The Fountain-Bessac House

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 2000,
Summer 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

Architectural one-upmanship in Manchester

The Fountain-Bessac house, the majestic residence just west of Manchester's main shopping block at 102 West Main, is a monument to the rivalry between two of the town's earliest leaders.

According to Annetta English, a chronicler of Manchester from the 1930s, rich mill owner Jabez Fountain (1819-1901) built the home's Greek Revival first floor about 1842. Fountain's ambition, English wrote, was to outshine the nearby residence of John Kief, Manchester's first banker.

Kief's home was behind Fountain's, across the street on Madison. "It stands on a rise of ground, with ample grounds around it, and fine old trees, and an exquisite view is afforded to the west and to the north," wrote English. At the time English wrote, the house was still occupied by a Kief descendant and filled with fine old furniture.

The Fountain house was built, and no doubt also designed, by William Carr, who constructed many of Manchester's early houses and commercial buildings. Carr probably used Asher Benjamin's 1830 pattern book The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter. Katherine McKibben, present owner of the house, has noticed in a reprint of Benjamin's book that two of her fireplaces exactly match Benjamin's suggested designs. Although originally just one story high, the Greek Revival design still must have looked impressive, standing back on a deep lot with six Ionic columns across the front. Old photos show a majestic horse chestnut on the front lawn and vines growing up the columns.

In 1850 Fountain sold the house to Dr. William Bessac and moved to an even grander home on the comer of City Road and Furnace. Bessac (1809-1885) added a smaller second floor topped by a third- floor cupola, both designed in the then fashionable Italianate style. The pyramidal outline he created led some to compare the home to a wedding cake or Chinese lantern. Bessac's family moved upstairs, while the first floor became his medical examining rooms and drug dispensary.

According to Bessac's obituary, "He prided himself in mastering not only the principles of science but the minute details of the practice, and a faithfulness in remembering names and faces followed him to his latest days." But his medical practice evidently was insufficient to support his family, because Bessac also ran a general store on the south side of the commercial block, selling drugs, groceries, and dry goods.

The house was threatened but not destroyed by a fire in 1853 that leveled much of downtown Manchester. The fire began at the mill and was spread by the wind to the north side of the main shopping block, where it burned all the wooden buildings in its path until it reached the hotel across the street from the Fountain-Bessac house. The hotel's barn burned, but the people fighting the fire were able to bring it under control before it went farther.

Interestingly, Bessac himself was not home at the time, because he was on a shopping trip with his neighbor—Fountain's old rival, John Kief. An account of the fire reported that "Doctor Bessac and John D. Kief were in the East, purchasing new goods for their stores."

After Bessac's death, the home passed to his daughter, Mary, and her husband, George Haeussler. A pharmacist, George bought the Van Dyne and Calhoun drugstore in 1876. The Haeusslers had one son, Raynor, who followed his father into the business. (After passing through several subsequent owners, their store is now the Manchester Pharmacy.) Raynor married Marjorie Kingsley, and the young couple built a Colonial Revival home behind his parents' house. Mary Haeussler continued to live in the big house after her husband's death, but when climbing stairs became difficult, Raynor and Marjorie added a first-floor bedroom to her house and brought meals over to her every day.

In 1947, after Mary Haeussler had died and the house had been either vacant or rented for some years, Raynor Haeussler sold it to Mary and Tom Walton. A young couple recently married, they had moved to Manchester to be near the onion and potato farm that Tom's family owned. Tom worked on the farm but lived in town. They rented an apartment until, as Mary remembers it, "One day I went in the drugstore, and someone said, 'Why don't you buy the place on the corner? It's run down and no one's living in it.'" The house was over 100 years old and was falling apart when the Waltons moved in. "There was old plumbing, an old steam furnace," recalls Mary Walton. "It was rough."

To restore the house, the Waltons were fortunate to have the help of Emit Lorch, retired dean of the University of Michigan architecture school. Lorch had become acquainted with the house in the 1930s when he headed the Historic American Building Survey Project in Michigan; at that time, the house had been entered in the secretary of the interior's list of important historic structures. The Waltons met Lorch when he asked to include the house in a tour for the Washtenaw County Historical Society.

The Waltons worked with Lorch and an architecture student to create a plan to modernize the house while keeping all the historic features. The Waltons lived in a trailer in the street for the first year of the three-year project. "We were young and could do those things," recalls Mary Walton. They removed the tacked-on first floor bedroom and the back kitchen wing, which they replaced with a breezeway and two-car garage. Inside, they opened up the downstairs—still divided into tiny rooms from Dr. Bessac's time—and relocated the staircase to the center of the house. Outside, they replaced the front columns, which were falling apart, with exact copies. As Lorch explained in a letter to the Waltons, the columns "are the chief features of the front and like our Sunday clothes need to be 'according to Hoyle,' as they say."

The Waltons lived in the house forty-seven years, raising two children and playing an active role in the community, especially in their church and the historical society. Tom served on the village council. Their large, beautifully landscaped front lawn, located so near downtown, was a convenient as well as gracious place to hold community events. By 1988 the home was listed on both the state and national registers of historic places.

Katherine McKibben bought the house from the Waltons in 1990. She has made changes but has been careful, as the Waltons were, to keep its historic character intact. She divided the living room in two and opened up the kitchen to include the space where the Waltons had an office. A portrait of Dr. Bessac hangs in a place of honor in the dining room. The painting had belonged to Raynor Haeussler, Bessac's grandson. Raynor and Marjorie had no children; after they died, their heirs gave the picture to the Waltons. They in turn gave it to McKibben, feeling that it should stay in the house.

In the "contest" that inspired the house, Fountain wins hands down—at least if one considers the test of time. Kief's house, while still standing, had its top floor removed in 1950, and most of its old features are now hidden; one can hardly guess its age or former elegance. Meanwhile, the Fountain-Bessac house is the one that everyone who comes to town notices and admires.

—Grace Shackman