Saturday, June 4, 2011

Secret Cities of Flint: Stockton Center at Spring Grove

Spring Grove is a restored wetland in the Grand Traverse neighborhood, on the edge of downtown, filled with 19th century homes. The tracks of the Flint and Pere Marquette railroad are hidden in the brush behind Spring Grove, and on a bank above stands a two-story mansion being restored by architect Freeman Greer.

It was the home of Colonel Thomas Stockton, a Union Army leader who raised the 16th Michigan infantry, a 761-soldier regiment from Flint, Saginaw, and Genessee County that fought heroically in many important Civil War battles, including Gettysburg.

Stockton married a daughter of Jacob Smith, the first European settler of the area along the Flint River, and inherited through her a large part of the Indian reservation along Swartz Creek and the river. Maria Stockton founded the Ladies Library Association in 1851, which evolved into Michigan's first public library.

Greer formed the nonprofit For Flint Investments, which bought the home from the state of Michigan for $5,000 in 2002 to restore the building. The building had been vacant since 1996. Now it serves as the office of his firm, GAV & Associates, with his wife Renee, and a handful of other tenants, and houses a museum. Stockton Center at Spring Grove provides tours of the building, displays photographs, documents, and other exhibits, and has the largest collection of Civil War books in the area. "It was just a way of saving history--the income from the tenants doesn't quite cover the mortgage," Greer says. "We had to mortgage it to do the construction work. We were successful in using tax credits for it but the governor did away with them."

The Stockton house was recently used to film Alleged, a movie about the Scopes Monkey Trial, the landmark Tennessee court case that helped prevent fundamentalists from prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the United States in 1925. Broadcast on national radio, the trial argued by ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow and politician William Jennings Bryant captivated the public and coalesced popular opinion in favor of evolutionary biology.

The house was purchased in 1920 from a grandson of Maria Stockton by the Archdiocese of Detroit for the Sisters of St. Joseph, in order to establish the hospital that became St. Joseph Hospital. The hospital addition has also been restored.

Greer estimates that he has spent a million dollars restoring the home, with help from foundations and nonprofits, and a mortgage. "Right now we are [able to cover the shortfall] but moving forward we have to figure out how to get more tenants in the building and increase its income."

A millwright is currently working on restoration of the eaves. The building's market value is a fraction of the investment, but its historical value is incalculable to Greer, a member of the city's Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission. "When I walked in here, I said, 'Oh my goodness, it has to be saved.' It's taken everything I've got to do it, to get it back operating in this condition. And so we're just holding on."

On the evening of my visit, the Historic Preservation Commission was meeting to decide whether to allow a school in the neighborhood to be converted into senior housing and the appropriateness of moving a historic home in Carriage Town to an adjacent lot in order to create a parking space and make it eligible for federal funds for low-income housing.

Greer, along with the Grand Traverse District Neighborhood Association, led the restoration of the wetland behind the house, with help from the Genesee County Land Bank and 80 volunteers from the AmeriCorps program. They cleared garbage from the site, rescued two cats trapped inside, hauled away a car, and removed invasive species from the natural spring. They have raised funds to plant $3,000 worth of lillies and other native species, and are witnessing the return of endangered species like the Blue Heron.

The Pere Marquette railway is planned to become a public trail called the Grand Traverse Greenway. Greer is looking for collaborators on a public art project that would attract attention to adaptive reuse of the 1920s-30s concrete silos on the site, owned by the Land Bank. "The city of Flint is a very neat quilt," he says, as we walk up the embankment back to the house. "The pieces are all stitched together."

Across the street from Spring Grove is Flint Tool & Die (contact information for the plant is at this link), the last remaining Chevrolot factory on the mile-long stretch of manufacturing facilities known locally as Chevy in the Hole. Its below-grade-level landscape was previously a marshy flood plain along the Flint River before it was dammed in the 1960s.

The factory is a long nondescript warehouse that does metal cutting, stamping, machining and assembly for the Chevrolet Volt and Cruze, and the Cadillac CTS. It has 362 employees, 314 of them hourly and 48 salaried, and received a $12 million retooling from General Motors a few years ago.