William C. Durant

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One of the enduring mysteries of Lansing is the Frederick M. Cowles’ house that was located on the site of what is today’s Durant Park. Why is the Cowles’ residence so enigmatic? Well no photograph of the home has ever been located. I find this odd, the home sat at the center of an entire city block, Number 54, one of the few homes in Lansing that had this distinction. The site was bounded on the east by Washington Avenue, the west by Capitol Avenue, the south by Saginaw Street and the north by Madison Street. The residence was also built by one of the early settlers of the city and was described as being a “pretentious mansion”.  Given those factors it seems odd that no photograph of the residence survived. Hopefully this short article will trigger something in the minds of the readers that will help uncover a lost image of the home.

The 1866 Birds Eye View Map of Lansing, with the detail of the Cowles’ Residence. Note the curved porch and the three full stories plus cupola.

The first image we have of the Cowles’s home is from the 1866 Birds Eye View Map of Lansing, notice how the residence is not at the center of the block, but rather positioned in the northeast corner of the block. This may have been a case of the prospective of the artist being off, because as you will observe in later maps the home is in the center of the block. The home was three stories tall, with an Italianate cupola atop the third story. The residence seems to be in the Italianate style, although a three-story Italianate home were rare in the Midwest. Also note the curved, eastern facing porch, with arches and wings on both the north and south side of the home. Moreover, there is a two-story wing to the west that may have housed the kitchen and servant quarters, but this is only speculation. The two-story outbuilding was in all likelihood the carriage house, which mimicked the design of the main house.

The Cowles Home from the 1873 map of the Lansing.

The curious aspect of the 1873 image of the Cowles’ home is the lack of an outbuilding and how the home was positioned just off center of the central point of the lot. It is also interesting to note how the layout of the residence was not symmetrical, there is a small protruding wing on the south side of the structure and the narrow back structure, the rear structure should have followed the width of the main building.

The 1913 Sanborn map image of the Cowles’ residence at 719 N. Washington.

Notice in the above image how the home is directly centered on the block facing east toward Washington Avenue. What the above image shows us is the wonderful curved front porch faced the Grand River, a three-story main building, not including the cupola, two wings both on the north and south side of the home with rear porches and a two-story structure at the back of the main building with another rear porch. One other fact about the home, it was built of brick, that was stated in a later article regarding the property. The carriage house at the top of the above image was a two-story structure. This is basically all that is known regarding the appearance of the Cowles residence.

Detail of 719 N. Washington.

Notice how the rear structure differs from the presentation of the image of the Cowles’ home in the 1873 map of Lansing. In the Sanborn map the rear building is symmetrical. It may be that in 1903 there was a porch on the rear of the south wing of the home but not the north wing, which would explain the unbalanced view on the 1873 map. Just what happened to the Cowles’ residence is almost a microcosm regarding Lansing track record on preservation, basically there was none.

Frederick Mortimer Cowles

Frederick Mortimer Cowles was born in New Berlin, Chenango County, New York on February 3, 1924 to Elliot and Sarah (née Phelps) Cowles. The family moved to Ohio in 1833 and ten years later Frederick, with his brother, Joseph P. Cowles moved to Ingham County, Michigan where they built and operated a sawmill near Aurelius. In 1847 Frederick settled in Lansing where he worked as a carpenter and contractor. He was one of the men who worked as a carpenter in the building of the first Capitol in Lansing. In 1848 he became a clerk in Hiram H. Smith’s general store. Frederick became Smith’s partner in the business in 1851. At some point between 1856-1859 Frederick’s partnership with Smith was dissolved. On the 1859 map of Lansing, Frederick is listed as managing a store on the south-west corner of Michigan and Washington Avenues. Frederick operated the business until he sold the company to Nelson F. Jenison, his future son-in-law. It seems Frederick loathed retirement and worked as a salesman for Lansing Wagon Works. He also served as a city alderman in 1861-1862 and 1875-1876. Frederick was instrumental in the rebuilding of the city bridges after the flood of 1875 and actively encouraged local residents plant trees along the street. On October 23, 1851, Frederick married Miss Delia L. Ward. The couple had three children; Alice Glendora, who married Nelson F. Jenison, Lizzie B., Lucy D. Cowles.[1]His wife Delia Louisa Cowles passed away on July 1, 1895. After his wife’s death Frederick lived at the home on Washington Avenue with his daughter’s Lizzie and Lucy. Towards the end of his life he resided with his daughter, Alice at 403 Seymour, Alice’s husband, Nelson died on November 3, 1907. Frederick stayed at the home on Seymour until his death on January 16, 1910. After Frederick’s moved in with his daughter Alice, Lizzie and Lucy Cowles maintained the residence at 719 N. Washington until about 1910, when they moved to 403 Seymour to care for their sister Alice.

 

So, what happened to the Cowles house? Well it had a rather sad and confusing history after the death of Frederick. Starting in 1911 over a two-week period Fred Lee Perkins, a former Lansing Fire Fighter, systematically looted the empty Cowles residence. Perkins had stolen, silverware, oil paintings, and mahogany furniture, which he resold to secondhand dealers. He was arrested and charged with burglary, oddly he only netted a total of $28 from his crime spree. It seems the secondhand dealers were cheating Perkins. Judge Wiest sentenced Perkins to two to five years in Jackson Prison. (LSJ 4/7/1911) Towards the end of 1911 there was a move by then Mayor Bennett to acquire the Cowles property as a city park at the cost of $40,000, paid for by city bonds, the proposal went nowhere. Two years later, Clarence Bement proposed that the city should acquire the Cowles property and convert it into a city park. First ward Alderman Jay M. Smith recommended that not only should the city acquire the property, but they should convert the house into a convention hall. (LSJ 4/3/1913) In March of 1915 the Board of Public Parks and Cemeteries recommended that the city acquire the Cowles property for $45,000, but there was no movement by the city to purchase the property. All the time the debate was going on regarding the city’s acquisition of the Cowles property the residence deteriorated, to a point where the neighbors requested that the city board the home up because it had become an eyesore and a haven for tramps. In May of 1915 a mattress in the home was set on fire, the cause of the blaze was never determined. What is remarkable is that the home was still fully furnished. A year later the property was being cleared and the house was scheduled for demolition, the property was being subdivided for resale. (LSJ 8/15/1916) A year later the city was again trying to acquire the property as a park, the main stumbling block in the sale of the property was the insistence of the family that the park be named after Mortimer Cowles. The city then tried to acquire the property through condemnation proceedings which, failed due to a hung jury. (LSJ3/1/1917) The city decided again to offer $70,000 for the Cowles property and put the proposition to Lansing voters on June 16, 1917, the measure was defeated, Yes 792 votes, No 925 votes. To many of the young residents of Lansing, the Cowles house was considered haunted. There were stories of strange sounds and mysterious lights emanating from the house. Turns out the ghost were usually Michigan Agricultural College students suffering the trials of a fraternal initiation. Finally, in 1918 C.I.B. McLean, a real estate developer completed a deal to subdivide the property into 21 lots, it was to be known as Cowles Square. No stores or public building were to be built on the lots. At this time the article mentions that the house was still standing on the lot, with the statement “At one time this home was considered the finest between Detroit and Grand Rapids” (LSJ9/14/1918). That all changed when William C. Durant visited Lansing in 1919. Upon seeing the property Durant was enchanted and purchased the property for $100,000. (LSJ 6/9/1919) Just what Durant’s plan for the property was a mystery. It seems that at this time the home was torn down and the foundation filled in, one wonders if the foundation is still present? (LSJ 9/25/1919) For two years Lansing residents were left to speculate what Durant would do with the property, finally on Monday, March 21, 1921 at the City Council meeting Durant’s lawyer presented the city with the property. (LSJ 3/22/1921) One final note, there is an image of the Cowles home in the Lansing State Journal, it is part of a collage of images that showed how overgrown the lot has become. The only thing that may be taken from the images is that the home has several columns. Seems like a sad end for such an enigmatic structure, but hey, Durant Park is beautiful.

[1]Alice Jenison died on November 12, 1915 in Lansing. (LSJ 11/13/1915) Miss Lucy Cowles died in Santa Monica, California on October 12, 1935. (LSJ 10/14/1935) Miss Lizzie B. Cowles passed away on February 11, 1941 in Santa Monica, California. (LSJ 2/12/1941)

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