Menu
Share
Share this story
Close X
 
Switch to Desktop Site

What draws people back to small towns?

There is a significant number of small towns across America -- those defined as having up to 50,000 people -- that people have been breaking away tom . If this resurgence was one of the demographic surprises of the last decade, census signs are that it will be one of the demographic certainties of this one.

That small towns are hitting the comeback trail may strike some devotees of urban resurgence as a nostalgic diversion, although it should be pointed out that the spirited comeback of many center-city neighborhoods and retail districts was considered implausible only 20 years ago.

About these ads

As of 1970 some 60 percent of all Americans lived in small towns, although half of these had been absorbed by the galumphing gas-fed sprawl of the metropolitan regions. But as of 1975 the other half "way out there some place" had increased in population by 4 1/2 percent, whereas the suburbanized half had increased by a little under 3 percent.

Thus, placing slightly ahead of the cities for the first time in this century , hinterland communities have new opportunities. They also have every reason to be very careful about "growth."

Developmental vision must balance the rejuvenation of existing streets and buildings with the creation of new buildings that, in style and scale, will mind their manners and be inviting, evocative increments of their environment. Otherwise, a small town -- or a center-city neighborhood, for that matter -- risks becoming small time.

Marshall, Mich., in the middle of the rolling southern tier of the state's lower peninsula, is conveniently located near the intersection of Interstates 94 and 69. It has never settled for mediocrity and is trying not to now.

With about 8,000 people, it is an example of how "small" can be as urbane as the brightest urban star -- and understated in its dynamism.

People began breaking away to Marshall 150 years ago. Besides building a dam and mill, their express purpose of laying it out near the confluence of the Kalamazoo River and Rice Creek was to give form to another kind of confluence -- that of the political, cultural, and economic vision of some socially progressive Easterners.

Marshall was going to be the capital of Michigan (it missed out to Lansing by one vote in 1837). Marshall was going to be the railroad capital of the region (and it was until the old Michigan Central moved its main facilities to Jackson in the 1870s). Marshall was even going to be the patent-remedy capital of the country (but federal controls, going into effect just after 1900, put the cap back on that).

About these ads

What in the name of that great Chief Justice of the United States was going on all those years that now, after three-quarters of a century of decorous dormancy, people are moving back, moving in anew, and otherwise coming in droves to look around?

What Marshall was doing, from the 1830s on through the 1880s, was absorbing large amounts of architectonics -- the systematic, scholarly pursuit of the philosophy, design and construction of buildings. The people who laid out Marshall's wide, efficient streets and its roomy, active squares believed that excellent architecture, whether for homes, commerce, or public business, was basic to building a new town in a wide territory; and especially so since this one was to symbolize a hard-working parity between private material gain and the improvement of the public realm.

In the baggage of several families arriving here in the 1830s and 1840s were friendships with Andrew Jackson Downing, the most influential cultural essayist and architectural critic of the first half of the 19th century.

Critic Downing once said: "The pride of Americans should not be in building great hereditary homes but greater hereditary institutions."

As a result of Downing's influence, along with that of his books, the Gothic Revival got going in Marshall a decade before this style was to take hold nationally. Scores of these houses have been or are being restored.

Other books weren't collecting dust either. Many editions of Asher Benjamin's "The American Builder's Companion" were tossed into the baggage. These and other so-called "pattern books," taken with the national craze for the Greek Revival, resulted in Marshall's creating what is still the finest collection of houses in this style in the Middle West. These, too, are being restored -- as are dozens of others from the 1860s and 1870s that were turned out in spirited Italianate raiment.

No style was left unturned and, one might profitably add, one stone; for tucked in among the bigger show-stopers on Marshall's yearly Home Tour are many more modest houses that were built by or for workers and their families. Even these are perfectly proportioned and detailed.

There is no "other side of the tracks" in this small town, nor is there a "generation gap."

With an intact layout ensuring physical and spatial continuity, with many officially designed national landmarks already, and with several precedent-setting events having given a progressive rhythm to the town's history -- from the charting of Michigan's public-school system (anticipating Horace Mann), to its ardent abolitionist stand, to its founding of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers -- Marshall is working toward a designation as a national historic district.

If such rank is to be determined by the skill a community has shown in building human potential as much as human habitation, Marshall deserves to have its very first capital idea fulfilled in this way.

The spur behind Marshall's comeback has been the Marshall Historical Society, founded in 1961. It has consolidated and is carrying on the preservation impulses of one wonderful human being, the late Harold C. Brooks, mayor of Marshall from 1925 to 1931.

Mr. Brooks, who passed on last year, started out in the 1920s by buying and restoring the superb Greek Revival house of 1840 that is pictured here. Up on that hill -- and "out back" -- he had the celebrated Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen create a vast, relentlessly intriguing garden.

Even choked with weeds and now a preservation target in its own right, it is a national treasure.

To celebrate Marshall's centennial in 1930, Mr. Brooks pioneered in what now is called "the adaptive use of old buildings" by making a town hall out of a run-down stone livery stable of 1857. He also bought, thus protecting from demolition, the astonishing Honolulu House of 1860, an arcade-strewn, finialfilliped combination of Italianate, Gothic Revival, andm Polynesian references built by a local judge who had served as the US consul to the Sandwich Islands.

Having had its hopes and sights raised once more, Marshall's renaissance engineers got cracking. The Historical Society, in turn spurred on and led for some years by John Collins -- an administrative officer of the Eaton Corporation who moved here from Boston and now heads the Historical Society of Michigan -- not only got the Home Tour idea off on a most professional, profitable, and refreshingly uncorny footing, but it has also organized a downtown revitalization program for Marshall's main east-west stem, Michigan Avenue, taking in the rejuvenation of many of the stores, shops, and other establishments.

This work -- with architectural design, structural consultation, and recommendations for graphics and signage being coordinated by Hal Minick and Architect Steve Teich of KMH Inc. -- is the unfolding drama today.

Gradually, with the townspeople, merchants, and preservationists getting into gear together, the facades are being repaired and restored, with years of sleazy "modernization" giving way to the original richness. Retail life shows every sign of becoming as entertaining and educational as the residential surroundings to the north and south.

The next, directly related challenge is to cinch the conversion of second, third, and fourth stories above these stores to apartments so that Michigan Avenue and the areas adjacent to it can begin to chime around the clock, ringing in both newcomers and old-timers in equal proportion to the reverence and repair that have been concentrated on the individual houses.

The shrewd, practical, and learned Mr. Collins says: "It took my moving to Marshall [for me] to truly understand the architectural heritage of Boston."

That says about as much as anything can about what is at stake here.

Not so many years ago one would hear people complain: "If our teachers can afford to fix up these old houses, then we're paying them too much." Today everybody's children are studying the history of architecture in school, in tandem with a lot of emphasis on history generally. Many of these children are from families that have moved here in recent years because Marshall has a modest but solid economic and employment base, because it's a perfect jumping-off place for salesmen, or because the total sense of style that "just grew" here out of a sense of human and cultural conviction is warmly responsive to people in our own time who want their instinctive yearning for roots to be handsomely, wholesomely sheltered.

The thing that must be ensured now is that newly projected commercial or industrial development be located and designed in a way, and to a standard of excellence, that will reinforce rather than deflect the resurgence of downtown and also reflect the finest talents in the region.

Many cities and towns have had their distinguished qualities "malled" by outlying shopping centers; and, since at least one such development has been projected outside Marshall, it would be to mutual advantage of everyone to truck this action right into town where it can step lively along with everything else, tucked into or in among the renovated buildings.

Further, any new construction, whether in town or out on its edges, should be in keeping with the town's overall character, scale, and the beauty of the surrounding landscape -- and this doesn't mean that new buildings should just be anonymous sheds flimsily shored up with superficial, pasted-on elements derived from "the colonial."

It means that Marshall can and should become a beacon for the finest, most thoughtful architecture in contemporary terms, whether the building be a small store or restaurant filling in one of the infrequent gaps along the otherwise strong, well-defined edge of the main stem, or one meant for offices, manufacture, or warehousing.

In Marshall excellence always has attracted excellence -- and not only that based on wealth. It has been a place where hard work and thought, strong streaks of practicality and vision, have been tightly interwoven.

Marshall is giving a renaissance, and everyone seems to be coming -- hopefully in good form all around.


Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.