Mr. & Mrs. History

By Allan I. Ross

Preservation Lansing group honors visionary couple who helped revitalize downtown

This story was corrected on Oct. 17 to reflect that Linda Peckham is the former president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.

When Bob Morris and his wife, Linda Peckham, moved into a condo in the 10,000-square foot former convent at 311 Seymour Ave. 31 years ago, they say the neighborhood was a mess. The area was overrun with absentee landlords who had carved up the historic Victorian homes and were renting them to low-income tenants who had no regard for either the neighborhood or the property they lived in. Morris said he was determined to put a stop to it, if he had to do it himself.

“I wanted us to be the stimulus, the seed, for occupied ownership in this neighborhood,” Morris said. “And I wanted to inspire the notion of historic preservation. I was young and foolish, but I thought I could do it.”

Well it worked. In the ensuing years, he watched as more than a dozen nearby homes were transformed back into owner-occupied residences, and for at least half of those he served as contractor and designer. Not bad for a literature professor who is largely self-taught.

“This became our marriage house,” Peckham said. “Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted to live in a big old house like this, and now here we are all these years later. And it’s still not done!”

Next week, Morris and Peckham, both 72, will be honored by Preservation Lansing, an historic resource advocacy group dedicated to keeping historic buildings from being demolished. The pair will receive lifetime achievement awards at the first-ever Preservation Lansing Awards ceremony, which will also honor three preservation projects that were completed in the last year.

Those winners are Pat Gillespie’s $5.2 million, 38,000-square-foot renovation of the Marshall Street Armory for best commercial preservation over $1 million; Dale Schrader’s 260-square-foot adaptive reuse of a filling station as a $140,000 drive-thru coffee shop for best commercial preservation under $1 million; and Dave Muylle’s rehabilitation of a nearly 100-year-old duplex on Leslie street for best residential preservation.Two other projects — Gene Townsend’s Walker Building rehab in Old Town and the Alane & Chartier Law Firm office on Seymour Avenue — will also be recognized.

The ceremony will be in the old Genesee Street School in Lansing where winners will receive Pewabic tile trophies, and the gypsy-rock band Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle will entertain revelers, who are encouraged to attend in steampunk costume. City Pulse’s publisher will serve as master of ceremonies.

And to think, a year ago Preservation Lansing was just another Facebook group.

“When Holy Cross came down last November with no advance notice, there was this sea of anger that welled up,” says Gretchen Cochran, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, which helped usher Preservation Lansing into the real world. “Suddenly there were all these voices coming together to say we will not stand for this anymore. I’ve seen this kind of careless destruction happen again and again in the 20 years I’ve lived here, but I’d never seen a reaction like this.”

Cochran met with Nathalie Winans and Brenna Moloney, both of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, and the three women set about turning that anger into action.

“There was a definite vacuum in the community as far as advocacy goes,” Winans said. “Preservation Lansing gives that advocacy a voice. These awards are a positive way to recognize people who are actively working to make a difference.”

Cochran says that choosing Morris and Peckham for the first lifetime achievement awards was a no-brainer.

“We call Bob Mr. History because he’s such a repository of knowledge,” Cochran said. “And Linda is the former president of the Historical Society. Between the two of them, they have saved a lot of the history here, and helped make us all much more aware.”

Morris and Peckham are also the founders of City Visions, a side project that branched off from their historic preservation work to become a viable business in its own right. With City Visions, Morris designs and builds heritage garden house “kits,” including gazebos, pool houses and studios to match the design of historic homes. His work has been featured in national design magazines and has been shipped across North America. Of course, that falls outside the work he performed on his own home, which has been a three-decade labor of love. The property is split into their condo and three others.

“The amount of effort devoted to the creation of the individual units was inversely proportional to the sale price of each unit,” Morris says, shaking his head. “Now each one, except for the one we live in, is on its third owner — with the time, money and blood going into each one making it progressively better and better.”

So, will it ever be finished?

“I don’t know, maybe someday” Morris says. “It seems like there’s always something that can be done.”

Preservation Lansing Awards
Oct. 24
5 p.m.
Genesee Street School
835 W. Genesee St.