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Allegan’s Civil Society

Veterans’ restored homes only a part of small town’s big success

September 10, 2003 |

MLUI/Gary Howe
  Saving and restoring Allegan’s Second Street Bridge marked the beginning of Allegan’s ambitious, citizen-led historic preservation efforts.

At the end of the Civil War, Union Army General Benjamin D. Pritchard returned to his hometown Allegan as a hero, thanks to his capture of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. The feat earned General Pritchard a $100,000 reward. Instead of banking or spending his reward, the general insisted on sharing it with his troops. Many of them followed him back to Allegan and, like their commander, built houses in the nicest part of the city.

History’s Echoes
Almost 140 years later, the general’s triumphant return to Allegan — and the way that he spent his reward money — still reverberate in the small, southwest Michigan town. Today, the general’s Gothic Revival house at 330 Davis Street is the centerpiece of Pritchard’s Overlook Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, protected by local ordinance, and graced with more than 200 buildings in several classic styles.

But it was only after Allegan suffered a major, historic loss a half-century ago that it began serious efforts to preserve its past: In 1953, Allegan County decided to replace its 65-year-old courthouse and, supported by a city referendum, destroyed the distinctive Richardsonian Romanesque building.

That decision dismayed Allegan resident John Pahl, then 33 years old. He vowed to make sure such a thing never happened again and founded the Allegan County Historical Society.

“We couldn’t save the old courthouse, but it touched off other efforts,” Mr. Pahl recalled recently. “The public got aroused from that historic loss, began reading about historic districts, and gained community support.”

A Bridge to Prosperity
It took Allegan’s newly minted preservationists eight years to complete their first step: In 1961, citizens rescued the town’s unique, steel-trussed, Second Street Bridge from demolition. Built in 1866, it is now a symbol of the community’s dedication to historic preservation. Indeed, the project helped build another bridge of sorts, one to a prosperous present and future for Allegan.

At a time when many semi-rural towns struggle to survive, downtown Allegan thrives with a 95-percent occupancy rate. It enjoys heavy pedestrian traffic to its city offices, an auditorium, a theater, and a pharmaceutical lab — historic buildings all.

The City Climbs Onboard
Citizen efforts to preserve Allegan’s history became more successful over the past 30 years because the city itself finally embraced preservation as a strategy for prosperity. Its first steps came in the 1970s, when the city council recognized the value of its historic resources by defeating proposed ordinance and zoning changes that would have allowed dividing up grand old homes into small apartments. Then it launched its Downtown Development Authority (DDA), which changed tax laws to lure investment downtown.

In 1983 the National Register declared Allegan’s central business a historic cultural resource, enabling owners of income properties to utilize tax credits for building rehabilitation.

The city applied for and was accepted into the National Park Service’s Certified Local Government (CLG) program in the 1990s. Administered by the State Historic Preservation Office, the program promotes preservation at the grassroots. Since 1997 the SHPO has funneled $57,400 in CLG funding to Allegan. The city has matched this with other funds and used it to complete many preservation projects, including the restoration of the Regent Theater.

A New Community Center
The Regent Theater is a fine example of how a successful downtown historic preservation project directly improves the quality of life for a community. First a 1903 Buick garage, the Regent became a vaudeville theater in 1919 and added an orchestra pit in 1935. Following its long abandonment, citizens purchased the building in 1990 and permanently reopened it in 1996.

MLUI/Gary Howe
  Regent Theater Manager Lori Sisson says the restored building is now “a huge asset" that the community uses in many different ways.

Today this popular, 347-seat Art Deco venue shows silent films accompanied by live bands, often features current releases, and offers weekly summer matinees for children sponsored by local businesses. Last year the shows attracted approximately 6,000 youngsters.

“The community loves it,” said Lori Sisson, the theater manager. “It’s a huge asset. We use it as an outreach with students, showing films of books being used in local schools.”

Allegan City Manager Lisa Sutterfield agrees. “We were so lucky to have a dedicated nonprofit rebuild the theater to its Art Deco glory. We purchased it for the outstanding mortgage of $18,000, with the understanding that we would run it as a single-screen theater. It is a community gem.”

Another historic building will provide even more downtown vitality. When the congregation of the First Baptist Church decided to vacate its 1892 church for a larger complex, the City of Allegan bought the building with $500,000 from an United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant. The structure will provide music venues, a children’s museum, and a senior drop-in center.

Historic Hospitality

MLUI/Gary Howe
  The Delano House cloaks modern amenities inside a classic, fully restored, Italianate exterior.

Historic preservation has also helped Allegan attract tourists. Well-restored bed and breakfasts offer the best of both worlds — shaded verandas and splendidly appointed rooms, and modern amenities such as whirlpool baths.

Scott Ehrich has operated one of those inns, the Delano House, an Italianate residence, for two and a half years. Domestic and foreign travelers come year-round for, as he says, “the ambiance of the town and to walk the neighborhoods and downtown.”

Whenever possible, he buys the products and services he needs for the building from other local vendors. “I prefer to use local businesses — even if it’s a little more in cost. Many of Allegan’s shops are locally owned. So, I’m supporting my neighbors.”

Many Allegan business people and residents share Mr. Erich’s appreciation of life’s intangible assets: Time, place and, most of all, community.

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