“Invest in history for our future”: ARCH takes different approaches to restore historic properties

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – For nearly half a century, Architecture and Community Heritage of Fort Wayne, or ARCH, has been a passionate advocate for the preservation and restoration of historically significant buildings and homes in Fort Wayne and Allen County.

“It matters that ARCH is open for business everyday and working because over the nearly 50 years it’s been at work, a metamorphosis has happened,” said ARCH executive director Connie Haas Zuber. “The prevailing thinking has gone from ‘the old buildings are an impediment to development’ – that was the prevailing way of looking at things and it inspired the original founders of ARCH to start historic preservation organization – to the realization that the right historic building can be an asset to an economic development project.”

Haas Zuber, who has led the organization since 2018, cited the Electric Works project underway on the General Electric campus and the Landing revitalization on Columbia Street as two examples of positive economic impact projects.

“ARCH was part of that change happening by speaking out, by letting people who love old buildings and value their stories to come together and learn more about it and we’re very proud of that and we want to continue doing that work.”

The organization is also a research library, evidenced by the stacks of CDs and papers they’re working to digitize, plus maps, signs and other relics from the past.

“It’s absolutely perfect to have ARCH’s office be in a place that is on the National Register of Historic Places and one of the oldest places in town and has this heritage to it,” said Haas Zuber.

Connie Haas Zuber says the work ARCH does every day proves that what’s old can still be useful.

“The reason why it’s important for ARCH to do restoration and preservation work is to be both an example – if we’re telling people you should save old buildings and find new uses for them, it’s really helpful if we can take people to examples we have and say ‘look, it works, you can do it, it’s cool,’” she said.

ALEXANDER T. RANKIN HOUSE HISTORY AND TOUR

ARCH currently owns what are believed to be two of the oldest homes in the city of Fort Wayne. One is the Alexander T. Rankin House, built in 1841, where ARCH’s office is currently located. ARCH got control of the property in 2004 after it was donated to the organization, and restored it to what it is today. WANE 15’s Emily Dwire toured the Rankin House alongside Connie Haas Zuber to learn more about its storied past.

Alexander T. Rankin

Alexander T. Rankin, a “fiery abolitionist preacher” is the third minister of Fort Wayne Presbyterian Church and arrived in Fort Wayne in the fall of 1837. He and the church organization, who at the time didn’t have a home, came together and built a small framed church where the McColloch-Weatherhogg Double House sits at Lafayette and Berry.

By 1841, he bought the land where the Rankin House now stands, which at the time extended down to Wayne Street, and built the brick portion of the home in the hall and parlor style.

“The front door was probably what is now the back door. Seem illogical? No, it’s very logical because you have to think back to what it was like back then. Town was all [west], the church was right over there, that yard that was out there was actually like a community commons and the city of Fort Wayne actually celebrated a couple 4th of July celebrations there,” said Haas Zuber.

Rankin came from a family of abolitionists and worked for the American Anti-Slavery Society which helped create anti-slavery societies in this part of the country. In fact, the house he built in Fort Wayne is included on the list of known underground railroad sites, and the home has a trap door in the parlor room.

Trap door in the Rankin House

“Nobody writes down ‘yeah, I was on the underground railroad and I went to that house’ because it happened so quickly and you didn’t know and you were escaping and it was all very quick. But this house, in the basement, which you get to through a trap door in the parlor room,” she said. “People could come in, be whisked down there, the rug could be put back, the furniture could be put back and it would all look very innocent, I would think. And there is a half wall down there that I people could have hidden behind.”

Half wall found in the Rankin House basement

Though not confirmed, it is possible the half wall in the basement was built after Rankin’s time. But more confirmation of his abolitionary work comes from Rankin’s own family members who confirmed that he was an underground railroad conductor.

Alexander T. Rankin left town in 1843 citing money concerns and family issues, and moved his family back to New York.

Connie Haas Zuber says there’s some mystery to the Rankin home. The front of the home is framed and attached to the brick portion of the home, but ARCH isn’t sure who built it, why it was built, or when exactly it was built. After some research, ARCH did find an 1855 tax map that showed the frame attached to the brick.

By 1855 the house was in the hands of a man named John G. Maier who also played significant roles in the community. Maier owned a grocery store on Columbia Street where he made and sold the first ice cream in Fort Wayne. He also grew and sold the first fresh strawberries in the city and sold musical instruments among other things.

“He also became postmaster and one of his claims to fame is that he was the first postmaster to receive letters from a train, and he’d walk down to the train station and get the letters, put them in his jacket pocket and walk back to his store which was also the post office.”

The Maiers were among the people who signed the charter for the beginnings of Trinity Evangelical English Lutheran Church. Mrs. Maier was active in the women’s group, helping to raise money for the church.

“She and the ladies would meet [at the Rankin House], and these are people with names like Rudisill and Edsall – big Fort Wayne names,” said Haas Zuber. “You can imagine how proud she was to have all these people in her home and they would sit around here with their cups of tea or coffee. So think about that. The Maiers were people who were involved in things and got things done and made things happen.”

After the Maiers, the home belonged to the DeWood family who got it listed as a local historic district as the Maier-DeWood house. After ARCH was created, their research led them to the stories of Alexander T. Rankin.

“So the research started and it all picked up, connections were made and now it’s the Alexander T. Rankin House because he’s the one who actually built it.”

To show what the house may have looked like more than 100 years ago, the organization has staged the front room with furniture and an original slate mantle above the fireplace. Thanks to donations, period pieces like an 1840s piano and bench are also featured in the front office, and in one part of the wall the lath underneath the plaster is exposed.

While more recently used as office space, Haas Zuber says the Rankin House could easily be a home again in the future.

MARY ROCKHILL-TYLER HOME HISTORY

The Mary Rockhill-Tyler House along Van Buren Street is another historic home that ARCH owns. It’s the oldest house still standing in West Central.

Unlike the Rankin House, this home has been nearly fully renovated on the inside and is ready to welcome renters for the first time.

City father William Rockhill, who platted the land that is now the West Central Neighborhood, built the house around 1840 for his daughter Mary. He also built a twin home on the lot next door at Washington and Van Buren.

Mary Rockhill-Tyler House

Mary Rockhill-Tyler lived in the small home at 918 Van Buren Street with her husband Frederick Tyler, their three children, and two boarders – all of whom can be found on the 1850 census.

“It’s a nice house, it had the hall which was the working area where probably some cooking happened and staple foods were stored and herbs and medicinal herbs and probably, perhaps, Mr. Tyler’s hand tools for his business because they’d be valuable and he’d want to take care of them and keep them dry,” said Haas Zuber. “The building was equipped with the newest and greatest. It had a mantle but there was never a working fireplace underneath the mantle. Instead it was equipped with stove pipes because by then the Franklin stove had been invented and the house was heated by a Franklin stove.”

There would have also been a cooking stove in the hall at the time and at least three bedrooms upstairs when Mary Rockhill-Tyler’s family inhabited the home.

Early on in the 20th century, the twin home at Washington and Van Buren was torn down and a larger home was built on the property. At that time, the Mary Rockhill-Tyler House was turned into a garage and ignored for decades.

ARCH got control of the property in 2007 and started the research and restoration process. Now in 2021, the Mary Rockhill-Tyler House is a home once again.

“The home is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Parks Service standards for rehabilitation have flexibility built into them. They want these buildings to have a use to be able to live to be able to be valuable again. So on the outside it looks like it did, on the inside it is a modern lovely house that anybody who doesn’t have too much stuff would love to live in,” said Haas Zuber.

For the first time ever, the home has all the modern conveniences you’d expect – running water, heating and cooling, plumbing, electricity, and it’s wired for cable.

“We have hit a good balance of keeping the old and adding in the right parts of the new,” she said. “But it sill has the hall and the parlor and the rooms upstairs but now instead of three little bedrooms it was a really glorious bathroom and a really nice bedroom and all sorts of wonderful closets.”

MARY ROCKHILL-TYLER HOME TOUR

The outside of the home features orange brick, contrasted by long black shutters over the windows. The shutters are original to the home, and still swing open.

In the parlor, the mantle is just ahead as you walk through the door. To the left is the trap door that leads to a cubby area which will still be used mainly for storage purposes.

Trap door in the Rockhill-Tyler House

The flooring throughout the home is not the original, but it was made to look like what would’ve been there 180 years ago. The colors in the home are all authentic, too.

The kitchen is outfitted with steel appliances and squared off, simple cabinets – a style one would find in the mid 19th century. The pantry door is original and inside you’ll find exposed brick and new shelving.

The staircase has a story of its own from when ARCH got the property:

“There was no staircase, there was just the hole in the ceiling. So we put a ladder up and climbed up and there was this pile of lumber up there and they started looking at it and realized ‘this is parts of a staircase’ so the people who turned it into a garage and put two garage doors here had taken apart the staircase but they hadn’t thrown it all away so a great deal of the staircase is the original staircase because it had been tossed upstairs and they were able to reconstruct it.”

At the top of the stairs, the baluster is original – ARCH took it apart, made it stronger, and put it back together.

What likely used to be a bedroom, is now a large, modern bathroom with a shower, washer and dryer, and big closet. Just down the hall is a large bedroom with two closets. Connie Haas Zuber says the big bedroom was likely two separate bedrooms back when the home was built.

ARCH’S WORK

All of the restoration and preservation work that ARCH does with historic properties in the Fort Wayne community starts with the stories each home and building hold. The stories are the city’s heritage.

“It’s why we, Fort Wayne, are who we are. These are the places that were built when we were becoming who we are. We lived here , we worked here, we worshiped here in the churches, we went up and down these streets, we walked on these sidewalks, and we played in these parks, all of these things together make this city what it is.  And when you keep that that, preserves our uniqueness and gives us our special spark of who we are and when you start from that, you start from a stronger place than when you try to invent something brand new.”

Through its many tours, programs, and educational outreach, ARCH will continue to connect people to the stories of their past, to better preserve their future.

“Historic preservation helps property owners, whether they’re homeowners or business people, build wealth. It helps neighborhoods demonstrate their social, civic and economic  value in the world and it helps cities thrive,” she said.” Historic preservation is in and of itself a good, and it’s also a good for those three very important reasons and it’s a tool we can use with other tools to make people’s lives, neighborhood lives, and this city’s life better.”

To learn more about ARCH and the work it does in the community, you can visit their website.

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