A much-loved family cottage in Omena on the Leelanau Peninsula, which was once the home of a Civil War hero, gets a thoughtful renovation that reveals layers of history.

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“It’s the rule cottage,” Mark would say, “yet, nothing is straight.” And very little was. One-hundred-twenty-some years of standing on Grand Traverse Bay, in the Leelanau Peninsula town of Omena, does tend to wear on a place; and 70-plus years of trampling by the Rule family hasn’t helped. Mark is Mark Voight, of Voight Builders in Northport, who took on the restoration of our family’s Victorian cottage, The Garrison, a name given to it by the Civil War cavalry hero who built it.

My grandparents, Colter and Marguerite Rule, purchased the cottage in 1947. Voight’s renovations began after a Rule family reunion a few years ago, when it was decided the cottage’s condition had gone beyond “tatty charm.” We’ve been having family reunions every third year at the cottage since 1979, beginning a few years after my grandmother passed away. All her grandchildren have stories of the place from when they were kids, so coming back rekindles many memories. Stories of adventures and misadventures on long-ago summer days are retold around beach fires at every gathering. These recounted memories loom large in the imagination of the younger generations as they come to know their parents, uncles, aunts and cousins in a new light. The trips to the dunes, to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, out to Peterson Park and over to Fishtown still get made, and young kids are still learning to sail, paddle, fish and play favorite card games around the old table on the front porch. They’re developing their own stories, too. In a way, little has changed, but of course, much has. My mother recalls life at the cottage when she was a girl—pumping water at the kitchen sink, the horse-drawn ice wagon and hearing Bohemian spoken around Leelanau County by immigrants from what is now the Czech Republic.

Outside trees at the Garrison

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Doors to the Garrison cottage

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Sign that says the rule cottage

Photo by Allison Jarrell

The rule cottage sign

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Related Read: Searching for more home renovation stories and tips? View our Northern Michigan Homes page.

Needless to say, our family members agreed that the cottage renovation would mean striking a balance between preserving history on one hand, and family expectations on the other. I was aware of how out-of-square the cottage was but assumed settling and age were to blame. Voight clued me in; apparently no one from the era in which it was built bothered making structures square in the first place.

As work progressed, the cottage began to reveal itself. A lumber mark under the cottage’s attic stair bears the name General B.H. Grierson and the date 1896. This would seem to set construction to that year, but there’s reason to believe the cottage is older still. During the demo phase, a small opening in the living room’s framing was revealed next to the existing stairway. It suggests General Grierson was adding to an existing structure. A succession of porches, each enclosed, grew to become today’s kitchen—as evidenced by the three distinct wood floors.

If General Grierson didn’t build it in 1896, we know from the significant work he did to the place, he rebuilt it. What may have started out as a simple frame dwelling set on tree stumps and beach-rock piers is now a six-bedroom vernacular Victorian. In the general’s day, it even had a two-story observation tower replete with a bell for greeting passing ships.

Addition to the Garrison in Omena

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Some additions to the cottage over the decades were better than others. The worst insult the cottage suffered were the bathrooms tacked on in the 1930s, one on top of the other with the plumbing hanging on the exterior of the home. Also, the living room ceiling was lowered a foot and a half when drywall was installed in the 1950s. My grandparents put the drywall up to brighten the interior and, I suspect, to dampen the sound of so many feet under one roof. They had eight children and eventually 30 grandchildren.

The cottage’s kitchen is in the back of the house on the road side. We’ve been traipsing through the kitchen since time immemorial, and the day had come to create a true front entrance. My first thought was that the new entry could go in the living room, nearer where cars park and where we were removing the ramshackle bathrooms. Two birds, one stone, I figured. However, when Mark discovered how rotted the floor framing in another area of the first floor had become, I knew the new entry would have to be rolled into rebuilding that area. The budget demanded it.

Repairing damage led to another design response: the creation of a belt course on the exterior. Victorian houses often have a band of distinct siding between the first-and second-floor windows. Many Victorian and Queen Anne houses in Traverse City have them—they function to unify the asymmetrical composition common to the style. Still, adding one to our cottage was a big departure from its historic roots. I struggled with creating the belt course even as it provided a period-appropriate solution to covering repair work. I wasn’t alone in my apprehension: Mark noted that a belt course wants to be straight, and our windowsills and window heads didn’t line up the way they should. We figured out the best alignments, and ways to hide the worst. Looking back, it seems obvious, while our belt course is simple compared to ones on high-style Victorians, it does unify the cottage’s rambling exterior. Happily, it also drove the decision to paint in more than a body and trim color. With six exterior colors now, our cottage is a genuine painted lady.

Handprints for family at the Garrison cottage

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Lakefront at the Garrison cottage

Photo by Allison Jarrell

The best of the renovations occurred in the living room— the room that had revealed the mysterious stair opening and that had once had its ceiling lowered. New joists stiffened a bouncy floor: Installing these was a trick because, again, nothing was straight. The living room ceiling, it turned out, was seven inches out of level—a fact that, since the false drywall ceiling was level, we had never known. I drew interior elevations showing how new window and door heads would align with existing ones, creating a continuous trim and color band around the room. It’s called a frieze, and it gives the room a strong, level reference. A simple crown mold matching the joists separates this frieze from the ceiling. Light fixtures are located there, and I’d like to stencil a quote from General Grierson’s diaries in gilt letters around the room.

Upstairs, rooms were rearranged to make way for a new bath within the envelope of the house and with the plumbing on the inside. Original beadboard finishes were uncovered and the old-fashioned enamel sinks restored. Each bedroom has its own sink, which takes the pressure off the bathrooms when the cottage is full.

As the once-grand cottages of yesteryear give way to today’s perhaps overly grand ones, I’m reminded how important it is for a building to be in harmony with its setting. For me, the old frame cottages speak volumes about the outlook and character of our forebears. That seems reason enough to have a go at saving them. Perhaps our family struck a fair balance between our modern needs and the interests of preservation. I hope my grandparents would agree, and I imagine General Grierson would. I like to think the general’s spirit still inhabits the place: He did die here in the summer of 1911. Late one night, my sister-in-law called me at home from the cottage. She was there by herself for the first time and wasn’t used to the quiet. I told her to sit back and relax—the old general would wind his way down from the observation tower anytime. Just listen for the creaking stairs.

Sign that says rule

Photo by Allison Jarrell

The Garrison Renovation Resources

Builder & Contractor | Mark G. Voight Builders
Plumbing, Heating & Mechanical | Cook Enterprises, 231.386.7117
Electrical | Northern Electric Services
Painting | Steve Scott Painting
Lumber | Northport Building Supply, 231.386.5231

The Garrison cottage in Omena

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo(s) by Allison Jarrell