By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – During the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant helped save the Union.
Now the push is on to save the historic Detroit house of the future president, one of only two who lived in Michigan before going to the White House. Gerald Ford of Grand Rapids was the other.
“This is not just any president. It’s U.S. Grant, who was the principal general that saved the nation, who then as president took his oath of office completely seriously and tried to enforce the Reconstruction amendments,” said state Historical Commission President Jack Dempsey, a lawyer in Ann Arbor.
“He’s a quintessential American story, someone who went from anonymity to the highest office in the land and symbolizes that Midwestern ethic of not trying to boast but just trying to do the right thing, the good thing, and against all odds was quite successful,” Dempsey said.
Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center in Lansing, said “The potential for it being bulldozed today is very slim, but we have a lot of work to do to figure out the best place to put it.”
Grant, then an Army lieutenant, and his wife Julia occupied the wood-frame house from April 1849 to May 1850.
Before Julia arrived in Detroit, Grant wrote her about the “nice upstairs and a garden filled with the best kind of fruit, currents and plum and peach trees.”
He gave her a heads-up about life in the largest city – population 21,000 – in what was then Michigan Territory: “I find Detroit very dull as yet but I hope it will appear better when I get better acquainted and you know, dearest, without you no place, or home, can be very pleasant to me.”
Dempsey noted, however, that Grant’s correspondence while living in Detroit showed a fondness for the city.
Julia Grant described a “sweet, pretty house, very snug and convenient,” with “two sitting rooms, dining room, bedroom and kitchen” on the first floor. The kitchen was “so convenient for me to make my culinary experiments,” she said, according to a 2004 article in the Grant Network Newsletter.
There was a carriage house and stable for her husband’s “pretty, fleet, little mare. An arbor supplied “not only grapes enough for ourselves, but plenty for all our army friends,” wrote Julia, who left Detroit to have their first son at her family home in St. Louis.
Clark said, “It’s a nice, representative, middle-class pre-Civil War house. Not a lot of those have survived in Detroit.”
As decades passed, the house frequently changed owners, and it was moved from its original East Fort Street location to the State Fairgrounds. In 1958, it was moved to another part of the fairgrounds, where it stands unused.
A 2012 law transferred the fairgrounds to the state Land Bank Fast Track Authority to return the land to “productive use,” and the authority issued a request for proposals for development of the property. The house is expected to stay at the fairgrounds for up to year, with the Authority providing maintenance and security.
The authority has agreed to help “with reasonable moving costs to preserve it,” Clark said, but there’s no definition yet of “reasonable,” no final site and no realistic public estimate of the cost of site preparation, stabilization and the move.
Meanwhile, negotiations are underway to relocate it it to the Detroit Edison Public School Academy east of Eastern Market, said Jill Robinson, the land bank’s project manager.
“We’ll cover the cost to move it,” Robinson said, and private funds will be raised for restoration.
And Dempsey said funding wouldn’t come from tax dollars. “We feel real confident that when people understand this story, this house, its significance, there will be support for it.”
Clerk said the commission feels it should be a public space “where people think about history and its connection to Detroit today. We need a place to tell the Grant story and his connection with Detroit, but there are other interesting stories we can tell.”
One story is about Grant as a Reconstruction-Era president from the Radical Republican wing of his party and his efforts on behalf of the recently emancipated slaves. Detroit is an appropriate place for story, she said, because many fleeing slaves settled in the city or passed through on route to safe haven in Canada.
Another story is about Julia Grant and why the commission calls it the Ulysses S. and Julia D. Grant Home, Dempsey said. “She’s a full part of the story as well, the first First Lady to write her memoirs, a woman who grew up in a slaveholding home in Missouri who ends up being married to the man who helps militarily end slavery.”
As for Grant’s time in Detroit, he wrote in his autobiography that “two years were spent with but few important incidents,” and he recalled the 1851 election of Mayor Zachariah Chandler. Army officers in Detroit were allowed to vote, Grant wrote, but “I did not offer mine, however, as I did not wish to consider myself a citizen of Michigan.”
A new book, “Old Slow Town: Detroit during the Civil War,” (Wayne State University Press, $34.95) reveals conflict between the two men when Grant slipped in front of Chandler’s house, injured himself and sued the mayor.
At trial, a “feisty Chandler” taunted Grant: “If you soldiers would keep sober, perhaps you would not fall on people’s pavements and hurt your legs,” according to author Paul Taylor. Grant won the case.
“Neither held a grudge in the years to come,” Taylor wrote, and Chandler served in Grant’s cabinet as Secretary of the Interior.