A tour of Cherry Hill Neighborhood’s spectacular homes

As a child, Bethany Beardslee would step out on the wide front porch of the Greek revival family home, lean against one of the four Doric columns and dream.

Beardslee lived in the home at 213 E. Saint Joseph St. until she was 10 in 1935 with her three brothers, sister and parents, Walter and Ella.

The Beardslee home was one of Lansing’s finest structures. It was built in 1854 by John Kerr, the second mayor of Lansing and founder of the Lansing State Republican — a weekly newspaper that preceded the Lansing State Journal. Just blocks from downtown Lansing, it was an easy walk to the Cherry Street School which Bethany attended from kindergarten through third grade.

A quick walk west, two blocks to Washington Avenue, took her by the mansions of R.E. Olds, Benjamin F. Davis, Eugene Cooley and Orlando Barnes. An idyllic existence.

But Beardsley recounts in her forthcoming memoir how that life would come tumbling down when the Great Depression would force her father to sell their beloved home, and move his family to a series of rental homes in East Lansing.

In the memoir, “I Sang the Unsingable: My Life in Twentieth-century Music” which details her life as a noted American soprano, Beardslee writes: “It was the Roaring Twenties, and my father played the stock market like everyone else.”

Beardslee’s childhood home — the Kerr home — is one of six to be highlighted on the Historical Society of Greater Lansing’s walking tour this Thursday, July 13 beginning at 7 p.m. at Cherry Hill School.

Today, a little girl gazing from that same front porch, now the home of Smalley Investments, would see a vastly different view across the four lanes of I-496 as the expressway cuts the city in half. I-496 helped create the pocket neighborhood of Cherry Hill, bounded by the expressway to the south, Kalamazoo St. to the north, Washington Ave to the west and the Grand River to the east.

Cherry Hill’s isolation, despite being just blocks from downtown, can be a double-edged sword. It has the opportunity to be a charming residential neighborhood, but it is saddled with a large number of non-owner occupied rental units. Many of the homes in the neighborhood need paint, restoration, tree trimming and removal of overgrown plantings.

Nestled within that neighborhood are 30 homes which are more than 100 years old.

Valerie Marvin, vice president of the Historical Society and Cherry Hill tour leader, said homes in the neighborhood can be anything from a 19th century Italianate, a simple Queen Anne or stick style home, or even a colonial revival.

“For good measure, there are bits and pieces of other concurrent styles thrown in, including Dutch colonial revival, arts and crafts and Normanesque. While not high style homes when compared to the mansions on Washington Avenue, these were good, respectable and solidly white-collar, middle-class homes,” she said.

There is another star in the neighborhood, an unusual home at 216 Hillsdale that was built in 1888. It was owned by Irma Isabel Towne and according to Marvin, “defies convention.”

“Whoever designed it liked a lot of different things that were going on in late 19th century and early 20th century,” she said.

“The home as it stands today has a Dutch gambrel roofline on the east side, a Normanesque tower on the west side, stucco and a classical-colonial revival front porch,” Marvin said.

It wasn’t only the unconventional style that attracted Marvin to this home, but also the unconventional life of Towne, who lived there from 1908 until her death in 1950.

Public records list Towne as a dressmaker and landlady.

“If there’s a stereotype of a dressmaker it’s probably that of a quiet, industrious, working-class woman who strained her eyes working from sunup to sundown. The woman was probably too busy to do much more that go to church on Sunday and play her piano — if she could afford one,” Marvin said. “Isabel did all those things. She attended First Presbyterian Church of Lansing and held a piano recital in her home, but like her home she was unconventional.”

Towne was a leader in the suffragette movement in Lansing including the county organizer for the Ingham County Equal Suffrage Club. She advocated across the county ,speaking at church meetings and the Capital Grange. Unafraid to sound controversial, she stated that the “prominent businessmen of the country were noted for giving absurd reasons for opposing suffrage.”

Marvin said because of Towne’s status as a landowner she was able to vote in local elections. “This taste of voting may have spurred her on to seek full voting rights,” she said.

During World War I Towne also became the manager of the Red Cross canteen in Lansing which was open to soldiers on furlough or while traveling between assignments.

Other homes on the tour include those of one of the founders of Auto Owners Insurance Co., and the homes of a Lansing City Councilman, an architect, and the older brother of Ransom E. Olds.

Emory and Charlotte Olds’ home at 505 Cherry St. is townhouse-like. Emory was manager of the Hollister Building and at one time manager of Air-Cooled Motor Co.

The home of Vern and Effie Moulton, built in 1906 and located at Cherry Street, is a transitional home with elements of the late Victorian period combined with the colonial revival. It features classical elements like dentils, palladian windows, bays and oriels. Vern Moulton was the founder of Auto Owners and at various times was affiliated with Dial Tube and Steel Products, Lansing Ice and Fuel and Michigan National Bank.

Bert Baker and his spouse Vena were both from Eaton Rapids and lived at 529 Cherry St., in a classical colonial revival home, built in 1906. Bert Baker would become co-owner of a successful real estate development company and a Lansing city councilman.

Charles and Hattie Stroud moved into their home at 606 Cherry St. in 1906. The home has several complex architectural elements from a number of late 19th and early 20th century styles and it is not known if the home was designed by Stroud, who was an architect, Marvin said.

Mary Toschach, who is president of the Cherry Hill Neighborhood Association and lives with her husband in the Printer’s Row condominiums on Grand Avenue, said the neighborhood is making steady improvements. She believes that its designation as a Historic District in 1989 has helped preserve its architectural integrity.

Toschach who has a degree in historic preservation from Ball State University, said homes in the neighborhood have “character.”

“They are not only more interesting to look at but they have so much detail for so little money,” she said.

Cherry Hill Neighborhood - A Forgotten Treasure

Thursday, July 13 7 p.m. FREE Old Cherry Street School, 520 Cherry St., Lansing. (517) 282-0671 info@lansinghistory.org, lansinghistory.org

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