426 Lafayette – Tragedy and Rebuilding
March 4, 2016
As mentioned in my last post, the history of 426 Lafayette takes a dark turn after being split into a multi-family home. This post has been excruciatingly hard to write. I want to accurately depict the tragedy that occurred- but be sure to respect the victims and those so tragically affected. The story I am about to tell is heart breaking. I debated for a long time whether to include this story or not, but felt it best to include as I find it to be an important part of the homes history.
April 28 1994 was a blustery overcast day in Grand Rapids that started not unlike any other. The property at 426 Lafayette had been divided up into a total of 5 small apartments at this point and had a history of poor repair. Only a year ago, a city housing inspector discovered a total of 72 housing code violations. These violations included poor wiring, broken down toilets, as well as walls and floors in complete disrepair. The owner of the home at the time, Thomas Gill had recently spent significant time and money repairing these housing code violations and doing general updates to the home. Several repairs had been done, and new “hard-wired” smoke detectors had been installed to meet new housing code requirements. Despite all of this, the property was still far from its original condition, and the area on Lafayette was not the stately neighborhood it once was (or is today).
Four out of the five units were occupied by relatives of the Libbett family. Most of the family was gone staying with nearby friends that day with the exception of Rae Libbett and her 3 children Jessica Libbett, 6, Javon Libbett, 4, and Tiarria Moffett, 2. Ms. Libbett left her home that afternoon shortly to run to the corner store. Thinking it was just a quick trip, she left her children alone and locked the back door. It was not uncommon for Ms. Libbett to turn her stove on for heat on cold days like it was on that afternoon. She claimed that her heater did not work well, despite there being no reports of it from the most recent housing inspection. This time however, that decision turned out to be fatal. Upon returning home Ms. Libbett found smoke rising from the structure, and the home engulfed in flames. As she got closer, her worst fears were confirmed. The fire appeared to have started in her unit where her children were. Fire investigators later found out that the stove that was left on has started an upholstered chair on fire, and that fire quickly spread through the home. Ms. Libbett later confessed to investigators that she had disarmed the smoke detector in her unit as it kept going off when the stove was in use. The smoke alarm may have given an earlier warning that the fire had broken out in the apartment where the kids were staying alone said Fire Chief Albert W. Conners. By the depth of charring, investigators determined that the fire was burning for about 30 minutes. The bodies of Ms. Rae Libbett’s children were later found huddled together in the bathtub, only a few feet away from the rear exit of the unit.
After the fire, owner of the home Thomas Gill insisted that the home and the memories be demolished, but the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Committee would not approve the demolition. This decision saved the home, but caused some controversy over the years. After the fire, the property was sold to the Heritage Hill Foundation for only $1. In May of 1995, the home was featured in “This Old House” magazine in their “save this old house” feature. Thomas Baker, the senior editor of This Old House had reached out t he Barbara Roelofs, chair of the Heritage Hill Foundation Board, asking if she knew of any properties that needed saving. Barbara immediately responded with 426 Lafayette. This Old Home posted a before and after picture of the home, showing the photo taken in 1936, next to the present day photo. It is clear in the picture that in since 1936, the home lost its front veranda, and was replaced with a fully enclosed 1920’s style enclosed brick porch. The decorative corbels were removed from the eves, and the entire property was enclosed in asphalt siding. On top of that, there was a huge amount of fire damage to the interior and exterior of the property.
Despite the obvious challenges, Roelofs received a call from a young businessman from Lansing by the name of Timothy Fuller who had seen the home featured in the magazine and was interested in renovating the house. Fuller purchase the home from the Heritage Hill Foundation for $1,000 and began work. Shortly after reconstruction began, it was over. Mr. Fuller quickly realized this project was far beyond his capabilities or wants, and listed the home for sale once again. Barb Lester, crime prevention organizer at the Heritage Hill Neighborhood Association was quoted as saying, “He had good intentions, but didn’t follow up”. Barb has always been known to have a keen understanding of the activity in the Heritage Hill neighborhood. In early 1997, a local couple, Shawn and Sheryl Richardson, decided to purchase the home from Mr. Fuller and try their hand at renovating the home back to its old glory.
Shawn and Sheryl Richardson had moved from Oakland County in 1993 interested in buying a historic home. Before they purchase the home at 426 Lafayette, they had previously purchased 500 Lafayette and were working on renovating that home as well. This was not their first crack at a large project. The Richardsons had a deep love for old homes, and wanted to bring the property back to what it used to be before some absentee landlord could scoop the property up and keep it as a poor quality rental.
For years the Richardson’s worked on the home. They removed numerous 20 and 40 foot dumpsters of trash and rubbish from the home. They stripped away the old asphalt siding and exposed the original wood siding. The removed and clean much of the fire damaged portion of the home, but cleaning proved to be a tremendous undertaking! At the time, the city had only valued the home at $9,100, and there was much left to do. The floors were covered with 3 feet of debris in areas, but the Richardsons (along with the help of friends and neighbors) were able to get much of the debris moved from the home. While attempting to renovate the home, they collected windows from a former estate of gangster Al Capone, friends donated antique toilets, old radiators, and other items that were hard to find at the time. However, despite the Richardsons best efforts, neighbors began to grumble. As of November of 1997, the home was still visibly dilapidated, burnt, and had a blue tarp over much of the roof to keep water out. One neighbor Darrell Weaver who was renting a home next door wrote the city in May of 1997 saying “Absolutely nothing has been done to improve this property or prevent deterioration.” He went on to say “I know renovations do take a lot of time, but this is ridiculous.” At that time, the home had been blighted for 4 years.
The Richardsons picked away at repairs and renovations for 13 long years (some more actively than others), but ultimately the project proved to be too large for them as well. In 2010, the Richardsons later sold the property to Gerry Wheeler who was also interested in renovating the home back to its original state. Mr. Wheeler owned and worked on the home for 4 years maliciously returning it back to its appearance in the 1936 assessor’s picture. Between Mr. Wheeler and the Richardsons, much of the fire damage was removed, a new roof was installed, the wood siding exposed again, and the front porch was restored as well. Despite the most successful work that the home had seen in years, the windows were still boarded up, and the interior of the property was only a shell. Ultimately in 2014, Mr. Wheeler had enough of the home, and it was sold the James Eerdmans with JDE & Associates. Immediately, the home starts taking giant leaps towards being a beautiful stately home once again!
Part three coming up next week!
Pictures below were taken after the fire.