Teaching and Learning History - 022316

Public History

The Whaley House

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

We all know of that one house, right? It’s been around for ages and looking at it from the street just makes you feel nostalgic. You remember that your community has indeed been around far longer than your life, or even your parents’ lives. You wonder what that house would think of your city or town and what it has seen throughout its life. It stands as a sentinel of memory, a record of what used to be, and a testament that things will continue on long after you. The building reminds you of where we, as a people came from, and inspires you to think about where we might go.

Whaley House, July 2015

That’s the case with the Whaley Historic House Museum in Flint, Michigan. The house was the home of the Whaley family from 1885 until husband and wife passed away in the 1920s, but has stood at 624 East Kearsley Street since it was built in 1859 by Austin Witherbee (who would go on to become a Mayor of the city). The house has had many residents from the first family who lived there, to the many women who lived out their final years inside of its walls when it served as the McFarlan Home for Elderly Women. It narrowly escaped destruction when a freeway (I-475) was built next to it, but it saw many of its neighbors razed as part of urban development plans of the 1970s. Today it stands alone as one of the only Gilded Age homes still standing in Flint and the only one that has been fully restored, sits on the National Parks Service Register of Historic Places, and operates as a museum of America’s Gilded Age. The Whaleys were, perhaps, the most memorable people to call the structure home and turned the house into the Whaley House we know today.

Whaley House, 1885

 In 1885 Robert Whaley purchased the home on Kearsley Street, then a two story Italianate home with a cupola on top (pictured above), and hired an architect from Detroit to remodel the home into the Victorian style that had become popular at the time. Robert spent, in today’s money, over $500,000 on the home and turned it into a three story structure with bays and alcoves, and added onto the building off of the back. The Whaleys were a prominent family in Flint, Robert having made a name for himself working in his father-in-law’s (Andrew McFarlan’s) lumber mill. He then followed McFarlan into the banking industry after he and some business associates came together to form Citizen’s Bank. After McFarlan’s passing, Whaley took over as president of the bank and served for 41 years. This house, though, is also the story of a progressive time for women. Even those who weren’t out advocating for women’s suffrage were able to engage in public life to a far greater level than those before. Mary Whaley was a member of several social groups, one being a literary society that grew into the Flint Public Library. The family, furthermore, gave to the city by providing funds for the Whaley Children’s Home (now the Whaley Children’s Center) and Mary requested that her home become a home for elderly women after her passing. Although the story of Robert Whaley approving the loans to William C. Durant and J. Dallas Dort to start their carriage company (which laid the foundation for General Motors) dominates the narrative, the influence and civic engagement of the family extends far beyond the bounds of approving yet another loan that came across the bank president’s desk.

“Bicentennial nostalgia,” prompted the saving and preservation of historic sites across the country, so it’s not a surprise that several organizations in the area (antiques clubs, Genesee County Historical Society, McFarlan Home, and others) came together to save the Whaley House, restore it to its 1880s and 1890s condition, and preserve it for the future. This happened after the McFarlan Home built a new facility next to the Whaley House in 1972.  By the next decade the house had received its place on the National Parks Service Register of Historic Places and the association overseeing it became a registered nonprofit organization with the mission of preserving the Whaley home and artifacts, and inspiring an appreciation for local history.  Today the house is managed by a Board of Directors, one paid staff member, and a handful of loyal volunteers.

In recent years the connection between the Whaley Historic House Museum and the University of Michigan-Flint has grown immensely. Naturally, the strongest connection is with the Department of History, whose professors have used the house as a research tool. Last spring students from a class called America Coming of Age were required to pick three artifacts from the house to research and instead of a paper, produce museum labels for the pieces. This not only allowed students to receive hands-on experience in the public history field, but they also learned about the study of material culture. Public history courses have also used the museum as a site to create a specialized tour. Most recently, though, a social studies education class has begun regularly participating in the museum’s third and fourth grade field trip program, designed to introduce children to the field of history through the study of museum artifacts.

Whether these students are walking through the doors of the museum for a tour in a history or education course, the experience it offers is irreplaceable. Both classes receive some form of exposure to their future field of employment, whether it’s in creating docent-led tours or experiencing a field trip to which they could one day bring their own elementary students. Historic house museums can be found in nearly every city; recent studies have noted that there are more historic house museums than there are McDonald’s restaurants. They often, however, lack the funds to market with billboards, flyers to every third grade teacher in the city, or other promotional materials. Having experienced the intimate and unique one-of-a-kind lesson in which students could take part, though, these future educators will enter the job market armed with the knowledge of the kinds of unconventional learning experiences that exist if you simply know where to look. Experiencing heritage sites at a young age can make a lasting impression on a child and affect the way they interact with the world. I have seen the look in the eyes of young girl scouts as they enter the bedrooms and exclaim to their parents that they wished they lived here. By introducing college students to the Whaley house I hope that they will in turn either work to preserve these locations themselves, create meaningful experiences for visitors of all ages, or organize field trips to heritage sites. Historic house museums may not bring in the flashiest traveling exhibits, but we can offer an authentic experience which allows students to walk the halls of sites that have stood for hundreds of years.

Blog Home