After dodging the wrecking ball, Roethke homes could gain new protections

SAGINAW, MI – Two homes linked to one of Saginaw’s most famous historical figures may merit a Blessed City designation that would help preserve their walls and deter the threat of demolition.

A committee established by Saginaw City Council will study the benefits of creating a historic district in the Gratiot homes that belonged to the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke and his uncle.

If the committee recommends the designation and the city council votes in favor of that suggestion, the historic district designation will open the houses to grant programs and preservation initiatives available to properties covered by the Local Historic Districts Act of 1970 of the Michigan.

Such a designation could be significant given that one of the houses built in the mid-20th century – known as the “Stone House” – was due to be demolished as recently as 2019.

The owners eventually secured funding and implemented a restoration plan that got it out of harm’s way, but the threat still hangs over the aging structures, conservationists warn.

“We have lost countless major buildings that should have been protected but were not,” said Alex Mixter, chairman of the historic district commission appointed by the Saginaw City Council. “You can’t put a price tag on the value of a historic property, but you can measure what it means to a community. That’s what we want to find out with this study.

The Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation in 1998 purchased the homes, which are in a corridor of West Side Saginaw homes zoned as a two-house residential neighborhood. Roethke’s childhood home turned museum is at 1805 Gratiot, and his uncle Carl Roethke’s “Stone House” is next door at 1759 Gratiot.

Representatives of the foundation have approached the Saginaw Historic District Commission to pursue designation of the historic district, Mixter said. His group then recommended the creation of the search committee, which was approved by the board at a meeting on Monday, July 11.

City officials will appoint committee members at a later date, said Mixter, who estimated the group would conclude its research within six to 12 months.

The son of a German immigrant, Roethke was born in Saginaw in 1908. His poetry published in the mid-20th century won him worldwide acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for “The Waking,” a book published in 1953. He died 10 years later after suffering a heart attack.

His legacy has endured, however, including in mid-Michigan, where literature lovers attend a triennial festival celebrating his work and local history buffs cherish artifacts associated with his life.

“We already know there’s historical significance there,” Mixter said of the two Roethke-linked Saginaw houses. “It’s a formality to put all this in a study. We might also learn things we didn’t know, and that’s the fun part.

Neighborhoods in historic districts fall under the jurisdiction of the Saginaw Historic District Commission, which has the power to review plans for the construction, renovation and demolition of properties.

The three council-designated local historic districts in Saginaw are:

  • The Heritage Square Historic District was established in 1975 and encompasses a 25-block area between Court and Mackinaw, north of the Saginaw County Government Center. The area was one of the first residential neighborhoods for the city’s first inhabitants in the 19th century.
  • Saginaw’s Old Town Historic District was established in 1981 and includes a riverside business district commonly referred to as “Old Town”. The neighborhood sits where Fort Saginaw was established in 1822, when fur traders and farmers laid the foundation for the lumber industry boom that followed.
  • The North Michigan Historic District, which abuts the Old Town Historic District of Saginaw to the east, encompasses eight blocks along its namesake riverside avenue.

A map of the three local historic districts, national historic districts, and other historic sites in the city is available on the Saginaw website.

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