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Mason City

Mason City Hall is located at 201 West Ash Street, Mason MI 48854; phone: 517-676-9155.

Beginnings

The City of Mason Multiple Resource Area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Portions of the text below were selected, transcribed, and/or adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1]

Description

Mason, Michigan, a city of over 6000, is the county seat for Ingham County, an agricultural service center, home of several small industries, and a bedroom community for the Lansing metropolitan area. The first settlers came to Mason to take advantage of the water power created by the passage of Sycamore Creek through the glacial esker. Today the community is little affected by either the creek or esker, but instead is influenced by the roads that carry individuals into this community.

The physical appearance of Mason is one of a small town dominated by nineteenth-century architecture. The core of the city is on a plateau with a short but fairly sharp drop-off on all sides. This core contains three sections: the courthouse square/central business district, a large residential area to the south and southwest, and a smaller residential area to the north. The visual center of the city is the Ingham County Courthouse, which can be seen from all roads approaching the city for several miles. Mason is laid out along the cardinal points in a regular grid pattern that is interrupted on the edges by roads that often run diagonal to these cardinal points, but straighten as they enter the city.

Entering Mason from the south along Barnes Street, the road travels north up a slight grade through an older residential area until it reaches the courthouse and the commercial district. The neighborhoods to the south and southwest of the courthouse hold many of Mason's oldest and most style-conscious residences intermixed with more modest nineteenth-century homes. These neighborhoods run several blocks to the east of Barnes to Steele and west to Sycamore Creek and the railroad. The impression of a nineteenth-century small town continues as the road reaches the courthouse square and the commercial district partly surrounding it which contains many Italianate and other historic commercial buildings.

Intersecting Barnes is Ash, the city's primary east-west road and known today as State Route M-36. Older neighborhoods also lie to the north and south of Ash Street as it travels through Mason. This route, M-36, carries much traffic from Lansing coming to Mason to conduct county business.

Sycamore and Rayner Creeks meander through the community from the south to the north interrupting the grid. Sycamore Creek, west of the commercial district, was the site of the earliest industrial development. Today the industries of Mason are still located in this general area to the west and northwest of the city's central core.

Modern residential development, as in most communities, is taking place on the outskirts of Mason and began in the late 1940s. These areas were laid out with irregular street patterns that ignore the cardinal points. These newer areas include circles, dead end streets and cul-de-sacs.

On the northwestern edge of the city is Cedar Street, the location of modern strip development. This area is just four blocks from the main shopping street of downtown Mason and includes shopping centers, fast food chain stores and service stations. The U.S. Route 127 Freeway, which intersects with Cedar, pulled many of the county functions from the old courthouse to modern facilities nearer the highway.

The edges of Mason's historic core are defined on the northwest by strip development, on the east by modern residential neighborhoods and the 1930s Fairgrounds and Rayner Park, and on the north and south by a mixture of old and new residential neighborhoods.

Statement of Significance

Established in 1836 at a location central in Ingham County, at the intersection of several Indian trails which became important local highways, and near water power sufficient for milling purposes, Mason became the county seat in 1840. Its slow development accelerated with the opening of the Jackson, Lansing&Saginaw Railroad through town in 1866, and the years from 1866 to about 1890 form the period of greatest growth in the city. Early twentieth-century growth reinforced the early pattern of development, rather than establishing new patterns. Mason's settlement and early development are represented by the surviving homes of key early residents and civic leaders John Rayner, Rosalvo F. Griffin, Minos McRobert, and Orlando M. Barnes; the post-1866 period of growth by the great bulk of the building stock in the two historic districts. Mason became the county seat in 1840 and was incorporated a village in 1865 and a city in 1877. The theme of government and public services is represented by the Ingham County Courthouse and old county jail, the Jefferson Street School, A. J. Hall Memorial Library, city water standpipe, and Maple Grove Cemetery. Commercial growth began early, but the surviving early commercial development dates from the 1870s to the early twentieth century; this historic commercial stock is largely included in the Courthouse Square Historic District. The commercial theme is also represented by the numerous homes of Mason's commercial leaders — such as those of Jerome Wheeler, D. B. Harrington, Lewis C. Webb, Samuel J. P. Smead, Oliver W. Halstead, Charles W. Whitman, Charles J. Rayner, and Janes A. Sherwood. In the historical development of Mason, the advent of the railroad in 1866 is of key importance. The Mason depot and one of the railroad line's stone arch bridges represent this transportation theme. Mason's oldest churches, the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist date back to the earliest years of the town's history. The historic theme of religion is represented by the First Presbyterian Church building, the only historic church building in the city that remains standing. Finally, numerous large and small Mason structures are significant within the local context for exemplifying a broad range of architectural styles — from Greek Revival to Colonial Revival — and building types and forms characteristic of southern Michigan and the Midwest in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several structures possess significance as the documented works of local or Michigan designers.

The City of Mason, the county seat of Ingham County, straddles the Sycamore Creek in the southern third of Michigan's lower peninsula. The community of just over 6000 inhabitants lies within the home county of Lansing, the state capital. The intersection of the creek with the esker ridge known as the "hogback," a part of the landscape created by the glacier, attracted the Monroe, Michigan investment company of Charles Noble in 1836. The city formally became the county seat in 1840 and has resisted all subsequent attempts to remove the function to Lansing. The accompanying county traffic combined with the business generated by Mason's position as a railroad shipping point for the region's lumber and agricultural products resulted in the community's growth. However, Mason's nineteenth-century development was apparently limited by the capital's proximity. The most substantial expansion did not occur until after World War I. It is interesting to note that Mason is the only United States county seat that is located in a state capital's county, that does not also serve as the State capital.

In the 1830s Michigan was the location of heavy land speculation inspiring the founding and settlement of scores of communities. It is said that in the early 1830s, hotel lobbies in Detroit were papered with plats of villages, and small-scale investors bought and sold with unfortunate ease. This speculation contributed to the financial crisis in the panic of 1837. Mason, begun in 1836, was a survivor.

In January of 1836, Charles Noble, the register of deeds in Monroe County, bought 560 acres in Vevay Township of Ingham County, at the site of Mason, and sent Lewis Lacey forth to begin the development of his investment. Lacey, who reportedly traveled past an Indian encampment on the site of the current courthouse, constructed a dam and sawmill on Sycamore Creek where it cuts through the esker ridge deposited by the retreat of the glacier. This is now in the area where State Street crosses the creek. The "hogback," a once dramatic part of the landscape, has been largely excavated for gravel and is no longer readily apparent. Lacey was joined later by Ephraim B. Danforth, a member of the Charles Noble Company. Danforth managed the sawmill and installed gristmill equipment within it — the first saw and grist mills in the county — and registered the original plat of thirty-one blocks for Mason Centre in 1838. Danforth served as the area's first postmaster and later in various elected capacities for both the county and state. He also was instrumental in locating the state capital at Lansing and in the establishment of a valuable road connecting Mason with the capital.

Ephraim B. Danforth's original plat reflected a common layout oriented to the cardinal points of the compass and using a central block as a public town square. The state gazetteer of 1838, the year of the plat's recording, listed Mason Centre as the only community in Ingham County. The routes from established villages in the new state to Mason Centre and unsettled territories converged at the town square and created the commercial center of Mason. Among the early buildings that framed the public square was the office of Minos McRobert. Dr. McRobert, who came to the settlement in 1837, was the first physician in Mason. He served as the first Register of Deeds in Ingham County and county histories report that his office was virtually the courthouse. He continued in active duty to the community all of his life. By the time the third actual courthouse structure, the first one of any substantial size, was constructed in 1858 on the public square, the square was already the physical focus for Mason.

Nearly thirty years after the arrival of Lacey, in 1865, Mason was incorporated as a village. These decades saw the early establishment of schools and churches. A newspaper, The Ingham Telegram, was begun in 1842. The forties also saw the publication of The Ingham County Weekly News, Ingham Democrat, Ingham Herald, and the Masonian Times, a manuscript newspaper. Six additions to the original plat were acknowledged the year after incorporation and four more were made before Mason became a city in 1875.

The rapid development of the late 1860s and 1870s was spurred by the completion of the Jackson, Lansing, and Saginaw Railroad in 1866. This line connected with the east-west line of the Michigan Central in Jackson and provided the invaluable link of reliable transportation to additional markets. That transportation connection increased the population and cast Mason in a new role as a shipping point for the area's products. Orlando M. Barnes was among the group of Mason businessmen who strongly encouraged the establishment of the railroad and its routing through Mason. Barnes was also responsible for a western addition to the original plat. After serving as the prosecuting attorney for Ingham County, Barnes became the secretary and legal counselor to the Jackson, Lansing, and Saginaw Railroad. Later in his career, he moved from Mason and was eventually elected the mayor of Lansing.

The railroad also fostered the prosperity of the agricultural lands surrounding Mason. The 1874 Atlas of Ingham and Eaton Counties listed Vevay Township, in which Mason is located, with the highest cash value of farms, farming implements, and livestock among the townships of Ingham County. The agricultural emphasis was on grains and dairy products. The Mason Creamery was one of the successful local enterprises that depended on this aspect of the township. Among the local farmers who influenced the path of Mason were Rosalvo F. Griffin and John Rayner. Griffin, the first mayor of Mason, established a cheese factory, which drew upon the area's resources, in 1871. Rayner bought substantially within the township, speculating in real estate while maintaining a large farm. Both men came to Mason in the late 1830s and early 1840s, the very early years of settlement. The Rayner family, made a number of important contributions to the civic and commercial life of the city, including the Rayner Opera House in 1880-81. A portion of the Rayner farmstead now constitutes Rayner Park and the Ingham County Fairgrounds.

The fourteen years from 1863 to 1877 saw rapid growth, incorporation as a village and later as a city; all products of the railroad. The population of the town quadrupled to 2000 in that period. Development during the rest of the nineteenth century continued at a more restrained pace; however, population actually declined in the last twelve years of the century. The amount of construction illustrated that this period was more a time of consolidation than of expansion. Among the enterprises begun during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was the successful mining of the gravel from the esker ridge and a short-lived venture to extract local coal deposits. Among the investors in the latter company was Charles H. Sackrider, a dentist who began practicing in Mason in 1855. Sackrider also cooperated with Minos McRobert on an addition to the original plat.

The availability of transportation provided in the nineteenth-century by railroad and the twentieth-century by inter-urban, and Mason's central location in the county, allowed for its commercial, industrial, and agricultural success as a service center for the surrounding hinterland. Other factors, primarily the pull of the capital and the industry that nearby Lansing possessed, probably restricted Mason' s growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

During the first half of the twentieth century, a number of businesses added to Mason's Industrial element. This changed the local economic climate and its reliance on the dual roles of the city as a county seat and agricultural service center. Among these industries, the Telling-Bell-Vernon Company of Cleveland established a plant in 1919 for the processing of cream, powdered milk, and, later, infant formula. The company became known in subsequent years as the SMA Corporation and in the 1960s was the largest local employer. Another industrial concern Dart Container, was begun by the Dart family who have contributed to Mason's development for several generations. They also started an insurance agency and a local bank. Dart Container started operations in the late 1950s as the producers of insulated cups and other containers.

The strength of Mason lies not only in its individual local history but also in its typicality. It represents a nineteenth-century county seat common to the Midwest whose existence relied on its governmental function and the surrounding farmland. Free from uncontrolled periods of growth that can damage the historic nature of a community, Mason retains many of its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century structures. These dwellings, stores, churches, and government buildings typify the self-sufficient agricultural service centers of Michigan.

Architectural Overview

Mason's residential neighborhoods present a variety of visual streetscapes that contain a number of repeated natural elements and architectural details which, in combination, create a unified townscape. The various nineteenth and twentieth century architectural examples found in each neighborhood are tied together by both man-made and natural elements. Rolled metal roofs, simple wooden door and window surrounds, multi-gabled roofs and multi-paned windows appear on high style as well as simply decorated houses. Unity among the neighborhoods is enhanced by the consistent size of the lots and the tall maples that canopy the streets. Original outbuildings used for a variety of purposes remain in many neighborhoods. A few excellent examples of completely illustrated styles exist in Mason with rich and varied detailing, but these are rare. The vast majority of homes are simply decorated or can be considered vernacular. These echo the scale and proportions of the high style homes.

A number of Greek Revival residences survive in Mason. These were built by the early settlers through the 1850s and appear most often in the vernacular, upright-and-wing form but also in the form of basilicas. The more common upright-and-wing is decorated with a low pitched roof, a wide frieze board and symmetrical fenestration, such as 625 South Barnes. The basilica, a derivative of the Roman Hall of Justice with rectangular plan, was adapted as a form for early Christian Churches. In residential architecture, it has a central wing with two smaller flanking wings. An excellent example is 135 Okemos Street which has a central pediment and stacked umbrage porches.

Sprinkled throughout the townscape are late Gothic Revival homes. This picturesque style with steeply pitched roofs and bargeboard decorated eaves was brought to prominence through the publications of Andrew Jackson Downing. One of the city's finest examples of the late Gothic Revival is found at 103 North Jefferson Street. This beautifully painted home displays exuberant decorations on the eaves and the porch. Other Gothic Revivals were more modest, such as the two found at 834 South Barnes and 184-194 East Ash.

During the 1860s and 1870s the Village of Mason was incorporated, the railroad arrived and many new plats were added to the village. Popular from 1840 through 1880, regional residential Italianate examples range from villas with complex massing to simple cubes. The Italianate Villa was a popular style throughout Michigan and was fashioned after the farmhouse architecture found in the Italian countryside. The more complex villa with a variety of roofs, towers, and round-hooded windows is not found in Mason; however, the simpler cube form of the Italianate does appear fully illustrated at 303 East Ash. This Italianate cube displays gently pitched hipped roof slightly arched, hooded windows and corner pilasters. Other examples are 118 East Oak and 106 East South Street.

The Queen Anne style, with its highly irregular massing, myriad of gables and dormers, expansive porches with turned posts, irregularly placed multi-shaped windows and variety of surface treatments is rarely found fully expressed in Mason. The seeds for the development of this style were planted in America by the interpretations of Richard Norman Shaw's English Revival architecture by H. H. Richardson and McKim, Mead and White and was most popular during the 1880's and 1890s. Several fully articulated examples are 604 South Barnes and 602 South Jefferson with their multi-gabled roofs, variety of windows and surface treatments, and irregular massing. But more typical in Mason is 427 West Maple, with "L" shaped massing, two gables, fishscale shingling, small porch with slanted roof, and chamfered window to break up the otherwise regular fenestration. There is a nice collection of modest Queen Anne homes in Mason.

Turn-of-the-century styles found in Mason include Colonial Revival, Craftsman and the Bungalow. The classically detailed Colonial Revival with regular massing and a gently pitched roof is part of many of Mason's residential streetscapes. Combined with the interest generated by the Nation's Centennial, the reaction against the picturesque styles in the late nineteenth century brought with it the development of the Colonial Revival style. Several fine interpretations of this style appear in the neighborhoods just south of Mason's Courthouse square. Here, large, two-and-one-half story homes with regular massing stand as evidence of the popularity of this style in Mason. Excellent examples are 124 East Oak and 618 South Jefferson both displaying regular massing and fenestration. There are also many less articulated but noteworthy examples, such as 234 East Ash and 619 South Jefferson.

Clean, simple lines characterize the Craftsman and the Bungalow styles. With dormered roofs, modest heights and comfortable porches, they contribute to the beauty of every streetscape in which they are found. Both of these styles were built in most Mason neighborhoods outside of the immediate circle of the Courthouse. An excellent example of a Craftsman, found at 322 East Oak Street, displays traditional dormers and a wide sturdy porch and multi-paned windows. The Bungalow is exemplified in Mason by the house at 205 East Oak featuring modest height, regular fenestration and a dormered roof.

More important to Mason's architectural heritage than architectural styles are the house types that became traditional in the community and throughout Michigan during the late nineteenth-century. These traditional or vernacular houses are seen in a variety of forms in the Mason landscape. Flank-gable, hip roof and, most frequently, upright-and-wing seem to be the dominant forms. They appear generally without any stylistic identification, but with plain corner boards, fascias, simple square-headed board windows, and raking cornices without returns. The common cubical hip roof form, often recognized as Italianate, was also used in earlier Federal and Greek Revival architecture. This form remained popular in Michigan from the end of the Civil War to the early twentieth-century when it appeared as the American Foursquare. Mason's flank-gable and upright-and-wing houses are also significant as local manifestations of Michigan residential architecture which were built from the mid-1800s until almost the turn of the century. These vary in height and show minor but distinctive changes over time. Early examples appear without decoration while later examples exhibit details of late nineteenth-century architectural styles, such as the presence of Queen Anne detailing on 203 East Maple and the enlarged windows seen at 202 East Maple.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Ingham County Records: Deeds and Land Records; County Tax Assessment Rolls

Mason City Records: Tax Assessment Rolls

Maps and Atlases: Beers. Frederick W. County Atlas of Ingham County, Michigan. New York: F. W. Beers and Col, 1874.

Geil, Harley and Siverd. Topographical Map of the Counties of Ingham and Livingston, Michigan. Philadelphia: Geil, Harley, and Siverd, 1859.

Ogle, George A. and Company. Standard Atlas of Ingham County, Michigan. Chicago: G. A. Ogle and Co., 1895.

Panoramic View of Mason, County Seat of Ingham County, Michigan. 1883.

Michigan State Gazetteers and Business Directories: 1838, 1863-64, 1867-68, 1877, 1881, 1887-88, 1891, 1897, 1903, 1911.

Title Companies:
Lawyers Title Insurance Co., 209 S. Washington Ave., Lansing, MI.
Transamerica Title Insurance Co., 127 E. Washtenaw, Lansing MI.

Newspapers:
Ingham County Democrat
Ingham County News
Masonian Times

Secondary Sources

Adams, Mrs. Franc L. Pioneer History of Ingham County. Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Company, 1923.

Brown, Mrs. Clodell. "Ingham County Fair History." c. 1975

Ceasar, Ford Stevens. The Bicentennial History of Ingham County, Michigan. Ann Arbor: Braun-Brumfield, 1976.

Cowles, Albert E. Past and Present of the City of Lansing and Ingham County, Michigan. Lansing, Michigan: The Michigan Historical Publishing Association, n.d.

Durant, Samuel W. History of Ingham and Eaton Counties, Michigan. Philadelphia: D. W. Ensign and Company, 1880.

Hartzog, William Benjamin. "The History of Mason." Mason, Michigan: Ingham County News, Series of articles beginning April 7, 1938.

Mason Area Centennial Committee. Mason Area Centennial Historical Program. Mason, Michigan: Mason Printing Company, 1965.

Michigan Historical Commission. "Wheeler-Reed-Hueni House, Mason." October, 1970.

Stilgoe, John R. Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.

Vandercook, Roy C. The City of Mason: Its Past and Present Life, 1838-1887. Mason: Ingham County News, 1897.

  1. Haynes, Robin and Moran Diane, Historic Resources of Mason Michigan, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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