Accepting the Preservation Challenge: A Clock Tower Unites Belding

By Nan Taylor
Field Representative for Michigan Historic Preservation Network
and National Trust for Historic Preservation

Located in the heart of downtown Belding (Ionia County), Silk Mill No. 2 was  built by brothers Alvah and Hiram Belding,  whose farming family moved to the community (then called Patterson Mills) in 1855. The iconic clock tower was added in 1903 and kept time until 1932 when silk production waned and the mill closed. In 1949, Gibson Refrigerator Company purchased the vacant mill and returned it, and the clock tower, to operation. Eventually Electrolux, a major Swedish corporation, acquired the mill and its surrounding acreage. In 1991 the property was again sold – this time to a private developer. Remaining untouched until September 2010, Electrolux re-purchased it. Belding residents hoped the mill would be restored once again; however, instead, Electrolux promptly applied for a demolition permit and informed the city they intended to demolish the building due to safety concerns.

Belding Bros. Silk Mill No. 1. Courtesy of the Silk City Preservation Society

I first heard about the potential demise of Belding’s mill and clock tower in September 2010 from a news story regarding a public meeting held to save the building. I knew this was something Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN) and National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) needed to be involved in. The next day my hunch was confirmed, when I received the news story link from Genell Scheurell, Senior Officer for NTHP’s Midwest Office. This was my signal to move forward and I contacted the preservation advocates in the news story, as well as city leaders to determine how we could best assist.

When the news of the pending building demolition hit the streets, a grassroots group of concerned citizens sprang into action. One of their first moves was to create a Facebook page in an effort to rally support. Within the first week, nearly 2,100 people from all over the world joined the cause. As a result of this support, the group quickly evolved into a non-profit, 501(c)3, named the Silk City Preservation Society (SCPS). Their mission is to provide assistance to renovate, re-purpose and preserve the mill, as well as other historic properties in downtown Belding. Acting quickly, the SCPS effectively convinced city council to pass an emergency moratorium on the pending demolition and establish a study committee to explore a proposed downtown local historic district (LHD).

In December 2010, I met with the SCPS, the local historic district study committee (LHDSC), city leaders, and preservation architect Gene Hopkins to strategize how the mill could be preserved and rehabilitated. Discussion included topics on the mill’s current condition, environmental issues and potential economic incentives, adaptive re-uses, and possible new building owners. As I looked around the room of 16 people, I remember how impressed I was seeing city leaders and residents working side by side on solutions to this very challenging situation.  How will they ever resolve this?  Later that night I attended their first LHDSC meeting and began explaining the process of establishing their downtown district.

Hoisery Mills, Belding. Courtesy of the Silk City Preservation Society

Over the next few months, I worked with city leaders and the SCPS as they battled to save the mill and establish a LHD. In spite of the tremendous effort put into the task, the city’s efforts to negotiate with Electrolux were unproductive. By February 2011, Electrolux filed a lawsuit against the City of Belding for a delay in issuing a demolition permit. Belding Mayor Roger Wills stated that the city will have a difficult time financially fighting Electrolux and equated it to “going into a boxing match with hands tied. “

This initial lawsuit was followed by a second suit against the SCPS president, who also serves as the LHDSC chairperson. Electrolux continued their legal pressure by filing numerous complaints and restraining orders on LHDSC meetings and public hearings, arguing that the emergency moratorium was illegal.  Thus far, the Circuit Court has ruled in favor of the City of Belding.

Despite these obstacles, the LHDSC moved quickly and completed their preliminary study report in April 2011. Just weeks later, the city council extended the emergency moratorium another six months.  The public hearing was held on July 14, 2011, and I attended and spoke to an audience of 50 people, including the Electrolux lawyers, about the qualities of a local historic district. Afterwards, several local residents quietly approached me sharing stories about how their families had worked at the silk mills for generations and what these buildings meant to them.  Although each resident had a slightly different story, their collective memories of these historic downtown buildings united them. I was touched by these stories, and driving home that night I felt like like I’d been to a somber family reunion.

The Bell Tower - Symbol of the Struggle. Courtesy of Gene Hopkins, AIA

On September 20, 2010, the City Council adopted the downtown local historic district. Since then, we’ve assisted the City with the organizational details of the new HDC and recently conducted a training workshop for them. The battle with Electrolux is far from over, but Belding residents are feeling relieved knowing their local heritage is now legally protected and their collective stories, including this most recent chapter of the mill saved from demolition, can also now be told.

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