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The Lay House

The Lay House image The Lay House image
Peg Porter
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

In August of 1965, one of the grandest Ypsilanti area homes was scheduled for demolition. The house was also one of the oldest. It was constructed when Michigan was still a Territory. Based on a mortgage date and information about the owner, it is estimated that the house was built by Ezra D. Lay in 1833, making it older than the Ladies Literary Clubhouse which was constructed about 10 years later. The original location of the house was Section 2, Ypsilanti Township, Michigan which later became 1701 East Michigan Avenue, Ypsilanti Township. Emil Lorch, Dean of the School of Architecture, University of Michigan, described this house as an important example of Greek Revival Architecture much as he identified the now Ladies Literary Clubhouse. One wonders if the same builder is responsible for both houses. The house was owned by Ezra D. Lay, born in 1807, Saybrook, Connecticut. While he was still a child, Ezra's family moved to New York where he was educated and learned the cooper's (barrel making) trade. He arrived in the Michigan Territory in 1832 where he purchased 160 acres of land on what was then known as the Ypsilanti Plain. He had brought with him apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries and grapes. In addition to the fruit he transported shrubbery. He added a greenhouse to his property, the first in Michigan. His brother, Z.K. Lay, also came from New York. The two brothers planted 25,000 fruit trees on the acreage Ezra purchased. As a result, the History of Washtenaw County cites the Lay operation as the first business in the Michigan Territory. With his business established and his home under construction, Ezra married Malinda Kinne of Monroe County, New York. The couple had three children, two boys and a girl. The youngest son never married, lived at home and helped care for his parents as they got older. Ezra Lay was active in local and state affairs. He was the President of the Pioneer Society of Washtenaw County where he encouraged the compilation of the early history of the area. He also served as a Representative in the State Legislature. In later years, Lay became a general farmer. He died at home on April 28, 1890. His funeral was conducted at his residence. During the following years the house became run down. Then in 1916, Charles Vapor purchased the house for use as summer residence. Vapor was a Detroit attorney and part-owner of a large produce concern and importer of vegetables and foodstuffs. He did much to restore the house to its previous state. He also removed all the old flooring, replacing it with oak floors throughout. He and his wife entertained regularly and lavishly. Vapor created a wine cellar and personally selected the wine for their many dinner parties. Vapor enjoyed treating his guests to out-of-season fruits. He hung large bunches of bananas in the basement to ripen. As part of their improvements, however, they had covered up four fireplaces. They modernized the kitchen installing one of the first dishwashers and two electric stoves. Vapor converted part of the back wing into a garage. During the Vapor's ownership, the house had five main bedrooms, including the master with a dressing room, three sleeping rooms for maids and a bathroom. On the main level there was, in addition to the kitchen, a drawing room, dining room, library and breakfast room. There was a laundry and two additional bathrooms. Sometime in the late 1920's or early 1930's the Vapors no longer owned the house. It seems probable that the Great Depression played a part in this change. The next owners of record, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Howard of Belleville, may have been responsible for turning some of the rooms into apartments. The Howards discovered a brick wall inside the wooden exterior. They also noted "ADZ" markings on the beams indicating the use of hand-hewn timber. Mrs. Howard recalled that a workman told her the house had been a "blind pig" during the Depression. Whether this is true and whether the Vapors were involved would make for an interesting research project. Flash forward to the summer of 1965. Now the owners were Don Porter, my father, and Clyde Budd. They had been looking for property zoned for commercial use on East Michigan or Washtenaw. I told my father that I thought Washtenaw would be a better investment. Pretty bold of his twenty-something year old daughter who had no experience in real estate. He replied that there was little property available and it was very expensive. So they opted for the East Michigan site which came fairly cheaply as the new owners would be responsible for demolishing the house. They had no desire for demolition as it is very expensive and were anxious that the house be preserved. They had to act quickly to save the structure. It was first offered to the Ypsilanti Historical Society. The asking price was $1.00. The newly formed Society had no funds nor had it property on which to locate the house. The offer was declined. However, Charles Hagler and his wife, both avid local historians and preservationists made an offer on the house. It was accepted. They then went through a number of challenges in moving a house this size and of this age. Charles Hagler was President of the Detroit Historical Commission and Vice President of the Michigan Historical Society. His wife, Katherine, was curator of furniture at the Henry Ford Museum. It was fortunate that buyers were found with the resources, interest and knowledge to undertake this major restoration. For transporting purposes the house was divided into two sections. The destination was 3401 Berry Road in Superior Township. All obstacles were overcome and the house was moved. The Haglers renovated it to "its glory days." Thus, a happy ending for the structure. Not so for the property. Finding a buyer proved to be difficult. With the building of I-94 most of the traffic that had traveled Michigan Avenue to Detroit now moved to the Expressway. Finally a man who wanted to locate a used car lot on East Michigan approached the sellers. He did not have sufficient funds to make a down payment. The sellers and buyer settled on a Land Contract, an often risky move. The sellers maintained title to the property while the buyer made regular payments toward the agreed upon price. At first things seemed to be going well and then there were missed payments. The buyer was given a second and then a third chance to repay what he owed. Eventually the buyer filed for bankruptcy. Clyde Budd, my father's business partner became very ill and died in November, 1973. My father's attorney failed to file paperwork in the bankruptcy proceeding thereby leaving him without an opportunity to recoup any of funds in the contract. It was a stressful time for our family, especially for my father. The "East Michigan property" represented failure due to misplaced trust. Looking back, the investment was a poor one. On the other hand, the house was saved from demolition. As a result I see my father as having had an important role in preserving a building that was, and is, historically significant. (Primary sources: The Ypsilanti Press, August 9, 1965: Eileen Harrison, Old Pioneer Home Facing Removal After Colorful Past; History of Washtenaw County; U.S. Census; Gleanings, October, 1979; and personal recollections and notes.) (Peg Porter is the Assistant Editor of the Gleanings and a regular contributor to the publication.)

Photo Captions: Photo 1: The Ezra D. Lay house was built in 1833 in Section 2 of Ypsilanti Township which later became 1701 East Michigan Avenue, Ypsilanti Township.

Photo 2: Ezra D. Lay arrived in the Michigan Territory in 1832 where he purchased 160 acres of land on what was then known as the Ypsilanti Plain.

Photo 3: In 1965 the Lay house was divided into two sections and moved to 3401 Berry Road in Superior Township.

Photo 4: Map showing the two locations for the Ezra D. Lay house.