When Susan and David Sickelka wanted to move to Mt. Pleasant, they had no intention of buying one of the area’s most iconic historic homes.
Susan’s father lives in a nearby town, and the couple decided it was time to leave their residence in Des Moines, Iowa to be closer to him. The moving process was filled with Zillow searches to narrow down the top contenders for possible homes, but Susan says they kept coming back to 301 E. High St.
“We looked at a lot of different cities and different houses,” she says. “We kept looking at this house so it was that easy.”
Unique features throughout the home pulled the Sickelkas back onto the list.It was only after they finalized the deal on the home that the Sickelkas learned of his ties to Central Michigan University. Both Dr. Both Eugene Warriner and Charles Grawn were former CMU presidents and owners of the large, colonial-style white house.
Mt. Pleasant town planner Jacob Kain says that President Grawn was the first owner of the house, which was built in 1906. Grawn was President of the CMU from 1890 to 1918.
During Grawn’s presidency, Kain said, Mt. Pleasant and the CMU campus saw a lot of growth.
Today, Grawn Hall, named for President Grawn, is one of CMU’s oldest campus buildings, having been built in 1915.
Woodwork throughout the home is one of Susan Sickelka’s favorite features.“So this house, this neighborhood, really, I think when I look at some of the really old photos of the community, it’s almost like campus north and downtown south grew together over time and were connected by streets.” , says Cain.
The founding of the home in the city also came at a time when CMU was still known as a normal school, an institution that trained teachers.
President Grawn succeeded President and Dr. Eugene Warriner, who has also since had a CMU building erected in his name. Warriner Hall is a popular photo spot due to its classic brick exterior and proximity to the CMU seal.
Warriner’s tenure began in 1918 and ended in 1939. Cain surmises that he may have bought the house directly from Grawn based on the timeline.
The last owners of the house before the Sickelkas took it over were the Shurtliff family. In fact, the house is most commonly known as Shurtliff House. Jay Shurtliff was an art professor at CMU, and his family lived in the house from around the 1970s until around 2017.
When the Sickelkas bought the house in 2020, it had been vacant for almost three years, but they were told Shurtliff’s wife, Louise, had left the house almost completely untouched.
Cain’s records of the house say it is about 3,000 square feet in total, with seven bedrooms and two bathrooms, although the Sickelkas move things around to suit their own needs within the house.
Tackling a historic home project is nothing new for the Sickelkas. The couple’s Iowa home was built by a man who came from a logging family. He is said to have collaborated with prolific architect Frank Lloyd Wright on designing furniture for the home.
“So we kind of got interested in the historical architecture of this house. I wouldn’t call it a fancy house and it’s not like a McMansion house, but it just had a lot of character and a lot of interesting design features,” says David. “It kind of got us addicted to the idea of a house that’s not only a sound hall in structure, but also in terms of its design and architectural significance.”
301 E. High St. is the Sickelkas’ third home to be over 100 years old, so they have a good understanding of the effort that goes into preserving and modernizing a historic home.
In this way, houses with old bones have become a fascination for the Sickelkas, and they often take historical house tours when vacationing in other towns. David believes older homes also have more reliable foundations than new builds.
“I remember once hearing a talk show on the radio and they had a guy who renovates old buildings and he said, ‘You know, the most efficient house is the one that’s already built,'” says David. “And that really stuck with me, but there’s an efficiency aspect to it.”
Ensuring the safety and efficiency of the home was one of the first things the Sickelkas tackled. Before they could even move in, the plumbing needed to be replaced, along with some rewiring, a replacement stove, and a completely renovated kitchen.
The historic house serves as both a place of residence and a place of work.
There is more work to be done now that the couple have settled down and plan to host meetings with their ministry in the home. David and Susan are both Reverends of the Mount Pleasant United Church of Christ.
David says “the seed” of the idea was already there when they moved in, but without really knowing how the house would come together, it was hard to tell if their service would include 301 E. High St.
When they discovered that the home did in fact have a long history of large group gatherings and some church meetings, the plan just fell into place.
Original sliding doors allow the interior to be opened during meetings.Several features of the home hint at its entertainment purpose, including the wooden pocket door that forms a barrier between the foyer and living room. As guests passed, the door could slide into the wall and open up the room, allowing everyone to move around the rooms more easily.
A favorite feature of the home for Susan is the abundance of original woodwork scattered throughout the home.
Incorporating the history of the home was an important task for the Sickelkas as they learn more about their new abode. They had been gifted some select artwork by Jay Shurtliff to keep in the home and plan to retain much of the home’s original design and architectural elements.
“Our philosophy in reclaiming and renovating old homes is not to lose the stories that come with the home, just like preserving some of the wallpaper,” says Susan. “We want to be able to show the longer lifespan of the house; We don’t want to make everything clean and fancy.”
In Sickelka’s bedroom, part of the wallpaper has come off the wall. They were trying to find out if the paper was original and since they found only plaster behind it, David assumes it predates the Shurtliffs.
Over the next few years, the Sickelkas plan to remove and replace some floors on the second level and repaint the home’s exterior. A second floor balcony leading to the master bedroom is also in the works, along with a brick patio near the barn that once served as Jay Shurtliff’s studio.
301 E. High St. Property.Historic homes are an important aspect of Mt. Pleasant’s ever-changing landscape, and Kain says it’s always a joy when he discovers someone has taken on the task of living in an older home.
“My experience is that most owners of these homes take their role in maintaining these homes very seriously and really prioritize the historical character of their neighborhoods,” says Kain. “That’s why we’re always happy when people express an interest in the history of their home and then cherish that history, because it’s the history of Mt. Pleasant and it makes us a great place to live.”