This property at 403 East Front St. in Buchanan inspires dreams of visitors to the town staying at the old bed and breakfast, then ambling down the winding sidewalk to a thriving downtown or a community event. Mottl envisions the location as one where weddings and community events would be held, utilizing the old barn at the rear of the property.

Perspective of a historic district

Published 9:27pm Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Buchanan’s recent historic district designation makes it the largest per capita historic district in Michigan. What does that mean for homeowners in the district? Are recent sales of homes within the district a result of the designation?

Not so much according to Realtor Dorothy Mottl.  She, City Manager/Police Chief Bill Marx, Mayor Carla Cole and many of the residents who live within the district agree on two things: It is a positive step for the community, and it represents one more spoke in the wheel of recovery Buchanan has fashioned for itself over the past several years.


Mottl, who has sold many of the now-occupied commercial locations in Buchanan, recently closed on a house at the corner of Moccasin and West Front streets.  The beautiful old residence had been empty and ill-kept for many years and in the hands of many Realtors. Neighbors have been waiting for it be appreciated and cared for and have wondered if it was the historic designation that had sealed the deal.

“The residential historic district — let me just say this — it has not had an impact on the homes I am selling,” Mottl said. “Walter Porges, who purchased that property, did not purchase the home because it was in the historic district. The contract was already done, but I am sure that when the renovations he has planned are completed, he will be very proud to say he owns a home in the historic district of Buchanan.”

Porges, like many of the second homeowners in the area, has his primary residence and works in Chicago.  Mottl said this “Chicago” factor is often misunderstood.

“Historically, for years, we have a lot of people who have their primary residence in Buchanan, drive to Chicago to work and drive back home here, whether they are iron workers making the commute daily or others who have businesses in Chicago and a secondary home in Buchanan as a quiet getaway. They live here for maybe five or 10 years and then buy into our commercial buildings after being a quiet part of our community for years,” she said.

Like Mottl, Marx considers the historic district as but one part of a bigger plan summarized by the city slogan “Life is Better Here.”  Community is Buchanan’s common mantra and to be a community where people want to live and do business the old-fashioned way, where shop keepers know you by your first name when you walk into the hardware store or local sweet shop is what is really selling Buchanan.

“It (the historic district) is just one spoke of the wheel,” Marx says. “Another spoke is the watershed. Another is McCoy Creek Trail. All built around the community stage, which is the Common with its Tin Shop Theater, the Farm Market and Pear’s Mill.
Mayor Carla Cole echoes the city manager’s comments.

“The historic district designations are really exciting as they will open the door to more federal grants for us to go after. We have worked hard for that, but no harder than we have worked to attract people to town with community events and a pleasant downtown area,” she said.

The community of Buchanan agrees.

Community weighs in

When you talk to them about the district, all agree it is good for the town; however, it is the community’s growth in all areas that excites them.

“Buchanan has come a long way in the last few years. I remember the big black curtain that used to hang across the window of the old store where Alan (Robandt) is.  Now, with all the wonderful new shops, Friends of the Trail, the Buchanan Garden Club and events like this hill ride coming up, Buchanan has so much to offer,” said Kay Welsh, who lives in the new historic district and who thinks having the federal designation is “great.”

Robandt’s Union Block building, from which he runs his nationally respected, Antique, Vintage, & Modern showroom, is located in the center of Buchanan’s National Register Historic District downtown, just above Pears Mill and the Buchanan Farmers’ Market, at the corner of Front Street and Mill Alley. He was instrumental in facilitating the city’s relationship with Pam O’Connor, whose Preservation Practices firm, located in Kalamazoo, completed the studies and applications for Buchanan’s historic designations.

O’Connor’s diligence has been much praised as priceless.

Whether the community will move forward and go after local historic designation is something Marx is careful to say will not be rushed into in any “knee jerk” manner.

“People can be suspicious and fearful of city limits on what they can do with their properties.  We reassure them that the federal designation has no strings attached.  There are no restrictions. We are not interested in more government control.

“As we look at the coming year, we hope to educate ourselves about the desirability of taking the next step and creating a local historic district, the commission wants to educate itself, educate our residents and seek their input as to how and whether we proceed,” he said.

To that end public meetings will be held throughout 2012 and he hopes both the commission and the public will seek to be well educated on the implications inherent in the creation of a local historic district before any further steps are taken.
Mary Lysy, a self-proclaimed “dyed in the wool preservationist” likewise welcomes the decision. She and her husband, Peter, have spent many years restoring their Moccasin Street home. Her parents, Don and Martha Ryman, have owned two historic homes on West Front Street.

“I’m very excited. This is one of the best things to happen to Buchanan. There are things people do to these older homes that over time do not do them justice. We had to removed the aluminum siding that covered our home because it was destroying the structure,” Lysy said. “Education plays a big role when it comes to preserving the historic integrity of homes.”

She agrees with Marx that it needs to be a matter of community agreement rather than government intervention. The concern is mainly that when people look into doing work on their older home that they take into consideration the historic period of the house.  This is important whether the house was built in the 1800s or 1960s, according to Marx.

Kay Trull’s home is within the northern border of the district. She is rather non-committal as to what the designation means with regard to her residence but as an active member of the First Presbyterian Church in Buchanan, said that the historic factor played a large part in the church’s decision to replace its bell tower with a structure as closely identical as possible to the original.

Business part of renewal

It is not only residential buildings within the new historic districts.  Several people also have businesses here.

Dick Swem’s father moved into the 301 West Front St. location of Swem’s Funeral Home in January 1935.

“The property was very run down. Because of various additions made over the years, historic recognition for this property would probably not be approved, however, we certainly feel this is a very positive move for the historic presence of the community,” Swem said.

Artist Patricia Banker owns PearTree Place at 312 West Chicago St. in the district. The comfortable, three-story, “city cottage” has two apartments she rents to short-term visitors to Buchanan and has her studio located in the garden level.  She is part of a very active and growing arts community in the town.

“I felt the energy of the place when I first saw it five years ago. The historic district should be preserved and can only add to ambiance of this little town,” she said. “I love our wonderful historic post office.  I hope that will be preserved always.”

The Buchanan Art Center was one of the early preservationists for the town.  It is located in the former Buchanan Library.  Director Mary Lister joins the positive chorus.

“It has been important to us to maintain the building’s historic integrity as much as possible in doing any repair work at the Center.  For instance, we kept the baseboards in the gift shop as they were part of the original building. It’s really important to the majority of the board.

“Buchanan is such a beautiful little town, and it would be hugely altered if the principles of preservation are not considered, especially in the historic district. I hope people voluntarily maintain their homes to the era in which they were built,” Lister said.

Bragging rights

All those interviewed agreed that they thought having the historic district is good for Buchanan. Marx looks forward to being able to brag of the district and using the advantage to gain precious extra points when it comes to going after competitive grants.

Mottl would like to see this growth with smaller independent businesses continue. Born and raised here, she said she is proud of her hometown and of recommending it to others. Like Marx, she has a definite idea of what new businesses she would like to see here.

“I think we definitely need a bakery. Some place where people can pick up bread, donuts and other baked goods. I want to see a ladies’ boutique here and think it would go over very well.  I would like to see a specialty cheese shop in town.”

One property currently represented by Mottl is located at 413 East Front St. and is a former well-attended bed and breakfast. Some of those who have shown interest in the property have expressed an interest in reopening the business.

“The lady, who owned the bed and breakfast, still has all the guest logs which show just how successful the business was. I try to show the property as having that potential, although I can’t discriminate in who would buy the property or what it would be used for,” she said.

“I have had one interested party return three times to look at it. They thought of adding a tea room. The big barn with would be the perfect place to host local events, weddings: the loft with its old wooden floors would be a wonderful dance floor.”

Mottl summarizes the attitude of most Buchanan residents with regard to the district:

“We’re growing an open arms community here. With the historic district and the renovations, it’s nice to see we will have some preservation in place. First and foremost, you have to have that population who likes the community. The community has to offer a place where people want to buy homes whether it’s a historic district or not. I sell a strong community, strong schools, a strong chamber of commerce, a strong arts district, a strong DDA. We are a very big volunteer-based community where a lot gets done.

“We have the full package, we are building every spoke of the wheel,” she said.

Buchanan, after years of mourning the loss of its industrial heyday, is on the verge of an exciting future. Bed and breakfast anyone?


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