A Labor of Love: Mount Pleasant resident refurbishes 140-year-old home

Ken Williams poses for a photo in front of his Mount Pleasant home on Feb. 12, 2022.

Brakes squeaked and engines roared as Detroit native Ken Williams pulled his 43-foot RV into the driveway of his new home at 502 S University Avenue on a late September evening.

Having nearly blindly purchased the property only weeks prior, he was about to embark on a massive journey to reconstruct one of Mount Pleasant's most historic homes.

Now, after six months, Williams, with the help of various contractors, have completed most of the work on the exterior of the house including the siding and the roof. Tarps and scaffolding are still scattered around the lawn.

He's finishing up maintenance on the front porch in addition to five major things inside: framing the walls, insulating, installing two HVAC systems, plumbing and electrical.

He said all that is left to do is "fit out the interior of the home" which he hopes to have done by late summer.

To the surrounding community, Williams' is more than just a new neighbor, he's a hardworking man that is helping to revive decades of history.

"It was a labor of love, so to speak," Williams said. "It will be a fun project."

Ken Williams uses a saw to cut through the wood of his porch on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021 in Mount Pleasant, Mich. He and his friend took the majority of the porch apart by hand in four days.

House of History

According to “At Home in Earlier Mt. Pleasant Michigan” by Jack Westbrook found in the Clarke Historical Library, the 13-bedroom home and one-bedroom carriage home has housed families, couples, and organizations since the late 1800s. 

It was built by William Richmond around 1875. Richmond was one of 232 men – out of 1100 in his division – to return home from fighting in the American Civil War. He was elected a trustee around the same time Mount Pleasant was organized as a village.

Richmond passed away in the early 1900s – starting a chain of family ownership until the 70s.

First, the house was acquired by Charles J. Meyers and his wife, Amelia. In the 30s, Amelia sold it to Laura Cramer who occupied the home until she died about a decade later. 

Cramer’s daughter took ownership of the house until her granddaughter, Julia Shirley, became the owner. 

By the 1970s, the South University home came under a new type of ownership. 

Like many other large homes near Central Michigan University, the property was occupied by fraternities like Pi Kappa Phi, Theta Chi and, most recently, Phi Sigma Phi.

In 2002, then-CMU student Chris Davis, along with a dozen of his PSP brothers, moved into the three-story main house and two-story carriage house they called “the shack.”

“We absolutely loved the house,” Davis said. “It was a great gathering spot where we could all get together and hang out – play pool, play foosball.”

Those fun times did not erase the years of neglect it experienced from the previous tenants and owners.

“There was a lot of damage when we moved into the house,” Davis said. “And there wasn't a landlord that you call to fix stuff.”

Almost immediately Davis and his fraternity brothers noticed errors originating from its 19th-century construction.

“I know that there were design flaws because the whole second floor was not level,” he said. “When they added onto the original house it drew water all down by the upstairs bathroom… you couldn’t see it but after years… it caused a lot of rot underneath the floors.”

Davis lived there for a year but PSP used the house for about a decade.

By the 2010s, the historic home finally started to receive some much-needed repairs.

Mike Lents and his former wife, Allison Quast, bought the property in 2012 and planned to do a full renovation of both buildings.

In 2014, they moved into the completely redone carriage house and planned to renovate the main house. Those plans were cut short by their 2019 divorce.

From there, the fixer-upper was left to weather a few more winters without much maintenece. 

Until William’s, 64, came along. All it took was one tour of the house before he bought the property.

"On my way home, I decided to stop by this house just take a look at it. That was the very first time (I saw it) in-person," he said. "I met (Lents) and he showed me around and I saw his vision and what he had already done and said this will be a nice project."

Phi Sigma Phi letters are all that remain of the fraternity that lived in the house a decade ago.

Finishing the Fixer-Upper

Now, Williams is following through with Lents’ original plan.

Alongside roofers, contractors, and builders, Williams has spent nearly every hour of daylight since his arrival reconstructing all parts of the house.

He started doing carpentry on the exterior and is working his way inside with the help of various contractors he hired from Detriot.

He plans to keep historically significant parts of the house like the glass fixtures that are over 100-years-old along with some columns and woodwork inside the house.

Williams said he learned most of his trade skills at a young age, from his dad and godfather.

"They taught me the fundamentals of building," he said. "Any projects that they had cooking, I kind of was the labor unit."

From Chicago, Williams relocated to Mount Pleasant as an ideal point in between his family and other properties in Chicago, Detroit, and Manton.

Upon moving to town, he lived in his RV, until it was winterized. Then, he moved into the carriage home and plans to move into the main house once it is finished. He made the 260-mile trip back and forth to his property in Chicago nearly every weekend in preparation to sell his home there. He finally sold it on Dec. 1.

Two days later, he transferred his belongings to his new Mount Pleasant residence from Chicago in a 53-foot Midwest Moving and Storage trailer. It took them all day, and well into the night, to empty the contents of the trailer into the carriage house and two Mount Pleasant Storage units.

A track record of hard work

Williams' intense work ethic is nothing new. He said all the work he is putting into the house pales in comparison to his hard work throughout his career.

Williams received a degree in Sport and Recreation Management from Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie before embarking in a variety of jobs in sales and statistics.

In 1985, he “helped start” the now well-known Discover card.

“When I started there, there was something like, maybe 400 of us there,” he said. “There are now probably 22,000-23,000 people at that facility.”

He rose to be the “number one salesperson in the country.”

In 2004, an unlikely encounter on a plane flight landed him co-ownership of a paper shredding business called Information Protection Services of America.

“We went from basically no clients, to 30 clients and before you know it we were at something like $2-3million in sales,” he said.

Contractors install new windows in Ken Williams house on Feb. 21, 2022.

Williams eventually bought out the company in 2006 and named it The Shred Authority. He stayed with it for nearly two decades until he sold it to information management services company, Iron Mountain in 2019.

Now, after Williams made his large impact on the business world throughout his career he's ready for retirement. Upon arriving in Mount Pleasant, his work is already having a positive impact on the surrounding community.

Mount Pleasant City Planner Jacob Kain said renovations like Williams often boost the value of surrounding real estate.

“I have no doubt his investment will have a positive impact on the immediate surroundings and the community as a whole,” Kain said.

Locals passing by on foot and in cars have stopped to introduce themselves and thank Williams for his efforts. He said the enthusiasm of the neighborhood has been an enjoyable part of renovating 502 S University Avenue.

When renovations are complete, Williams work will not only resurrect history and help the area, but it will also introduce another hardworking resident to the city of Mount Pleasant.

"Everyone is excited about seeing this home being brought back to life," he said. 

Ken Williams poses for a photo in front of his Mount Pleasant home on March 1, 2022.