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Published: Sunday, 7/25/2004

Time warp cast in concrete

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
The original concrete light posts dot the area of houses sheathed in stucco-like material. The original concrete light posts dot the area of houses sheathed in stucco-like material.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

If you've ever driven along Centennial Road just north of Brint Road in Sylvania Township and thought you slipped into a time warp, you aren't alone.

In a small stretch of road sit 16 houses - mostly bungalows in the arts and crafts architectural style - dating from the 1920s and early 1930s and looking mostly unchanged outside.

The enclave is known as Medusa Gardens, or Medusa Row, named for the former Medusa Cement Co., which built them for executives who managed a silica plant a mile to the south. The plant closed in 1980.

Made mostly of concrete, the homes are marked by a similarity of style and a set of concrete street lights that illuminated the tiny subdivision at a time when the area was pitch black after sundown.

"They're the only ones like that that I know of around here. It's kind of akin to a 'company store' style," said veteran Sylvania area home builder Gene Paul. He purchased Medusa Gardens for $155,000 total in 1980, renovated the interiors, and rents out the houses.

"They were very, very well built," he said. " There were certain times when they were tested. They still blast [in quarries] across the way from time to time. And I've had renters tell me there were times when everything shook and they've even found some pretty good boulders in the back yards of some of the houses, that landed there from the blasting."

But the houses with a stucco-like exterior and concrete basements were built to last, using a method Mr. Paul calls Cleveland Construction.

The method was almost like swimming-pool construction, he said. Cement or cement block was used in the foundation, and a wire structure with cement sprayed on formed the walls. Records indicate many of the homes originally were one-story, and Mr. Paul said there is evidence of added stick-built second floors.

Originally, all the homes had electricity supplied from the plant; coal furnaces; and plumbing tied in to a common septic system. They were sold as a group in 1980 because of the septic system, but each house was individually tied in to the Sylvania area sewer system about 15 years ago, Mr. Paul said.

He renovated the interiors and upgraded electrical wiring and plumbing to comply with building codes.

Perhaps more so than the construction oddity, the significance of the houses is that they have been preserved and still stand alone along that stretch of Centennial.

That is due in part to Medusa, which maintained the homes over the years, and the company officials who lived there, who were often meticulous about their care and upkeep.

"They're pretty important historically because there's nothing like them around here," said Ted Ligibel, a Sylvania resident and director of the historic preservation program at Eastern Michigan University. "They're quite unique compared to anything probably anywhere because of their setting."

He added: "They've maintained their integrity and it's sort of a rare glimpse of company-built housing. They're really a nice example of that era. The streetlights are still there and it's almost like a movie set. It's really unique."

Records say one house, at 5129 Centennial, was built in 1892, but Mr. Paul questions whether that is accurate. Of the others, eight were built in 1927, two in 1932, and the last five in 1934. They were considered perks for employees, who were charged $16 a month rent to live there.

Two have one story, the rest have two stories. The one at 5001 Centennial, at the intersection with Brint, was the largest and was called the "No. 1 house," reserved for the plant superintendent.

It was the largest at 2,700 square feet and has five bedrooms and 1 1/2 bathrooms. As for the others 13 are 1,400 to 1,600 square feet, with three bedrooms and one bathroom. The two one-story houses are tiny - 704 square feet - with two bedrooms and a bathroom.

Not only are the houses in good shape, but they haven't undergone significant alterations, maintaining an arts and crafts look - a functional style emphasizing simplicity, quality craftsmanship, and use of natural building materials. In America, the bungalow was the dominant form of arts and crafts architecture.

To W.J. Worthy, Jr., who grew up in the house on the corner, the condition of Medusa Gardens isn't just good, it's remarkable.

"For my 60th birthday, in 1992, I went back there. I was absolutely amazed," said Mr. Worthy, 72, of Madison, Ohio. "It was like driving back into the 1930s. Nothing had changed."

The quarry behind the houses had grown over the years, said Mr. Worthy, whose father, Willet J. Worthy, was plant superintendent. But other than having larger trees, the houses, four of which were occupied by Mr. Worthy's relatives - his grandfather, and uncles - look much as they did, he said.

Willet Worthy was known as a stickler for maintenance, said Mr. Paul, the Sylvania builder.

"They always kept them [the houses] up real well because the plant superintendent used to come around and say, 'Get these dandelions out of here' or 'Cut down those weeds,' " said Mr. Paul, who moved to Sylvania in 1934 and as a youngster, rode his bicycle past the development.

The real attraction, he said, was the street lamps. "It was black around Sylvania at night, but they had lights there," he said.

Because all the breadwinners worked for Medusa, there was a camaraderie among those who lived there. At Christmas, the residents strung lights along Centennial.

W.J. Worthy, Jr., who lived there from 1932 to 1937, said the subdivision always had many children. The cement company would hold an annual July 4th celebration, he added.

"The main thing I remember was the Fourth of July. The company put on a big fireworks display and they served punch that somehow managed to get spiked," he said.

Nearby, Mr. Worthy recalled, were public quarries that hired big bands headed by Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey. "On a summer night, since there was no air conditioning, the windows were open and you could hear the music from those quarries. That was kind of neat."

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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