The Canary House – Restoration of a Historic Treasure
328 West Wooster Street
The “Canary House” is a single-family Italianate structure built by John Wayne Canary around 1878 on Union Street (now West Wooster Street). Originally the home was painted Tuscan red, gaslights provided illumination, the bathroom was an outhouse, and the access street was unpaved. Over the years, the building has served many roles, including a sorority house for BGSU, a multi-unit structure, a multi-employee business, and then finally a single-family house again.
John Canary was a prominent Bowling Green attorney who served on City Council in 1869 and was Mayor of Bowling Green in 1872-73. Canary probably used the first floor’s east wing, with its separate entrance, for his law practice. His office had its own outside entrance with easy access to the streetcar line that ran down West Wooster and connected with other lines at the intersection of Wooster and Main Streets. John Canary’s son Russell was also an attorney who established his own law office on the upper floor of a building on the east side of South Main Street. Russell was a leading member of a group that worked to bring a teacher training institution (then Bowling Green Normal College, now Bowling Green State University) to Bowling Green.
According to “The Way It Was” in an article by the Sentinel-Tribune, the Bowling Green women’s suffrage movement began in the parlor of the Canary home. And the parlor may have been used for performances of the Normal College’s drama department in the days before the college had suitable space of its own. Mrs. Canary was a leading proponent of the juvenile home which was built (and the building remains) on the south side of the 500 block of West Wooster Street.
Meanwhile, sometime between 1888 and the early 1900s, the house itself underwent some significant changes. A two-story addition, somewhat lower in height than the original 1879 structure, was constructed at the rear of the home, and a second story was added to the front porch. Later a detached, two-car garage was added toward the back of the property. The house remained in the Canary family until about 1925.
By 1929 the property had changed owners twice, and it was then purchased by the Sears family. During the depths of the Great Depression, the male head of the household passed away. His wife, however, continued living in the home, and for three years Mrs. Sears became the housemother for the Five Sister Sorority. To accommodate the sorority, a porch on the west side of the house was enclosed, a stairway was built to the second story, and a fire escape tower was added to the rear. By this time, the Bowling Green Normal College had become a four-year state college, and then in 1935, the school was given full university status as Bowling Green State University. Photos in the 1936 BGSU yearbook, The Key, show 45 members of this sorority in front of the house and four members studying in a bedroom; both the exterior and interior wood trim remain today as they are in the photos.
The sorority moved on and the house with its separate entrances to the upstairs became a multi-family home. At one time, the first floor was divided into two units--one using the double front door for an entrance, and the other using a kitchen door on the west side for its entrance. Sometime during the Sears era, the house (along with every other frame house on West Wooster Street between Main Street and Haskins Road) was painted white.
In 1972, ownership passed to Roger Gross, a member of the faculty of BGSU’s theatre department. Gross continued to rent the upstairs spaces, and he also made use of the home’s dirt-floor cellar with field-stone walls. Community members remember attending candle-lit performances in the rooms in the cellar, and one particularly dark and dreary space was used as the setting for making a movie of an Anton Chekhov play. Still life photographs of the play’s “jail cell” show a bunk bed that still exists but has been adaptively reused as a wine bin.
Richard Zeller, a member of BGSU’s sociology department, bought the home in 1980. He used the second-floor space to start a market research and consulting business. Employees entered the offices by way of the fire escape tower that had been added for the safety of the sorority members in the 1930s. Eventually the firm (AZG Research) employed too many people, exceeding the City’s zoning requirements, so the business was temporarily moved to East Wooster Street. During this period, the owners upgraded the electrical system to commercial standards, installed three zones of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, and otherwise brought the structure up to date.
The next residents were also connected to BGSU. Dr. Bill Knight headed BGSU’s Office of Institutional Research, and in 2000 he and his wife began efforts to restore the home’s interior to its former glory. Now for the first time in over 60 years, the house had only one address and one resident family. Happily, much of the original interior remained intact: hardwood floors, crown moldings, ceiling medallions, baseboards, doors, first-growth windows with wavy glass panes, hardware (such as doorknobs and heating grates), and fixtures. The Knights upgraded the upstairs bath to serve as a master bath and they hung period-appropriate wallpaper in the rooms toward the front of the house on both floors. The Knights also restored the exterior of the house to a midnight rose, approximating the paint color found when restorations uncovered traces of the original paint. The four-color scheme is typical of the late 19th century period, a time when white paint did not stand up well to soot and other pollutants.
The current owners, George and Susan Winters, took possession of the home in 2011 and they have continued with major restoration efforts. They have added a three-car garage, gutted and renovated the kitchen (resulting in the restoration of the original high ceiling and hardwood floor), gutted an upstairs kitchen and converted it into a master bath suite, and removed anachronisms like the storm doors that masked the original carved oak double entrance doors. Interior features include an original marble fireplace, original hardwood floors on the first floor, ceiling medallions, electric chandeliers converted from gas fixtures, ten-and-a-half foot ceilings, and extensive woodwork such as the seventeen-layer crown moldings. Antiques such as a Hoosier, a chestnut ice box, and an oak medicine cabinet complement the solid oak kitchen pantry, which was restored after removing at least eight layers of paint.
In 2013, the North Branch Nursery designed and installed a Victorian garden in the back yard complete with a “grand alee” and a rose garden. All of these renovations and additions were accomplished in conformance with “The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties,” following these common-sense historic preservation principles which protect the nation’s irreplaceable cultural resources. George and Susan report that renovation and restoration of the home has arrived at a point where only “small” tasks remain (e.g., polishing brass that has been tarnishing for years, removing layers of paint from finely detailed cast hinges, and repairing exterior “gingerbread” trim).
One hundred forty-four years after its construction, the maple trees in front of the house are larger, the kitchen and bathrooms all have modern conveniences, the rooms are air-conditioned in the summer, and the television and the internet are completely wired. Otherwise, much is unchanged. Of course today the streets are paved, there is electric lighting, there is a large first-class university in town, women can vote, airplanes fly overhead, and many other things have come to pass. However, the historic house at 328 West Wooster Street is still standing proudly and stately as a happy memory of the 19th century.
(Written by George & Susan Winters, owners and occupants, and edited by John Sampen, Historic Preservation Commission member)