In the late 1800s, Langley Avenue in St. Joseph, Michigan was a country road winding its way through the orchards growing on a ridge high above the St. Joseph River. It was the perfect spot for Abraham Lincoln Hart, a local farmer, to build his home. The bluff, leading down to the river, was terraced to grow grapes and the view from the porches out back commanded a sweeping view of the broad, slow moving river and the gently rolling hills behind it.
More than a third of a century later, the house was purchased by William Fickenger and his wife to use as a summer home. The Fickengers renovated the house, adding a conservatory, library, summer room and a four car detached garage which, historical anecdotes indicate, were filled with Packards. They also added that necessary option for comfortable living – servants’ quarters since the couple employed a maid, a cook and a full time gardener. If the house seemed somewhat large for a country home, Mrs. Fickenger had grown up in a house much grander. She was the daughter of Dr. John McGill whose family had founded McGill University in Canada in the early 19th century. Dr. McGill built a turreted and gabled brick home on Chicago’s then swank south side that took up an entire city block.
The Fickengers lived well even in what was considered the country. Mrs. Fickenger drove a pink convertible built on a Duisenberg chassis with a straight 12 engine, one of only six built. Hitler supposedly owned one too. The first circuit breakers that General Electric ever installed in a home were added to their home. Because they looked like oversized light switches and were in the hallways, guests, wanting to be helpful, turned them off, plunging the entire floor into darkness.
Joe Pearson of St. Joseph was hired to do the renovation at a cost of about $50,000 – a lot of money even now, but a fortune in 1935 during the Depression. The picture window looking out on the river was the largest piece of Pittsburg glass ever installed at that time. A third floor was also added as was a green house on the extensive grounds.
Pearson expanded the kitchen, adding a six-burner gas stovetop, four ovens, a broiler, warming ovens and a walk-in refrigerator. The dining room table sat 16. Mrs. Fickenger’s chair was near a floor buzzer allowing her to tap it with her foot when it was time for the next course. If all this sounds rather grand, consider this; the Fickengers entertained frequently and their guest list included the U.S. Secretary of State.
The family seems to have lived large. Mrs. Fickenger can be seen in an old black and white photo standing by the house next to one of her Great Danes smoking a cigarette. She grew orchids in the conservatory and kept a monkey there too. A parrot sometimes roosted in the conservatory and sometimes perched by the front door. The kitchen at times was permeated with the smell of horsemeat as Mr. Fickenger boiled it, along with cloves of garlic, to feed to the Great Danes, earning one of the dogs the not very nice name of Garlic Breath.
Some of these harbingers of the past still remain in the home which was purchased by Dr. Ray and his family in the 1950s and then sold again to Mike and Marlene Johnson in 1989. The Johnsons hired Carl Schuett, an interior designer, to help them add their own touches to the house. Schuett designed and oversaw the complete project and Evan LeDuc did the architectural work and coordinated the scheduling of contractors. In an interesting connection to the past, Schuett, who is from St. Joseph but has worked in interior design in both New York and Chicago, had babysat the youngest Fickenger son when he was young.
The Johnsons wanted to keep the integrity of the house but also wanted the conveniences found in new homes. They replaced the old boiler and radiators and added three zones of heating and cooling systems, removed the old windows, including the leaded glass windows in the library, had them thermo-paned and then put back in. They added two fireplaces, one in what had been the conservatory but now became an all-season room with fantastic views of the river. They retained the extensive trees and shrubbery planted by the Ray family which includes rhododendron bushes that are more than 50 years old.
The plaster walls were torn out and replaced. In the process, the Johnsons discovered the old piping used for gas lamps. Underneath the floor in the dining room, the wiring for Mrs. Fickenger’s buzzer remains but the walls of butler’s pantry on the first floor were torn out to expand the size of the kitchen. The Johnsons also found that the summer room had an 18-inch concrete and steel floor and below that was a bomb shelter with a tunnel leading out to the terraced riverfront. That struck a chord with Mike Johnson, who owns Dee Blast in Stevensville, as when he was young he helped his dad build bomb shelters for many St. Joseph residences. The couple also had the extensive crown molding ordered to replicate the original molding and added new plumbing and fixtures.
“It’s like a new house within an old house,” says Johnson.
And like in the Flickngers’ time, it’s still a marvelous place for entertaining. But instead of high-level government officials, the Johnsons, who have three grown daughters and four grandchildren as well as large families on both sides, also invite those who don’t have another place to go on the holiday.
Micah Johnson, the Johnsons’ second oldest daughter, is in charge of the holiday display that every year goes in front of the large window overlooking the wide expanse of front lawn—which is filled with lights and red bows on trees.
“The grandkids are mesmerized by all the lights on the display,” says Marlene Johnson, noting that they always seem to discover something new to point out in wonder. “We start celebrating the day before Christmas when the grandkids come over and stuff the turkey and put up the crèches.”
The large pine tree in the entranceway is decorated with ornaments the family inherited from Ruth Grootendorst, a longtime family friend.
“For 50 years she ordered shoe ornaments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog,” says Marlene, a psychiatric nurse at Lakeland Medical Center. “So we have all those. She also gave us these really wonderful antique wooden ornaments with parts that move.”
Once the house is decorated and the turkey roasted and out of the oven, the family eats their holiday dinner, opens presents, sings Christmas Carols and watches the children play with their new toys.
“It’s all about the kids at Christmas time,” says Marlene Johnson. “And it’s all about making it a special time.”