Rescued from the Scrap Heap

Published In:
Community Observer, Fall 2003,
Fall 2003

Author: Grace Shackman

New owners are restoring the digs of Chelsea's most notorious figure—and villagers are pitching in.

For almost a century after Frank Glazier left Chelsea in 1910 to serve a term in Jackson State Prison, his huge house at 208 South Street went downhill. Despite Glazier's notoriety in local history, Chelsea residents did nothing to save it beyond occasional complaining.

Last January Todd and Janice Ortbring bought the twenty-one-room mansion, complete with tower, despite an eleven-page inspection report that mentioned termites, foundation cracks, and faulty wiring, among other problems. "We're probably crazy for doing it," says Todd Ortbring. "But we saw the opportunity to save a house that needed saving pretty darn quick." A lifelong resident of Chelsea, Ortbring appreciated Glazier's importance. His great-grandfather played in Glazier's band, and his grandfather owned the drugstore that Glazier had inherited from his father.

Glazier is without doubt the most important person in Chelsea's history after the founding Congdon brothers. In 1895 he started a company that manufactured cooking and heating stoves, and he was soon selling stoves worldwide. A civic leader, Glazier benefited Chelsea in countless ways—bringing electricity and water to town, providing jobs, and erecting landmark buildings that still define Chelsea, including the Clock Tower, the Welfare Building, the Methodist church, and a bank that is now 14A District Court. He was also a leader in state and local politics; in 1906 he was elected state treasurer and was being mentioned as a possible governor.

But at this peak of his prominence, his financial shenanigans were exposed: putting state money in his own bank, and taking out separate loans from banks all over the state using identical collateral from his stove company. Forced to resign as treasurer, Glazier spent two years in Jackson Prison before his sentence was reduce for good behavior. He spent the last ten years of his life at his cottage on Cavanaugh Lake.

Even today, reactions to Glazier are mixed. Some condemn him. Others excuse him by saying that what he did was common practice in those days and that he was being squeezed by the nationwide financial panic of 1907.

Glazier's house was divided into four apartments. For a long time it still looked beautiful from the outside; in the 1970s, however, an owner put up an ugly concrete-block addition for a fifth apartment, totally obscuring the elegant wraparound porch held up by fluted pillars.

The Ortbrings aim to make the house a single-family home again. Years of use as apartments obscured its original functions; it now appears that the house is actually two houses pushed together. The Ortbrings found a treasure trove of elements in a basement room—front porch columns, wooden doors with metal hardware, leaded glass windows, banisters, wooden benches, and two boxes of wooden pieces for the disassembled parquet floor—that are all elements of the puzzle.

Exactly when Glazier built his house is not clear. In 1895 a photo of it as a smaller house without a tower appeared in the Chelsea Headlight, a publication of the Michigan Central Railroad. Graffiti in the tower, written by Glazier's daughter Dorothy, are dated 1899. Ortbring believes the front was added to the back, but others say the back, the tower, and the front porch might have been the additions.

The Ortbrings have assembled a group of experts to help them, such as builder Bob Chizek and Chelsea architect Scott McElrath. Their strategy is to first replace the roof and paint the exterior. They plan to attack the inside apartment by apartment. The Ortbrings are living in the second-floor rear apartment and renting out three units while working on the apartment below them, which contains the original dining room. Taking off paneling and dropped ceilings, they found pocket doors, parquet floors, ceiling moldings, and a fireplace.

Restoring a house is almost like living with an original tenant. Todd Ortbring pictures the dining room as it was in Glazier's time. "Glazier was a man who liked to eat," he says. "The dining room would have been the most important room in the house, the site of many parties." Ortbring also imagines many meetings of civic and business leaders there. "They'd close the doors, smoke cigars, eat, and plot."

The Ortbrings hope to be done with their restoration by the time their sons, eight-year-old Blake and seven-year-old Grant, graduate from high school. They haven't ruled out someday turning it into a bed-and-breakfast or renting out a part of it.

Lots of Chelsea residents have offered to help in various ways, with information, labor, and even money. Recently the Ortbrings hosted a community open house. The huge turnout on a rainy day suggests that the people of Chelsea are prepared to forgive, or at least forget, Frank Glazier's misdeeds and celebrate all that he brought to the village.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Todd and Janice Ortbring, with builder Bob Chizek (right), are restoring the Glazier home, which has changed a lot since 1895.