As many of you know, the Whaley House suffered from a serious fire on Monday, November 30, 2015. The fire, thankfully, was contained to the third floor, but the water, accompanied by smoke, caused estensive damage throughout the museum. The Whaley House is listed on the National Parks Service Register of Historic Places, which means that we have to follow certain guidelines, so the usual practices for recovering a house after a disaster, like a fire, aren’t exactly as easy to follow.
First all of our exhibit pieces were removed from the home and sent with various cleaners and conservators who specialized in those specific items. Once the museum was empty, the selective demolition phase was able to begin. This meant that designated pieces of wall and ceiling, along with all of the hardwood floors, needed to be removed.
This, of course, sounded like a horribly drastic measure. The plaster on those walls had been there since at least 1885 and maybe even the 1850s! What did removing these mean? Would we be able to maintain our designation as an historic site without them?
To answer the latter question, we did our research. I quickly sent off emails to museum contacts across the state and the country and contacted folks at the Michigan Preservation Office and the consensus was that you have to do what you have to do. Our designation as an historic place is concerned most with the facade and footprint (which I’ll mention in a moment). So, when disaster strikes, we do the best we can to replicate exactly what was their before. Essentially, we were told that if we cared enough to ask, we were probably going to do the right things.
But what did this really mean. Sure, we could still have our historic designation, but by allowing the walls to be removed were we really doing our due diligence to protect and preserve the house (part of our mission!)? The simple answer is yes. Without allowing some of that plaster to be removed, the house could never be in its best shape. Without removing the walls, cleaning them and drying the whole house out, we wouldn’t be ensuring that it would remain for years to come. What if moisture had held in the pockets between the plaster and caused mold to spread? What good would the house be to visitors if it was in poor shape. So, although losing walls and ceilings was devastating and still causes me to tear up when I walk in sometimes, I know that we, as the stewards of this Flint landmark, made the best decision we could to ensure that what does remain will be here for many more generations.
Furthermore, the plaster walls don’t change what the site stands for and means to the city. This is the whole idea of a footprint. Robert Whaley still lived in that house from 1885 until his death in the early 1920s. Mary still called the location home. These people still made a great impact on the city of Flint, whether you are talking about Robert approving Billy Durant and J. Dallas Dort’s loan for General Motors or Mary taking part in a literary society that would grow into the Flint Public Library. Their family legacy can still be seen in what was Citizen’s Bank (now FirstMerit, of course), The Whaley Children’s Home, and the McFarlan Home. The building at 624 East Kearsley Street will always be their former home and will continue to hold those memories that we will continue to protect and preserve.