It Symbolized an Immigrant's Success
This time of year, travelers on Division Street can once again see the large, elegant Queen Anne house at the corner of Lawrence and Division, which is shrouded in summer by the foliage of a substantial gingko tree. The intricately detailed house was built in 1890, when Division Street was still considered a very fashionable address. It was intended as an emblem of both the prosperity and the good taste of its owner, immigrant grocer David Rinsey.
Rinsey was a true American success story. Born in Baden, Germany, in 1838, he apprenticed to a baker in Switzerland before immigrating in 1854. As a sixteen-year-old indentured servant, he worked for seven years as a farmhand, earning only $50 his first year. He later clerked for a local grocery store and in 1867 was able to set himself up in the grocery and bakery business in partnership with 'another immigrant from Baden, Moses Seabolt. Rinsey & Seabolt—located on Washington Street where the Washington Street Station restaurant is today—was the largest grocery in town for over forty years. Rinsey also married, fathered six children, and became a director and stockholder of the Ann Arbor Savings Bank and a prominent member of the Ann Arbor Fruit and Vinegar Company.
In 1890, at the age of fifty-two, Rinsey purchased the estate of the venerable James Kingsley. He proceeded to move Judge Kingsley's house to the north end of the property (now 412 North Division) so that he could construct a new house at the highly visible corner of Lawrence.
The Rinseys, like many of Ann Arbor's German Catholics, preferred to live near St. Thomas Church two blocks away. But the new house was meant to be not only a convenient place to live but a statement that the Rinseys had arrived.
Most early American homes weren't really designed at all. Carpenters knew a few traditional layouts and chose one appropriate to the means of the owner. But in the mid-nineteenth century, as the nation grew richer and building materials more abundant and adaptable, building a home became an important personal statement. "Pattern books," showing many different designs, sold well all over the country. Many of these books began to exhort men of means to exhibit their noblest characteristics through their homes:
"A man's dwelling is not only an index of his wealth, but also of his character," asserted Sloan's Victorian Buildings in 1852. "The moment he begins to build, his tact for arrangement, his private feelings, the refinement of his tastes and the peculiarities of his judgment are all laid bare for public inspection and criticism. And the public makes free use of this prerogative."
The increasing distribution and diversity of these pattern books in subsequent decades raised the architectural pressures on newly wealthy men like Rinsey. At the same time, improvements in machinery allowing the mass production of building elements gave them more to work with. The ultimate result was the Queen Anne house: lavished with fancy wood trim inside and out, replete with gables, dormers, bay windows, and elaborate porches, all arrayed for the most picturesque effect.
Rinsey's version of this style was on the conservative end of the spectrum, more balanced than asymmetrical. His flashiest effects were fairly elaborate porch railings, a cutaway corner on the second floor—and the letter R proudly displayed in a special dormer facing Division Street.
The house had the desired effect. The 1891 Portrait and Biographical Atlas of Washtenaw County described it as "the latest style of architecture . . . of elegant construction ... the most perfect taste [having been] brought to bear in the finishing and furnishing." It added that "the success which has attended our subject is the more flattering as when coming to Ann Arbor he had but $5 in money."
Rinsey died in 1914. His wife, Jennett, lived in the house with her two unmarried daughters until her death in 1938. In 1915, her son, George, built his own house next door (406 North Division) in the much more restrained bungalow style. Today, the two houses provide an interesting comparison of the tastes of the 1890's with those of the World War I era.
After Jennett Rinsey's death, her two daughters converted the house into apartments, while continuing to live there themselves. The elaborate gingerbread porch was replaced by a porch with simpler lines, and the entrance was changed to the Lawrence Street side. The cutaway corner upstairs disappeared, and so did the R at some point. But a 1938 Ann Arbor News articlementions the retention of a cherry mantle from the Kingsley house and the preservation of oak woodwork that had been the first of its type used in Ann Arbor. Cherry and maple parquet floors, oak-paneled ceilings, wainscoting, and the lincrustra wall coverings (linoleum-like coverings designed to simulate embossed leather) in the hallways were all preserved, according to the article, along with delicately tiled fireplaces.
Today the house is owned by Ray Detter, whose mother, Helen Hooley, lives in an apartment that contains much of the fancy woodwork and the fireplaces. In 1990, the two were recognized by the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission for their preservation of the house and its interior details. That summer, Detter and Hooley celebrated the hundredth birthday of the house by throwing a birthday partv. They invited the neighborhood and celebrated with a cake baked in the shape of the house!
[Photo caption from original print edition]: The David Rinsey residence, c. 1910 and today. Wealthy Victorians were urged to make their homes personal statements: "A man's dwelling is not only an index of his wealth, but also of his character," Sloan's Victorian Buildings warned in 1852. More balanced than asymmetrical, Rinsey's design was actually toward the conservative end of the ornate Queen Anne spectrum.