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Published: Friday, 5/31/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Threat of demolition looms for Michigan's iconic Irish Hills towers

1924 platforms in disrepair; township cites safety concerns

BY VANESSA McCRAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Irish Hills Towers were famous for their origin; the second tower was built by a neighbor, Edward Kelly, who opposed the first one. The Irish Hills Towers were famous for their origin; the second tower was built by a neighbor, Edward Kelly, who opposed the first one.
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ONSTED, Mich. — Atop a knoll overlooking Iron Lake stand twin wooden towers, icons of the Irish Hills region that once drew busloads of sightseers who climbed to the top to gaze at the scenery.

Irish Hills, so named because immigrants saw their island homeland reflected in the rolling emerald landscape, attracts vacationers to cottages and lakes that dot the area around northern Lenawee County.

The two observation towers, built in 1924, became a regional symbol. They were pictured on postcards, remembered by visitors who scurried up the steps as a summer rite, and plastered on stickers proclaiming “I climbed the towers.”

But threat of demolition now looms.

Cambridge Township officials want a plan to stabilize the structures and pay for repairs by Aug. 1. Otherwise, the township will begin the process under its dangerous buildings ordinance to raze the towers, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

“We either have to get it fixed, or they need to come down,” said township building official Bruce Nickel.

Donna Boglarsky wants to preserve her family’s legacy and the towers. She and her late husband Ron, who died in 2008, purchased the towers in 1976. They built a miniature golf course on the grounds and made happy memories, like when a couple who went to the towers on their first date returned to hold their wedding on an observation deck. But the towers closed after the 1999 season as Mr. Boglarsky’s health deteriorated and they tried to juggle their other businesses.

This spring, she turned the deed over to the nonprofit Irish Hills Historical Society, which she and her daughters formed in 2010. Ms. Boglarsky serves as the society’s president.

Her immediate goal is to raise roughly $75,000 to $100,000 by mid-July to pay for the most pressing work and buy time to complete a full restoration. She eventually wants to raise enough money, an estimated $500,000, to open the towers to the public and create a local museum.

Donna Boglarsky, president of the Irish Hills Historical Society, is spearheading the effort to raise money to restore the towers. Donna Boglarsky, president of the Irish Hills Historical Society, is spearheading the effort to raise money to restore the towers.
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About $1,500 is set aside so far for the effort, and Ms. Boglarsky said she’s optimistic it will succeed.

“I just know that somebody is going to be back there behind us,” she said.

The two observation towers have a colorful, competing history.

The Michigan Observation Co. purchased property to erect the first sightseeing tower. Neighboring landowner Edward Kelly opposed the project, but since he couldn’t stop it, he built his own tower just feet away.

The second, 60-foot tower outstretched the original one by about 10 feet, until the owners of the first retaliated by adding another 14 feet to their tower. That prompted Mr. Kelly to increase his height so both towers were about 64 feet. The war might have continued to escalate had not the observation company vowed to rip down its tower and construct a steel edifice rising higher than Mr. Kelly could compete with.

The two towers later were combined into one enterprise under another owner, and subsequent operators made further changes to the towers and the grounds.

The scenery, cottages, and lakes brought travelers to the Irish Hills, located about 60 miles northwest of Toledo.

“It was a continual summer destination for anybody ... from Toledo also and from lower Michigan,” said Kay Roumell, vice president of the nonprofit organization Oh These Irish Hills!, dedicated to revitalizing the region.

Mom-and-pop roadside stops ruled the simpler time. A steep climb up a hundred tower steps delighted day-tripping tourists and diverted motorists driving along U.S. 12 between Detroit and Chicago.

At the end of the Boglarskys’ operation, adults paid $1 to see the view. But technology and travel preferences changed.

Area attractions struggled to compete with bigger destinations such as amusement parks. Many of the rental cottages that welcomed new visitors to the region were renovated into year-round homes. Expressways pulled traffic away from the slower route.

The Irish Hills Towers were run as a popular tourist attraction in Lenawee County until 1999; now, the twin structures are in danger of falling onto the road. The Irish Hills Towers were run as a popular tourist attraction in Lenawee County until 1999; now, the twin structures are in danger of falling onto the road.
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“At one time, the Irish Hills was a very busy, popular place, but with the economy and everything there’s a lot of business closed. We’d like to get it built back to something,” said township Supervisor Harvey Hawkins, who recalled climbing the towers as a young boy in the early 1950s, back when it was a “hot spot.” “I can remember that it seemed like you could see forever.”

Township officials are concerned about the potential dangers posed by the deteriorating towers. Mr. Nickel said open windows allowed water to get inside and cause rotting. Structural beams are starting to fail, and the platforms have holes, he said. It’s a worry because the towers are so close to U.S. 12 that they could topple onto the road, Mr. Hawkins said.

“They [have] historical value, and I’d love to see them saved. But it’s also the township’s responsibility to make sure they’re safe, and right now they are not safe,” he said.

Boarded-up windows, peeling paint, and overgrown grass all add to the derelict appearance. Ms. Boglarsky acknowledges repairs should have been done years ago and said she understands why the township is targeting the towers.

Oh These Irish Hills! worked to get the towers placed on the National Register, a federal list of historic places considered worthy of preservation. The designation, however, doesn’t afford protection from a wrecking ball. Michigan currently has 1,795 properties on the National Register. Since 1966, only 15 Michigan properties have been removed because of demolition, destruction by other means such as fire, or problems with the listing, according to the National Register.

Local preservation ordinances and designations can protect a historic site from demolition, said Laura Ashlee, a spokesman for Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office.

Ms. Roumell believes the towers should be preserved for the sake of Irish Hills heritage.

“What I would hope is that there would be some of the people that really have some of those great memories of being out there when they were young ... that would step up,” she said. “They really are one of the icons of the Irish Hills.”

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com, 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.



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