Teaching and Learning History - 041916

Public History

The Whaley House III:
Recovering from the Unthinkable

By Samantha M. Engel
Executive Director
The Whaley House
Flint, MI

Historic House Museums are interesting, in that they often serve as large time capsules. You can find homes across the country frozen at a particular moment in history; those overseeing the site found that moment most representative of the time period they hope to bring to visitors. Be it Revolutionary Era Virginia, Antebellum Period Kentucky, or Gilded Age Flint, Michigan, the aesthetic features of the architecture and the artifacts within the museums walls are often highlighted, with the history of the building itself rather ignored. Sure, docents may note the kind of wood used for the doors, floors, and trim-work, but what about everything else? 
Recently, something happened at the Whaley Historic House Museum that brought the structure back to the front of our minds. On November 30, 2015 a fire occurred on the exterior third floor of the house. Builders had been working on installing a new gutter system for the home, the first project in a list that would help us to continue to the preserve the historic structure. The fire itself was contained to the third floor, but the water and smoke damage throughout the rest of the home was extensive. What followed was a long process of water mitigation and selective demolition to remove all of the moisture and smoke particulate from the house. The third floor had to be completely gutted, plaster walls (some more than 150 years old) and ceilings removed, and much of the hardwood floor taken up. Doing this was heart-wrenching, to say the least, but it also taught us a few lessons.

The fire began around 2:30 after we had spent a morning decorating for our Christmas programs.

With plaster and flooring removed, we were able to see the structure’s long and noble history. The Whaleys remodeled the house when they purchased it in the 1880s and you can actually see evidence of this. We never knew how much of the original structure remained after the Whaleys significantly altered the home, but it turns out that there is still a lot of the 1859 house!

Here you can see a joint where the floor was extended when the Whaleys remodeled the house.

Also, secrets emerged that help us to understand how the family actually LIVED in the home.

The large beam running from left to right seems to just stop halfway through the middle of the picture and appears to have been cut during the remodel.   Structural engineers were surprised the house was still standing when this was discovered.

We hope to incorporate many of these things into future tours. Plexiglass inserts will allow us to show off gas lines, old wiring, and painted floor boards. Additionally, pieces of the burned wood from the third floor and the plaster medallions that were removed from the ceilings of the first floor will become part of the collections and help us to tell the story of how the house was built and how it survived a terrible fire in 2015.  

Here you can see the gas lines that used to power wall sconces in this bedroom.
Above the gas line is the electrical fixtures that were added later.

This picture shows the old knob and tube wiring that once electrified the house.


This was the room on the third floor closest to the fire's point of origin.


When standing on the third floor, you can see the roof of the house, backed by plywood added after the fire.


This picture was taken in one of the second floor bedrooms looking at the stairway to the third floor. Plaster walls and ceilings have been removed, as well as hardwood floors.

As we move forward and into our restoration phase, I think it’s safe to say that everyone involved with the Whaley House has again realized the treasure that we have. Our artifacts are amazing and the large area rugs, portiere curtains, and period furniture helped to bring you into the past, but we, as an organization, wouldn’t exist without the house. It now feels vulnerable as I walk through it. Its dressings have been stripped from it and we can see all of the imperfections in its structure, but I have never had more love or respect for the building than I have right now.

About NCHE

The National Council for History Education promotes historical literacy by creating opportunities for teachers and students to benefit from more history, better taught.