Tim McKay


Tim McKay


In this interview, Tim McKay discusses his involvement with the Worker’s Row House in Corktown. He talks about how he found out about the property and recounts the continuing story of its restoration and development.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Tim McKay

Brief Biography

Tim McKay is a local Corktown resident and head of the Corktown Experience which is working to restore and develop the Worker’s Row House.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit, Michigan




WW: Today is April 23rd, this interview is for the Detroit Historical
Society’s partnership with Corktown Experience. This interview is with Tim McKay and I am Billy Winkel. How did you first get in contact with the Worker’s Row House?

TM: I purchased the property that is adjacent to it, both on the side and in the back in 1992. And out of the two buildings that I purchased, one being a four family apartment building , 1906, and the other a wooden Greek revival, 1850, but not original to the site, it had been moved there. The third house was this now known as Worker’s Row House. At the time, we were clueless. We only knew the fellow who lived in it and we knew that he had donated it to Most Holy Trinity Church next door. I had had a
conversation with another resident in the neighborhood, Gordon Buckbee, an architect and an architectural historian who lived in the neighborhood. I was putting financing together for construction, reconstruction, and development of the two properties that I owned next door and the vacant lots behind the Row House. Row House sits on a smaller corner of that lot up to the alley – shares the alley with the church.

So in 1992 when I purchased the property, I was a little overwhelmed with the brick house and the vacant house – everything was vacant by this time. Charlie, who lived in what is now known as the Worker’s Row House had moved out and went into senior living, he was by that time in his mid to late 80s. So I first found out about it then when I tried to put financing together for what I bought. Bankers and lenders said going down the street from the Row House - derelict, vacant - my house that I bought - derelict, vacant - and the apartment building, at least we had an office in it and one apartment, unrented at the time, but up for rent. It was somewhat usable. So we had derelict, derelict, almost derelict. So I began kind of in moderation digging around. Gordon Buckbee and I had met up on other occasions for the neighborhood issues and stuff, and he said the shape of the house and the three chimneys indicate that it’s a three unit building. Even then there were only two doors in the front and two doors in the back. As it turns out, it had been modified. So that’s when the story began with my concern about the house and that it had some historic significance according to Gordon Buckbee.

WW: When did it advance beyond just interest in the property? When did you start taking an active role in trying to do something with it?
TM: What we did was we had the conversation on occasion figuring a plan out and getting financing took some time. In fact, I didn’t get a full mortgage. I bought it on land contract, I couldn’t get financing. The city lenders just weren’t lending anybody money for buying a house let alone rehaping. But there were programs that I could apply for. So overtime Gordon Buckbee would say that the shape of the house, it had some history to it. He said it’s similar in shape with the peak – the Greek revival details are similar to what was built in 1817 as the first U of M [University of Michigan] building. University of Michigan building built closer into downtown. So very few people seemed to have interest in it. We looked at it as never getting into it because I didn’t have access and the church had no plans for it.

We had conversations over the course of years, I was preoccupied, my wife and I were in business, we had employees, we were preoccupied by that. The parking lot that was commercial licensed parking lot that I also purchased and the back yard of these three buildings were being used for commercial parking. I had to run that. I had a lot going on.
So up until 2002, was the first time I was able to get a mortgage. Then because I got the mortgage, I started developing plans for the property to add onto the house next door, which was going to be the house that my wife and I were going to live in. And then the rest of the restoration of the four unit apartment building. All the money I was getting from the parking lot I was putting into the apartment building. That was my resource generating that income. And then a young family moved into the apartment that was most usable. And I had a community development organization using office space and we were developing an apartment building around the corner and we had that office in one of the units. So we had two units occupied and I had a younger man who was a construction professional living and redeveloping the other two units because it needed extensive work.
So while that was going on I was filling out the paperwork for a new mortgage and a construction loan. So from 2002, five years, to 2007 we started to actually get some bites on loans and construction loans. Meanwhile, in 2001, the Community Development Corps had developed with the Housing Development Corps in Corktown and the house next door, because of Gordon’s conversation about its historic-ness and because it was modeling in similar detail as the University of Michigan building that was gone, but the design of it was similar, we had a sense it was very early. Mistakenly we thought it was probably 1820, that’s in about 2001 and 2002. We were convinced.

I was working as a volunteer and board member of the Corktown Development Corps and we were merging with the Corktown Housing Collaboration and we were able to convince the parish to change transfer the deed to the nonprofit combined effort. For a dollar we got that nonprofit switch to happen. From that point, we put a sign out not really knowing what the house was about. Knowing that it had a roof problem with a hole in the roof, we said well it’s workers housing or something like that, a pioneer house, we didn’t know what to call it, we didn’t know anything about it. And we put a sign out front and we were thinking well if it’s historic, Corktown Historical Museum. And so the sign went out front without realizing that probably that wasn’t necessarily the best way to go. House museums don’t attract many people. But nevertheless it was an iconic piece to the neighborhood. So I’m thinking at least its taking a step forward, maybe the Historical Society would get involved blah blah blah. So that’s 2001-2002.

We put together a scenario in the Michigan AIA Foundation had a grant or an award for a historical preservation effort. We submitted it and we won which gave us $10,000 in the David Evans Historical Architectural Preservation Award in 2002. We got a plaque, the strangest name for the house is on there, it’s like the workers house pioneer Corktown place museum. You know, we really didn’t know.

At the same time around 2002, a young woman who lived in the metropolitan area, I think it was Dearborn at the time was getting her masters at Ball State University in Munsey, Indiana and she needed a project for her thesis. So she asked if she could use -she saw the sign, went to the community development office where I was. At the time I had moved from the board to becoming Director of Economic Development which included some of the main street efforts that we were doing and other historic sites, Tiger stadium, because by that time the Tigers had moved out, and the train station, and strategies along with that for the rest of southwest Detroit for cultural tourism. Thinking this house next door could fit into something like that, that’s how it started to evolve.

When the AIA gave us the award, then Ellen Thackary who’s now working with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, based her research on a thesis that she was going to put together. She started that in 2003 and delivered her interpretive plan, which was her thesis, for the site and her research. From that research, she found a treasure trove of history. Because the builders of that house lived at the corner of Lebros and 6th, houses that face what are now side streets were main streets and the numbered streets were side streets, in most circumstances. And the Andrews family, she found out, both husband and wife died in the early 1850s in cholera epidemics and when Mrs. Andrews died, soon after her husband did, they left a child and because they did not have a will, all their stuff went to probate. Ellen came across that, which gave her the whole story. The whole story is that it was a three unit row house and she had the names on receipts of the people who lived there and the dates etcetera. And then that led to more research via census data and directories etcetera. Pretty extensive, but not as extensive as it could be, but that opened us up for more. Then we began to realize that it was pretty much worker class, not unlike the rest of Corktown. Corktown houses are all about the workers, the wealthier folks lived closer to the river before the railroad tracks went in in the 1860s. That disrupted all of that sort of luxury housing and beautiful farm houses from the strip farms. So then we started really opening up research.

And so I’m working as director with greater Corktown Development Corps on economic development strategies which included main street overlays and collaborations with other communities in regards to economic development throughout southwest. And listing the resources that we would have to exploit, if you will, in an economic development strategy. And from the research that Ellen delivered along with that history there is with [Detroit] Historical Society and the Historical Museum of Detroit, Ellen’s research and conclusions said that you really need to get more information and since that Row House is original to that site, it was a farm before that and before that, native settlements of some sort. Who knows what could come from an archaeological dig, see what you can do from that. So Kathy Much had been someone we had talked to, she was working with the Walter-Reuther Library at the time, she was mounting the local historical conference, she became interested. I took a graduate course in city planning with Robin Bowl at Wayne State. I met some of those folks, including Kathy. After Ellen finished and reported her work to us, we said we’ve got a chucky beautiful piece of history here in actual condition that we could somehow leverage. We got the direction from Kathy to touch base with the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State. We started to get a huge amount of information from them. Just looking at it, they decided that they would initiate a class for archaeological digs at the site and in the fall of 2006, they began what was a three year dig. Extensive research and incredible amounts of material came from that and we’re in 2019. That led to two other residential sites, for comparison to the Row House site, and then on into Roosevelt park, which is a former part of the neighborhood that 110 some houses and buildings were demoed to create the park.

So we have this huge collection of materials and research that keeps building because students are taking that information and doing more research. They’re assembling pieces, fragments, into items and putting them together that were pulled up. There’s like 6000 pieces that just came up from the Row House alone. There’s an additional 2-4,000 in the two other sites and an additional 3,000 pieces from the Roosevelt Park site that are archived. So in the process of developing historic and cultural tourism as an economic development tool, we are beginning to assemble these archived research materials.

So we began to think, we’ve got a site in Corktown we could use combined offices for. We were developing a business association at the time; the nonprofit in Corktown strategically bought storefronts, interviewed potential owners, and resold them. We flipped property as a nonprofit and the profits then went into operational costs for the nonprofit which won all kinds of accolades with other funders so we could start getting money for the Tigers Stadium site to help us envision that because that’s a historic site and to strategically work with the people who owned the train station to see if we could save that. And to be able to go to hearings, to pay people to go to a hearing so we could find out the strategies of the owners of the train station and then begin to link ourselves with other historic sites so we could come up with a cultural tourist strategy that would drive that concept of having tours and having events related to the history.

Being down on the river, being close to where the city was founded, Corktown is strategic in its incredible potential for history. And that takes us back to Native American, not just the Irish landing in the 1820s and 30s and during the famine. And then we also, through that research, in fact we have the title of the exhibit, in 2010 there were two exhibits, one here at the [Detroit] Historical Museum, talking about Corktown and its future, and the other one, simultaneous, was the materials that were dug up from the Worker’s Row House site. And we were going to leverage that into the development of the site.

Unfortunately, the nonprofit closed and for five years the Row House sat with no activity because we didn’t have control of it and the committee was sort of drained out. There was never a board of directors; it was never a separate entity which we had hoped it would become. We had interested a great deal of people, but in hindsight, Ellen came out with a strategy to develop the house as a historical museum and have three units represent certain eras: the 1850s, post-civil war, and the 1920s. Roughly 1900 to 1920 the boom that leveled a whole bunch of stuff, including after Roosevelt Park and after Michigan Ave being gutted on the south side of Michigan, about 90% of the historic Victorian commercial district of Corktown was gone. Then the industrial area to the south of Corktown was gone, then downtown expanded in high rises and office buildings so that the part of Corktown that went into 1st, and 2nd, and 3rd, Plum Street was one of those, that’s all gone. What’s left of Corktown is about a tenth of what was here originally.

So we still felt that it had some guts to it; that the historic designation of Corktown Residential District was going to make an impact. And the people who made up the Community Development Corps were for the most part residents who were active enough on the board. Not necessarily staff, although we did have myself and three out of the six staff, half of the staff, were residents. So it was a neighborhood community effort with community meetings that sort of outlined the strategy on how the Row House was going to evolve. Ellen’s suggestion was house museum, then we took people on road trips to other house museums and we found out that these had these huge financial efforts behind them to make community wide historic commissions fund these houses where when we went on the tour, we were the only people in those houses. So we started changing the direction. We partnered the Worker’s Row House Development Project, now known as Corktown Experience, developing the Row House.

WW: When did that change happen?

TM: That change happened over the time period that the house was stagnant. The nonprofit that owned it never switched the deed but we knew that eventually they would and I was going to take them to court if they weren’t going to because my development –my wife and I had designated the house next door to go to the project because they needed facility and service at the site in order for it to be dynamic and it’s during those concepts that we went from house museum, and this is roughly in 2006, when the dig started.

The house was designated a Cool Cities Project in 2005 which gave the committee $100,000 to do something with the site of the Row House and what the committee decided to do was take it back to its original design elements of three doors in the front, three doors in the back, a window on the second floor and a window on the first floor for each unit in the front and back. And that design element would hold true to the 1850s.
They completed that and we were about to move into the house next door when the nonprofit shut its doors and that transaction hadn’t happened. My wife and I had decided, even after we got financing and historic tax credits approved for an addition that we were going to put on the house next door, when the Row House project started to kind of grow in interest and the exhibits here seemed to be holding a lot of promise in terms of attracting the kind of funds the Row House was going to need to develop the whole site, the two houses, both houses being very significant for separate reasons but still 1850s. So it was right around 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 that we began to realize it shouldn’t be strictly a place for historic exhibit of how people lived in each unit and more a flexible social neighborhood operational center that had that scholarship and had that research that we could partner with the likes of anthropology, the Historical Society of Detroit, along with attracting Corktown’s Historical Society into the project tin some way or another. They have been hesitant because they put on the home tour and they put on the Pumpkin Fest, social events that sort of enhance the neighborhood but taking on a piece of property was a challenge, too much of one.

So it took us a while to finally get them to think that they need to participate. But they’re thinking essentially that idea of pooling co-working space for the business association, which now has spun off and it’s becoming its own nonprofit, for the business association for Historical Society and for the Neighborhood Resident Committee because no one has a meeting space or an office so we thought that the Row House or the house next door could function as that. And build a pavilion so there’s food service on a daily basis, there’s meeting rooms in each room of the Row House and there’s a bigger pavilion space, a glorified year round tent, and facilities of a commercial kitchen and restrooms that service these three locations, but enough of a generating activity that people will go back to the site. If people would’ve come to those three little rooms set up in 1850 or 1870 or 1920, they would see it once and they would go away. Just wouldn’t be dynamic.

So that organization partners with museums and anthropology and we have archived material responsibly taken care of. One of the things in the process of developing this site, we went to the Michigan Museum Association and a former director sat and said that historic sites throughout Michigan are nice and wonderful, but very deficient in responsibly taking care of their materials. We look at our materials as being resources for funding potential. Books, publications, films, conversations, tours, all of that sort of feeds that machinery of cultural tourism. And it’s Corktown’s. Corktown Experience in partnership and relationship has access, priority access, to Corktown related materials. We’re still crafting those agreements, we’re still getting memos of agreement, not just understanding, but agreement. So if somebody goes into, from somewhere upstate, and goes into the archives of our materials, Corktown’s materials, at Wayne State Museum of Anthropology, there’s a connection then that’s made with whoever is in that position to contact Corktown. So that we know what’s happening and we can co-market ourselves with a book, a movie, with lecture series. So that more than answers your question ha ha.

WW: What were some of your first steps in getting the project jumpstarted again after you got the house back, after the five year hiatus?

TM: Well, during the process, because I had just mortgaged and construction loan which was going to include the house next door, I had a substantial mortgage based on a job that I had with a nonprofit that was developing Corktown, Tiger Stadium site, Michigan Ace, and the Row House. I had to get a job and the kind of work that I needed to get was project management for data and telephone systems. And my client that I had worked with previously, mostly remotely, was in California in the Bay Area of San Francisco so I left town and worked out there consistently from February of 2010 to January of 2016. I would come home occasionally. I was staying with my wife’s relatives, her sister, single sister lives in San Francisco. And during the job out there, so my wife would come there to visit, I was coming home on occasion.

Meanwhile I was talking about this project, because it was right next door, and then we got screwed out of selling the house and having that happen. So we’re sitting next to one of the worst dilapidated house in Corktown and that’s not fun because it’s a small neighborhood and people talk. So we got through that, it motivated me in my free time because I was out there and I did one job, which granted it took maybe 12 hours a day, 60 some hours a week in certain times. A lot of times I just had the evenings free which was incredible for me because as a community development corps we were going to all kinds of meetings 4-5 times a week plus events. Because we were selling to businesses, businesses were opening up and you had those things to go to and we had this collaboration so I was really hectic here. When I got there I had free time. When I got there I was able to kind of think it out.

In 2011 I incorporated a new nonprofit and I believe we called it the Worker’s Row House thinking eventually I’m going to get that thing. It’s going to come to me, and if it doesn’t I’ll have to make a legal step to do it. So I started setting aside resources for potential legal fight. That was October 2011 and in the two years that followed, Wayne State kept coming to the site on the day of the home tour and they did demonstration digs, they showed off objects that they had pulled up, students were still writing their theses, still doing research. I would come home for that home tour, I wouldn’t necessarily have much to do with it, but I would be there. I would also participate in walking tours during that time because through this process I’ve learned a heck of a lot of history, just osmosis and listening to this stuff; stuff that’s kind of interesting and exciting.

So right around then 2014 we made the app location in I believe January of 2014, by October of 2014 we had the 501C3 status which flipped me out it happened so quickly, and so we had the nonprofit status for that. And then in 2015 I made some inquiries about the deed and made some suggestions with legal overtones and by January of 2016 the property was transferred not to the nonprofit but to me personally and Sarah my wife. And then 24 hours later we transferred it with no cost, the burden was the nonprofit sat on it and it acquired back taxes. One of the impudence for them to get rid of it was they were facing tax foreclosure. So here you are kiss off. It really cheesed me but we got it and then I didn’t want it personally, it shouldn’t have come to me personally; I don’t know why they did that. It should’ve gone right to the nonprofit even though the nonprofit was new, it didn’t have really capacity, it still doesn’t, it’s 2019. But it’s getting there and having these exhibits on a larger scale outside of the area puts that Row House into the position it needs to be regionally and locally. It’s the only one left like it although there were 30-40 of those scattered about the district of Corktown from downtown 1st street out to 28th from the 1850s and 60s. So it’s significant, that house has a tale to tell and because we’re in a city of workers and a city that was built by workers, Corktown is all about that. Those houses are humble cottages from the 1840s to the 1890s and the Victorians are a little bit more middle class, but still workers so it’s all about the workers. And in the nation of the immigrant, there isn’t anything more historic than a tenement and the stories about those people and so it’s all about what we’ve trademarked, the Courageous OrdinaryTM.

[End of Track 1]

Search Terms

Detroit, Corktown, Row House, Michigan Restoration


“Tim McKay,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed December 8, 2023, http://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/763.

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