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.