Walls talk at oldest structure in city's downtown area

Building’s Greek Revival architecture dates back to 1848

By Wayne Peal
Livingston County Daily Press
& Argus (Howell)

HOWELL, Mich. (AP) — At the Griffith Building, downtown Howell’s oldest structure, the walls talk.

They, and their owners, can tell you a lot about local history, according to the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus.

“This map shows the old plank road that once ran from Detroit to Howell — it even shows where the tolls were,” said Mary Griffith, pointing to a framed document lining one inside wall.

That road, just outside the door, long ago became Grand River Avenue, a roadway through nine counties that remains one of Michigan’s most-traveled thoroughfares. The 1832 map may be the only object inside that is older than the building itself.

The eye-catching white Greek Revival structure dates back to 1848, the year Americans sent Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor to the White House.

Its original owner, Almon Whipple, was one of Howell’s first merchants. He built it to be distinctive.

Based on the classic designs of ancient Athens, Greek Revival architecture was highly influential in the eastern United States from the early 19th century through the Civil War. The U.S. Capitol building is but one of its celebrated examples.

But the style was less common in Michigan.

That meant the building was already a local landmark when Mary and her widower father, L. Harold Crandall took occupancy nearly a century later.

“Before us, the home was owned in about 1908 by a woman named Jeanette Brigham, and she was a doctor, Howell’s first woman doctor,” Mary Griffith said. “So, that was a pretty big thing.”

Her father bought the house from Detroit Edison, which briefly used it as an annex for its nearby office.

Maintaining that use, Crandall converted a downstairs suite into an office for his real estate business. That business would come to include Mary Griffith’s husband, longtime Howell Realtor and community volunteer Harry Griffith.

For their part in maintaining the building, Harry and Mary Griffith were recently awarded the Howell Downtown Development Authority’s historic preservation award for their work.

That award sits along a downstairs wall, accompanied by Harry Griffith’s numerous professional and community honors, family photos and pieces of Michigan State University memorabilia.

Mary Griffith’s childhood bedroom is neatly preserved upstairs, as is the rear room where the family housekeeper once lived.

An only child, she and her father moved there after her mother died. But they didn’t move far. They originally lived across the street in a house that stood on the site of today’s Daily Press & Argus office.
That house was later moved in its entirety just down the road to a lot on Park and Clinton streets.

The Griffith Building, meanwhile, is celebrating its 165th year on the site Almon Whipple picked.

The couple says they’ve tried to maintain its classic look while making some concessions to the modern world.

Its heavy cast-iron steam-heat radiators were only recently turned off for good, having been replaced by a modern heating-and-cooling system.

But many of the building’s vintage glass window panes remain in place.

“You can see the ripples that run right through them,” Harry Griffith said.

The couple is quick to point out that the tile that once surrounded the two downstairs fireplaces was removed and replaced by cherrywood mantles. But even those mantles are now considered vintage.

No one has lived in the building since Mary Griffith’s father, a World War I veteran, passed away in the 1970s.

Mementos of his service, Harry Griffith’s father’s service in World War II and Harry’s own service during the Korean War are preserved in a glass case just inside the front door.

While never officially designated as such, the building’s status as downtown Howell’s oldest is generally accepted.

It predates even the historic Livingston County Courthouse, half a block west, by more than 40 years.