Restoration of a Flint treasure nearly complete two years after fire

FLINT, Michigan—A miter saw whirrs and screams as executive director Daniel Conner, 27, surveys the progress in the Whaley Historic Home Museum. 

A fire in the roof as well as extensive smoke and water damage shuttered the Flint landmark two years ago today, on Nov. 30, 2015. R.J. Whaley and Mary McFarlan Whaley moved into the home in October 1886, the same year that Mr. Whaley as president of Citizen’s Bank would make a loan to the Flint Road Cart Company (which eventually led to the creation of General Motors in 1908), according to the Flint Genealogical Society. 

It remained home to the Whaley family and staff for generations, until it was converted to a women’s home after the death of Mary McFarlan Whaley in 1925. In 1975, when the construction of I-475 caused partial demolition of the McFarlan Home, a new facility was built next to the historic Whaley House.

Conner, who recently was named executive director by the Whaley Historical House Association, aims to reopen the home in March and resume its tradition of programming and events—and add a few new highlights. 

“I care about this city so much that it meant the world for me that I was able to serve it in this capacity, in helping this museum come back and celebrate Flint history,” Conner says.

Conner recalls visiting the house as a child and then more recently as a student volunteer while finishing his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan-Flint in history with a focus on public history. Now, he is the point person for the Whaley House, in charge of public programs, community outreach, funding, and general museum operations.

He remains optimistic about meeting the renovation timeline. Plaster in the home will take approximately a month to cure and the remainder is to be installed in early December. Then, painting and wallpapering will begin. Conner estimates that the furniture and artifacts will be returned to the home in late January to early February, providing time to get them set up and ready for the re-opening.

On the job today is Oxford resident Rob Smith, 43, who is cutting bead board destined for the walls on the third floor. An expert in detail trim work, Smith is one of a small crew working to reopen the storied home. 

His career has mainly focused on custom frames and shelving requiring significant detail. Not having worked on a large amount of restoration, he “loves the challenge” that the restorative process provides. He has been working mainly on the finish carpentry, trimming windows, stairways and walls in preparation for the reopening.

The third floor had been used for artifact storage. The majority of the important and valuable artifacts were on the opposite side of the house from the fire and they were quickly removed and relocated to facilities where the artifacts could be restored and conserved.

After a yearlong legal purgatory, the Whaley House was awarded a $1.8 million settlement for restoration. Restoration began in spring 2017 with additional help coming in from multiple grants and fundraisers. 

“We have had great feedback from the community,” Conner says. “They have really gathered around us these past two years.”