yard. He took wood and beat it with a chain. After he puts it up, nobody can tell where he did his work. There’s many pieces of wood in these rooms that Brian put up, but it’s hard to tell. Some­times he put the third coat of paint on some­thing, and he would make an inten­tional drip. It’s sort of like a stage­craft Hol­lywood worker, and you can’t tell what details they’re working on.”

Cox also worked on the railing to the main staircase. It was painted with old lead paint which had a white bat­tleship color, according to Norton.

“Brian said, ‘Let me strip the railing. I don’t want you doing it, Bob,’” Norton said during a tour of his house. “Brian was stripping this railing, and I would come by to see him before I went to work at the college. I would come by at lunch, and I would come by after work. How far had Brian gone? Not far. I said, ‘Brian, you’re killing me.’ He said, ‘Bob, you’ve got to protect this railing. It’s got to be done a certain way, and it has to have a certain wax finish.’ I said, ‘Just do it. Just get the railing done.’ He would slowly be moving down the stairs.”

Cox was not the only major aid to the Nortons in the remod­eling process. Pres­ident Larry Arnn’s daughter, Alice ’11, came to the rescue for the archi­tec­tural aspect of the project.

“She took this on as a project of love for me. She gets job offers all over the world; she’s very good at what she does,” Norton said. “She designed some of the things to make sure they were right. She would tell me, ‘No, no, it’s got to be just the right pro­por­tions.’ She bought a little book from the turn of the century to show me. Every­thing was to scale. If you made some­thing too tall or too wide, it ruined the whole effect.”

The front entryway had been stripped of every­thing save for grey vinyl, so she also redesigned that part of the house.

One unique aspect of the house is the way in which the basement was designed.

“The house is built in an unusual way: The basement walls are really thick,” Norton said. “They’ve got granite, brick, and stone. George Stump, the mason for the college, had never seen that before. Maybe because the same guys who built the local factory built the house like that. They built it like a factory.”

After Deal died, the house was even­tually bought and con­verted into a home and school for special edu­cation boys, according to JoAnne Miller, a board member of the Hillsdale His­torical County His­torical Society.

Norton hap­pened upon a con­nection to a former res­ident of the boys’ home. He told the story of an elderly couple who lit­erally appeared on his doorstep one day.

He saw a car parked in the dri­veway at an angle, and an elderly woman on the front porch. She said her brother used to live at the house, and she and her husband were out driving and wished to see the house.

Mean­while, Norton said, her husband pulled out of the dri­veway, made a wide turn into traffic, and nearly caused an accident as cars skidded around him to avoid a col­lision. When the husband rejoined his wife and Norton, the home­owner showed them around.

The couple, two nona­ge­narians from Ohio, said that the state would take away their licenses soon, so they wanted to tour some places they’d been before, including her brother’s home, while they still could. She said that her brother was last in the house in 1952, and that now, the house looks com­pletely dif­ferent.

“Before that,” Norton said, “I heard about someone whose brother had spent a little time here in 1971, so that was my gauge that it was a boys’ home in 1971, but when she said 1952, I had to reshape my thinking.  She said at that time five boys were living here. I didn’t find out if her brother had polio or not because I heard that was true in some of the cases.”

Norton also met someone whose grand­father worked for Deal. They told Norton he used to enter the house and get his pay­check.

“He would enter and go into the room on the right,” he said. “We take it that our current bil­liard room must have been the office.”

The third floor of the house is the ballroom, which includes the original electric wires from the 20th century. The Nortons added a bar to the room, built from the old pews of a his­toric Jonesville church. Hosmer found this inter­esting and amusing.

“I feel like probably a hundred years’ worth of parish­ioners are rolling over in their graves knowing that their church pews have been used for a bar,” Hosmer said with a smile. “But it’s really great. They incor­po­rated his­torical Jonesville items alto­gether in the house.”

The Nortons have opened their home to vis­iting donors and various college-spon­sored events, including College Repub­licans meetings.

“We thought we would use the house for the college, too, so that was the rationale as to why we weren’t totally crazy to do this ren­o­vation,” Norton said.

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Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan is a junior from northern Michigan, studying English and journalism. He is this year's News Editor at the Collegian, as well as a student writer with the marketing department. This summer, he is interning with the editorial and news sections of the Detroit News. You can find him reading good poetry and trying desperately to be better at appreciating art. Email: | Twitter: @NolanRyan76
  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Inter­esting story.

  • Ellsworth_Toohey

    Good article