Williamston Historic District recognized on national register

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By Stephen Brooks
Williamston Post staff writer

Williamston’s Downtown Historic District joined the exclusive company of national landmarks such as the Michigan State Capitol and Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb by being named to the National Register of Historic Places this year.

The district starts after the D&W store, 151 W Grand River Ave., on the east side and City Hall on the west and cuts off at Middle Street on the south. It was one of seven properties or districts in the state added to the national register in the first round of listings in 2013.

Michigan has more than 1,600 listings in the National Register of Historic Places, according to a press release from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

Mayor Jim DeForest said the effort was a multi-year project handled by the city’s Downtown Development Authority, or DDA.

“I must say that I’m pleased and proud that Williamston’s historic downtown buildings have been officially recognized,” DeForest said.

DDA Chair Barb Vandenberg said the application process was contracted out to Williamston High School history teacher Mitch Lutzke. Soon, the buildings within the district will be outfitted with plaques designating them as historic buildings, she said.

The city seriously dove into the process when a local business representative approached it urging to pursue the designations for the special tax breaks that come with them.

“When you get a historic district designation, it allows historic buildings within your community to receive certain tax credits through the state,” Vandenberg said.

View JRN 300 Historic District in a larger map

Lutzke, who has taught at WHS for 17 years, was originally told he would be able to coordinate a small committee of volunteers and people willing to help the process. It turned out that nobody was willing to put in the effort or they were not properly informed, he said, and he ended up doing the entire thing almost single-handedly.

“To be honest with you, if I knew how hard it was I would have said no,” Lutzke said. “It was a completely exhausting process. … It was really hard to do.”

What Lutzke originally planned to get done in the summer ended up taking more than a year because of slow responses from the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, which could take weeks to review submitted materials, he said. Lutzke estimated that he spent hundreds of hours scouring old books, photographs and newspaper archives. Material submitted to the state had to constantly be refined and re-submitted.

“I had to take hundreds of photos downtown,” Lutzke said. “Buildings I had to research each of them downtown. … Then I had to write about the downtown history as a community. I had to write about Williamston in general. … I submitted old maps and probably about 40 pages of documentation to the state of Michigan.”

Lutzke, who said he received limited assistance on a volunteer basis, it’s an accomplishment that he’s proud of the effort and something he’s glad the city can enjoy.

There is a ribbon-cutting ceremony to recognize the district’s listing scheduled for June 22 at 4 p.m. Vandenberg said.

“It’s a small community so you know lots of people,” Lutzke said. “They just kind of talk to you (about) how it’s a really big deal, because it’s national so it’s a big deal. … It’s no joke.”

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