Couple breathing new life into the former Greenaway-Ballard Mansion in Howell
Cristy Mazaris and Michael Pack in The Iron Victorian. (Photo courtesy of The Iron Victorian Facebook page)
Step back in time
Designed by architects from Grand Rapids, the house at 1015 N. Michigan Ave. in Howell was built about 1880 for George Greenaway, according to research by Lauren Gamble of the Howell Area Archives. Originally, it was red-and-yellow brick with two piazzas attached. In the 1950s, the brick was painted and the piazzas removed and redesigned.
Greenaway, a blacksmith, came to Howell in the mid-1840s from England. While he lived near where the Howell Carnegie District Library is now located, he opened a dry-goods store at the corner of Michigan and Grand River avenues, where the Uptown Coffeehouse is today. His name in engraved at the top of the building.
Eventually, he purchased 3-½ acres (which later grew to 10 acres) on Michigan Avenue that he farmed, and sometime around 1880, he began building his dream home there. The house included space for his family and servants, as well as a large office with a separate entrance for himself. A large carriage house provided plenty of space for multiple horse-and-buggies.
In 1952, the property was split into 17 lots, including the one the home currently sits on, and the contents of the house were sold at auction.
Greenaway left the home to his third wife when he died in 1892. She left the house to their youngest daughter, Emma, who left her signature in the attic.
Emma, who had married Frederick Ballard at the Howell mansion, lived in New York, but her family spent summers in Howell.
Their three children — Laverna, Merlin (Jack) and Geraldine — were vaudeville performers. Merlin and his wife were known as Ballard and Rae. Current owners of the house, Michael Pack and Cristy Mazaris, were gifted a poster showcasing the comedic acrobatic act. Mazaris said it will hang somewhere in the home.
Despite the grandeur of the Italianate Villa — with its 11-foot ceilings, elegant hardware and massive doors that make visitors feel small next to such grandness — George Greenaway didn’t believe in wasting money. In his will, he condemns his son who inherited his blacksmith business for his “extravagance in continually riding the railroad and boarding at hotels (which) have been extremely annoying to me.”
This appeared in the “Local Laconics” section on the front page of the Thursday, Jan. 20, 1887, edition of The Livingston Republican.
Story and photos by Candy Spiegel
Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, too. Especially if you’re Michael Pack and Cristy Mazaris.
On Aug. 25, 2018, the Sylvan Lake couple made a trip to Howell to pick up a birthday cake for Pack’s brother. On the way out of town, they spotted an Italianate home on Michigan Avenue for sale and they fell in love, despite the work they knew an old house of this magnitude would require.
“We both grew up in old houses,” Pack said. “That didn’t freak us out.”
“That was part of the draw,” Mazaris added.
They returned to the house, walked the property and peeked in windows.
Then, they contacted the Realtor so they could see the inside.
Mazaris explained how nervous they were to tour the house; after all, it was a big Victorian mansion that had sat vacant for 10 years, and it was storming the day they were to visit.
“We’re both the biggest chickens,” she said with a grin. “But the house had a warm feeling. It was cheerful in here even during a thunderstorm.”
That was when they knew that this 1880s Italianate Villa was their dream home.
“We weren’t looking for anything,” Pack said. “We were just picking up a birthday cake.”
The couple was considering purchasing a house to flip, but this home was definitely not it. Although the couple share a love of antiques and old houses, their style was more funky farmhouse than formal Victorian. Even so, a month after they first saw the house, they held the keys in their hands.
“It actually happened pretty quickly,” Pack said.
Surrounded by ornate medallions, chandeliers and plaster moldings, they are finding themselves embracing the formality and intricacy of the Victorian era.
Although they haven’t yet moved into the house, they’ve been working tirelessly on it since taking ownership in September. Pack, who has “been into interior design forever,” works on the house full-time; he’s also started his own design company, named The Iron Victorian after the house. Mazaris, who is in the medical device business, works on the house whenever she can.
So far, the couple has completed the kitchen and downstairs bathroom.
They plan to move in as soon as they can: Once they finish the main staircase floors and one of the parlors, they plan to move in and work on the rest of the rooms. They don’t mind living in a bit of a construction zone, but Pack said it’s important to be able to walk around in your socks, without worrying about stepping on a staple.
The couple has already met the neighbors, who “are just incredible people,” Mazaris said.
Other residents have welcomed them with open arms, bringing them cookies and Christmas presents and sharing their memories of the house. Former owner John Mullaney gave them several artifacts, including original blueprints, photos of former owners, and a plaque designating the house as historically significant in Howell.
The house, which was built about 1880, appears to be well maintained throughout the years. The kitchen and bathrooms, of course, are not original, and there is some evidence of a wall or two being moved, but most of the architectural features of the house have been preserved.
Pack said the electrical and HVAC systems were updated by previous owners. They used the chimney to run electrical wires so they wouldn’t damage the plaster walls. At that time, they also converted the fireplace to gas, but kept everything else intact. The plumbing is a mix of eras, and Pack is replacing it as he goes.
Much of the wallpaper in the house is damaged and needs to be removed and there are a few ceilings that need to be repaired. There are also a few places where the plaster molding has been damaged. Pack plans to learn how to fix them himself — he found the original tools for shaping and designing the plaster in the carriage house.
The floors, with the exception of the dining room, are in rough shape; layers of tiles, carpet, staples, adhesive and leveling compound need to be removed before they can be refinished.
“Pulling staples out of the floor in the kitchen, and restoring floors in general,” is Pack’s biggest challenge. It’s hard work and sometimes requires hours with a heat gun and lots of scraping to reveal a small piece of flooring.
“But we still like doing it,” Mazaris said.
“Both of our parents are helping a lot,” Pack added. “Even though we do it ourselves, we have a lot of help. Our family is just as invested as we are.”
While most of the floor plan of the house is original, “the kitchen, pantries and back service rooms have been re-floored and changed extensively,” reported a 1966 thesis on the house submitted to Michigan State University for a master of arts degree.
Mazaris and Pack could easily see some of the changes in the main-floor bathroom. It originally had a backdoor and was some sort of hallway at one time. They gutted the room, exposed some of the original brickwork and added a few period-appropriate antiques.
The meaning of the word, “restoration,” varies widely these days, meaning to return to original condition or keep the outside style, but gut the inside, and everything in between. Pack and Mazaris lean closer to the traditional meaning of the word.
“We want to put it back as original as possible, keeping in mind that we have to live here forever,” Mazaris said. “We are keeping true to our style and what we like because we’re the ones who have to look at it every day.”
Both Pack and Mazaris love antiques and vintage items and leave most of the original finishes alone. Shutters and doors painted by previous owners, for instance, will be left as is for now. The kitchen floor, badly damaged by floorings placed on top of it, was cleaned the best that it could be and then received a protective coating. The couple like the show of wear and history that remain on the floor.
They have also repurposed or reinstalled (or plan to) many of the items that were removed from the house and left in the attic, basement or carriage house. The bathroom lights, for example, used to be on the outside of the house, and the marble vanity was found and reinstalled in the bathroom. Old hardware found in the carriage house was also added to a kitchen cabinet.
Shiny and new is simply not part of the couple’s style.
Where original elements were missing, they have improvised to make them appear old and blend with the house.
For example, the plywood floors in the back of the house were replaced with pine boards similar to those found on the rest of the floors. They were stained and painted to look like they had always been there.
The second-floor bathroom, originally probably a bedroom, appears to have gone through many changes over the years. While the couple is in the process of gutting it, they hope to salvage enough flooring to better repair a spot in the hall. And, repurposed marble-and-slate flooring from a Detroit building will be placed in the bathroom, instead. The tile matches the finishes on the parlor fireplace.
Upstairs, there is a wall in the master bedroom and bath that is obviously not original. Another wall between two bedrooms in the servant’s area of the house is also drywall, not plaster. The couple plans to remove those two walls, making one bedroom larger and adding a larger master closet and bath. Other than that, the original walls will all remain in place.
One of the most interesting architectural features on the house, inside and out, is the cupola. Reached from the extensive attic, the wooden structure is about 11 feet tall, with shuttered windows on all four sides that match the rest of the house. A ladder leads to the tower on top, which exhibits four round, red, glass windows. Originally, iron grillwork and a weathervane topped the tower, according the 1966 thesis.
While offering spectacular views, the cupola also serves as a time capsule. Visitors to the home over the centuries have added their signatures to the walls and woodwork around the windows. There are also messages to friends, celebrations of graduations, and records of updates to the house recorded on the walls.
So far, other than a visit from a bat and an electrical short that caused the furnace to go out twice during the winter, the couple has not encountered anything they did not expect in the house. Pack, with occasional assistance from family, can fix and restore almost anything and is always willing to learn what he doesn’t already know.
“My dad and I are pretty good,” he said. “I’m not worried about it.”
The couple has named the Greenaway-Ballard Mansion the Iron Victorian, chosen to honor the original owner, blacksmith George Greenaway, and “embodying the strength and beauty it holds,” they explained on their Facebook page.
To learn more about the Iron Victorian and to see photos of the completed kitchen and bathroom, visit them on Facebook at The Iron Victorian.
(Joyce Fisher of the Howell Area Archives provided historical research documentation for this article.)