Presentation made by Jane Schmiedeke
Acceptance Speech by Earl Greene
May 28, 2003
Jane Schmiedeke Presentation
Tonight the Heritage Foundation has the great privilege of recognizing the museum-quality restoration of one of Ypsilanti’s most significant historic structures by a truly remarkable man.
The Lewis House at 415 North Huron is the structure. Earl Greene is that man.
The Lewis House was built in 1878 by James Wilkinson for his widowed mother. In 1905, it was purchased by Harriet Adelaide Lewis, herself a widow with several children. Her daughter Evangeline, who was known to many of us, lived there for many, many years. In 1969, Evangeline offered to donate the house to the city, the city declined. A year later, in 1970, Evangeline donated the house to EMU as a guest house for visiting dignitaries. In 1976, EMU, citing budget problems, transferred ownership of the house to the Ypsilanti Historical Society.
In 1986, the house was damaged by a fire, which fortunately was confined to the rear porch and roof, although water damaged the kitchen and smoke filled the entire house. The Ypsilanti Press once reported that Earl Greene said he always felt the Wilkinson-Lewis house was Ypsilanti’s most beautiful home and promised himself that if it were ever on the market, he would buy it. And, in late 1989, Earl Greene did buy the house from the Historical Society.
Earl would prove to be the rescuing angel of this beautiful house, a structure once described by Ward Swarts, a restoration architect who contributed to the formation of the Ypsilanti Historic District, as “one of the finest extant examples of eclectic Victorian/Italianate architecture in the Midwest.” Earl spared nothing in his restoration efforts. He employed a researcher from Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village and the finest artisans & woodworkers to be found. In the next two years, the team accomplished near miracles. Extraordinary decorative painting was revealed and restored. Under many coats of paint, ceiling paintings were discovered and restored. Door and window frames were found to be of a type of walnut that is now extinct.
Then, in 1992, Earl said, “After two and a half years, I’m tired. It’s time to have a party!” And he threw a spectacular party to celebrate the ongoing restoration of the Wilkinson-Lewis house and to award the Wilkinson-Greene Thistle Award to several individuals for leadership in historic preservation. He said he hosted the open house to “honor the many, many people who have been outstanding in the area of historic preservation in the city of Ypsilanti and to share the joy and excitement I have felt refurbishing the house.”
And what a party it was! The Scottish origins of Mrs. Wilkinson, the first owner of the house, inspired the theme of the party. Earl himself was resplendent in a Scottish kilt, Scottish food was served, Scottish flags flew and the haunting sound of bagpipes swirled on the breeze of a glorious June day.
In a letter written to the Ypsilanti Press following that party, I said “Those who did not attend the spectacular, flag-bedecked event missed a wonderful party and good company, bagpipers and a Scottish dancer, flowers everywhere and Scottish food, special awards and Scottish regalia! Owner Earl Greene graciously honored three local individuals and one organization for their contributions to historic preservation.
But it is Earl Greene himself who should be honored for his determination to restore this very significant historic house to its original glory. The quality of the preservation work he has lavished on one of Ypsilanti’s most magnificent historic structures is truly remarkable and this community owes him a huge debt of gratitude.
Earl, please accept this award in honor of your stunning restoration of the Wilkinson-Lewis-Greene House. We are forever in your debt.
Earl Greene’s Acceptance Speech
Good evening fellow friends and preservationists. I am grateful to be honored by you today for my ongoing efforts to restore and preserve the Wilkinson-Lewis House. I possibly would not be here if it were not for the officers and leadership of the Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation, its president; Henry Prebys, The Historic District Commission, the Ypsilanti Historical Society, and of course our supportive and forward-thinking mayor, Cheryl Farmer. These people and organizations have been so helpful in creating a preservation-friendly environment in this community.
Ypsilanti is fortunate to have a network of resources dealing with preservation and recreation. The benefits of your efforts on behalf of preservation are forming a foundation that will be very helpful and instructive to other communities wishing to enhance their historical heritage. As many of you well know, preserving history is no easy task! Through the years of restoring the Wilkinson-Lewis House, I have had many adventures and many more mysteries. The elaborately painted ceilings continue to be a wonderfully rewarding feature of the house and their improvement and restoration is still a work-in-progress. Paint colors, lighting, roofing, and decorative treatments have been, and remain to be, fascinating elements of the house’s restoration.
Even now, I have begun a new phase of improvement which will, in the end, finish the ceilings and restore the kitchen, bedrooms, and carriage house, and renew the landscape to a more period appearance. The projects and learning never seem to cease, but those of you that know me, know that I would not have it any other way.
I would like to make note of an advantage our community has that I feel gets put on the back burner a bit too much, and that is the young professionals and seasoned students existing in Eastern Michigan’s preservation program. These people represent the cutting-edge future generation of preservation in this country and abroad. Their knowledge, wisdom, and experience should be tapped at every opportunity by anyone and any organization wishing to involve itself in projects relating to historic preservation. Their help has the potential to be key in the proper and successful revitalization of Ypsilanti’s historic fabric. I for one would like to see a firm alliance made to integrate E.M.U.’s historic preservation program into the planning and development of Ypsilanti’s historic resources. One way to do that might be to establish a speaker’s bureau, perhaps meeting several times per year, which would address preservation issues in a public forum.
My personal investment in this community gets me thinking of things that are good ideas, but need a bit of a “kick” to get them started. For example, I would like to suggest a more developed signage program announcing entry into, and exit out of Ypsilanti’s historic districts. It would help to have more historic markers and signs directed towards foot traffic and which promote outdoor walking tours. Ann Arbor’s history street signs and display panels are a good example as are those also found in Oakland California. A neighborhood beautification program which organizes contests of the kind where neighbors compete to see who has the best flowers, or who has the best historic period landscape, or who has the most stylish and sensitive yard improvements, could all be an incentive for home owners to have fun with historic and sensible preservation.
I also worry about the historic documents in Ypsilanti’s historical society’s museum which need attention to preservation, especially noting the property tax records. These records and documents, many rescued by Bill Edmunds when the city vacated the old city hall, were so important in researching the Wilkinson-Lewis House history. They should be kept and preserved in such a way as to be used by other persons wishing to recover their property’s history. The Historical Society’s museum house and its collections are the finest in the area and deserve to be earnestly supported as it is in its present location.
Also, I will mention my concern as to the condition and preservation of Starkweather Chapel up at the cemetery on River Street. This jewel of a structure could function again if a group could be formed in which a program to raise funds and find means to save the chapel could be developed. I challenge you to adopt this project, as I know many of you are concerned as I am. I can help and I will gladly offer some personal resources, as well as my house, for a fundraiser. It would be a sad thing to lose such a fine building due to neglect and inaction.
Actually, there are so many worthwhile projects and ideas that my time here tonight will not allow me to name but these few. I have learned to listen to my house with diligence and patience. What started as a matter of the heart when I first discovered the Wilkinson-Lewis House, quickly became an academic exercise. You here this evening are the core of Ypsilanti’s preservation leadership and your job is ongoing. But it is a job that offers immense personal pleasure and opportunities for learning. What a wonderful experience it has been to learn about architecture, period decoration, preservation techniques, and historical gardens. In short, I have grown proud to be a member of this community, proud of your kind award and recognition, and especially proud of having the opportunity to restore and preserve the Wilkinson-Lewis House for generations to come! Thank you all so much!