The Calico Cat

Published In:
Community Observer, 1997,
1997

Author: Grace Shackman

From Methodist church to Saline gift shop

A gift shop and a place of worship may seem to be totally opposite functions for a building. Yet the Calico Cat, located in Saline's former Methodist church, manages to an amazing extent to incorporate the church's atmosphere into a retail establishment. Light streams in through the stained glass windows, the original woodwork and sconces are found throughout, display shelves are made from the wood of old pocket doors and railings, and owner Marcia Duncan's office is in the mezzanine that once held the organ pipes.

The Calico Cat building was actually the fourth church built by the Saline Methodists, who trace their roots back to 1833. Their first two churches did not fare well. The original log structure on the corner of Henry and Lewis, built on land donated by Saline's founder, Orange Risdon, was hit by lightning during a service. Two parishioners were killed, and the church burned to the ground. The second church was built with ill-fired bricks that crumbled so badly it was called the "old mud church." After nine years, the members decided it was unsafe and had it torn down. Finally, in 1858, local carpenter Edwin Ford, who also built churches in Mooreville and Dixboro, built the Methodists a church on Ann Arbor Street just south of Michigan Avenue. This church, a white New England-style edifice with a tall spire, served the congregation until they outgrew it at the end of the century.

On June 13,1899, the Methodists laid the cornerstone for their fourth church on the same site. The congregation met in the opera house next door while the new building, designed by dark and Munger of Bay City, was under construction. The church was completed in November. Not even standing room remained for the first service.

William Davenport, the Saline banker who headed the building committee, lured organist Fannie Unterkircher from the Presbyterian church by offering to buy a new organ. The two went into Detroit, where Davenport bought a Vocalion for $1,200. Unterkircher served as the church's organist and choir director for the next thirty-four years.

Hollis Carr, in a paper presented to the church in 1988, remembered the organ, which had to be pumped by hand: "There was a large screen to the right of the organ behind which the man sat who did the pumping. During his idle moments he would peek around the edge of the screen, and other children and I in the pews would squirm to the outer end of the pews to get a glimpse of him." In 1929 the organ was replaced with a more modem, electric-powered one.

Carr's wife, Virginia, who joined the church in 1938 as a young bride and later became the church secretary, fondly remembered the study group she and Hollis were in with other young married couples. The group held monthly potlucks, she recalled in the paper, and one time there were six pots of baked beans and one cake. "We always closed the gathering by forming a circle, joining hands and singing 'Blest Be the Tie That Binds,'" she wrote. "To this day whenever I hear the hymn, I can close my eyes and see the group standing in a circle, most of whom are no longer with us except in memory."

When Virginia Carr joined the congregation, the church "was less than forty years old, but it appeared like an old church to me, and quite small." The congregation fought the space problem for the next fifty-some years, digging out more of the basement in 1949 and adding an education-fellowship hall in 1975. In the mid-1980s, the space crisis was again debated. Although some argued that the old church could be modernized and the overcrowding problem solved by holding two worship services, the majority opted to move. In 1990 the congregation took the church's 1,500-pound bell and two of the stained glass windows—the most religious ones, which wouldn't be appropriate in a building with a secular use—to a new building on the corner of Ann Arbor Street and Woodland Drive.

The city of Saline purchased the old church, planning to use it as a court facility. But the voters turned down a bond issue, and the city had to sell the building. Marcia Duncan, who had been in the gift shop business for fifteen years, saw the possibilities in the building and moved the Calico Cat there from its previous location on Michigan Avenue. Her family teases her about saying in the beginning that the place "just needs a little touch-up." Instead, renovation took nine months: solving a water problem in the basement, bracing the walls, tuck-pointing the brick, putting new floors in the basement and first level (where the floor slanted down to the altar), and installing new furnaces, wiring, air conditioning, and drywall.

"She kept the best parts," church historian Jack Livingstone says. "Someone familiar with the old church can walk in and recognize it."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: The 1899 church served Saline's Methodists well for ninety-one years.