426 Lafayette – The Early History
February 19, 2016
Some may have seen that I have recently been posting a lot of pictures of a home at 426 Lafayette. I have an opportunity to have an inside view of the transformation of a very old home with an extremely interesting past. I have spent a considerable about of time researching this home, its origins, its fall into disrepair, a tragic occurrence resulting in 2 deaths, and ultimately its rise back to a stately home as it was originally meant to be. Over the next few weeks, I will post several blogs about the history of this home and ultimately I will chronicle its rehab process as well. I hope you enjoy! The following is my best attempt to tell the story and history of the home located at 426 Lafayette.
From what I know, the property was built circa 1889. Grand Rapids tax rolls show that the lot was first owned by a Joshua Speed at the time the home was being built. I was unable to find any information or family record for Joshua Speed, but in 1901 the home was purchase by Charles Retting of the Retting & Sweet Furniture Manufacturer. According to records, Mr. Retting owned the home until circa 1911 when it was purchase by a Mr. Charles W Jennings. This is where our story will begin.
Charles W Jennings was born in Lockport N.Y. in 1853. When he was only 6 years old, his family moved to Cleveland. When Charles was young, he worked on the family farm. At the age of 13 years old, his family uprooted once again and moved to Buffalo, N.Y. At that time, Charles got his first job at a dry good merchant named Barnes & Bancroft. In 1872 when Mr. Jennings was just 19, he moved to Grand Rapids, MI and started a partnership with his two brothers in the perfume, extract, and toilette business. They named the business “Jennings Flavoring Extract Company”. The business grew quickly and was manufacturing perfume lines such as “Lady Alice”, “Dorthy Vernon”, and “Ma Jolie”. The products were made with such excellence and care that they were known as staples in refined homes throughout the USA.
In 1879, Mr. Jennings married Miss Sarah McConnell. Sarah was from a distinguished Grand Rapids family. She was also the granddaughter of the late Judge Mundy who was an affluent and influential member of the City of Grand Rapids at the time. Mrs. Sarah Jennings passed away only 10 years into their marriage in 1889. She was survived by her two children; Charles W Jennings Jr., and Lenington M. Jennings.
In 1892, Mr. Jennings married again. This time, he married Miss Irene Burt Hawley from his childhood town of Buffalo, N.Y. Miss Hawley’s father, Lucian Hawley, was a prominent citizen of New York holding a top position at the United State Internal Revenue Service under the Grant presidential administration. During the course of their marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Jennings had 3 daughters.
It is difficult to say exactly what may have attracted Mr. Jennings to the home at 426 Lafayette, but it would not be unfair to guess it was the location and prominence of the home. The location provided Mr. Jennings easy access to downtown Grand Rapids where his business and many other of his activities were centered. The home also boasted a stately exterior with a large front porch, and eye catching windows and elegant architecture. The interior provided plenty of space and rooms for entertaining guests and out of town business contacts. It also showcased beautiful ornate woodwork that was customary with large distinct homes of the era.
It is unclear as to why or when Mr. Jennings moved out and sold the home, but he passed away on January 10 1929 at a separate residence. After the home left the hands of the Jennings family, it becomes significantly more difficult to trace the ownership. While the details are sparse, we do know that at some point before 1960, the home was divided up into 4 apartment units. Around 1970, an additional unit was added for a total of 5 apartments in the home. During the 80’s and 90’s, the home fell into terrible disrepair. Sometime before 1960, the large beautiful porch which can be seen in the 1936 assessor’s picture was hidden with an enclosed porch. At the same time, the half-moon window at the peak of the home facing Lafayette, was covered up as well. In 1993, a city housing inspector found a total of 72 housing code violations that included bad wiring, broken toilets, as well as walls and floors that were in different stages of disrepair. In March of 1994, all repairs were reported as complete, but only a month later, the history of the home takes a very dark turn.
Part 2 coming soon…