There have been many times that I have felt that throughout its history Lansing has been trying to eradicate parts of its history. Weird, I know, but too many buildings with unique histories or of a specific architectural style have been torn down, burned down or simply left to decay, and let us not ever speak of the cultural and architectural devastation that the building of I-496 entailed or the urban redevelopment of North Washington Avenue. The story of John W. Allen tends to reinforce the notion that Lansing has no sense of its own history.
John W. Allen’s home 1220 W. Allegan Lansing, MI. (1915)
John Wesley Allen was born in Cass County, Michigan on December 17, 1860 the son of John Wesley Sr. and Harriett Francis (née Byrd) Allen. John Wesley Allen Sr. was the son of Green Allen one of the most successful farmers in Cass County, Michigan. The book, Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress, describes the Allen family:
“The Allen’s of Cass County are all of mixed blood. “Uncle Bill,” as Wm. Allen is affectionately called, is hale and hearty at 80 odd years and here we find great great grandchildren, all healthy, alert, ambitious and industrious citizens who measure up favorably with the best the Nation affords” (Freedmen’s 37).
“Uncle Bill,” would have been John’s uncle. That explains why the census from 1870-1930 listed John W. Allen Jr. as either Black, Mulatto or White. John’s father made education a priority in the family. In 1884 John W. Allen Jr. moved to Lansing to begin working as a carpenter. On March 26, 1885, John married Miss Agnes A. Grady, who was born in Cass County, Michigan on January 26, 1866. There were no children from the marriage. John began his career in Lansing with almost no support. The Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress, states that:
“He had started housekeeping with a bride two years previous at the age of 18 with a $32 outfit of household goods, and underwent many hardships daring his early married life. Being possessed of plenty of ambition and resourcefulness” (Freedmen’s 107).
John’s hard work as a carpenter paid off and he moved into the contracting business. The Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress stated that he had constructed “many of the best and most substantial buildings at the Capital”. Just which homes and buildings he built I have been unable to determine, but I am working on that.
There were three main focuses in John’s life, his wife Agnes, his home at 1220 W. Allegan and his position in the local Masonic lodge. John’s home at 1220 W. Allegan was a beautiful home; the structure was a perfect example of an Organic Cottage. Ok that is an odd term but back in the day a custom home was called a cottage, while organic referred to the fact that the house was a mixture of architectural styles. The wrap around porch, which can be seen in the first image, was a standard feature for homes of this period. The porch columns were changed between 1915 and 1940 and east side of the porch was enclosed and the balustrade removed which changed the symmetry of the house. The small porch at the rear of the kitchen was extra detail as was the pediment over the stairs to the porch; John had an eye for pleasing architectural features. What tells the passerby that this was the home of someone substance is the second floor balcony. This was a pleasing and functional home that displayed a certain lightness as can be seen in the first image but unfortunately not the second image.
John W. Allen’s home 1220 W. Allegan Lansing, MI. (circa 1940s)
John and Agnes lived in the home until John’s death on May 9, 1927 (LSJ 5/9/1927). John was an active member in the local fraternal lodges. He was a member of the Capitol Lodge Number 8, the local African American Masonic Lodge and throughout his life held many positions in the organization. After John’s death, Agnes lived in the home until the mid 1930s, at the point she moved in with her brother William Grady. Agnes passed away on July 17, 1957, thirty years after John (LSJ 7/15/1957).
So why all this fuss over the home at 1220 W. Allegan? Well the house seems to have just disappeared, an odd statement that I need to explain further. The home at 1220 W. Allegan was an important home in the history of Lansing’s African American community. Allen was a prominent member of that community and it is unusual that a home of this style and size would vanish without comment, especially in the 1980s. In 1986 John Allen’s residence evaporated from the historical recorded. In the 1985 Lansing City Directory the home is listed and occupied but in 1986, 1220 W. Allegan is gone replaced by 1218 W. Allegan. The structure at 1218 W. Allegan was not present prior to 1986; the Sanborn maps bear this out. The odd thing is that the Lansing City Assessor lists 1218 W. Allegan as being built in 1904 and it occupies the same lot as 1220 W. Allegan.
1218 W. Allegan
It is obvious that the two homes are in no way similar. John Allen’s home was in all probability designed by a local architect or Allen himself, in fact Lansing architect Darius B. Moon lived less then 1000 feet from the Allen home. Was the home at 1220 W. Allegan a Moon home? There is really no way to tell, my feeling is that Allen designed the house, he had the background and the skills to design the home. The structure at 1218 W. Allegan was a typical foursquare residence, a standard kit home. I also need to mention there is no record to the home being moved to the site, but it must have been. So you understand the conundrum, what happened to 1220 W. Allegan?
© Lost Lansing 2015