In the early twentieth century the Michigan Observation Company built a tower in the Irish Hills of southeastern Michigan. This annoyed a neighbor, who retaliated by building an observation tower of his own – only his was taller. The company responded by matching the height, to which the neighbor countered with several more feet of his own, again matched by the company. Eventually a truce was negotiated, and the towers, which stood just a dozen feet away from each other, operated independently for decades.
For 76 years the towers stood as a roadside beacon for travelers along U.S. 12. in Michigan, however a steady decline in visitors since the 1970’s forced its owners to close the regional icons in 2000. Today they are poor condition, and require extensive repairs to avoid being demolished. Will they be saved?
Around the time the state of Michigan was officially added to the Union (1837), Irish immigrants were settling in the southeastern area of the state. They named the region “Irish Hills” because its crystal lakes and undulating topography reminded the settlers of their homeland. For nearly one hundred years the residents of the Irish Hills farmed and enjoyed a quiet, but busy life.
[ Did You Know? A person in Michigan is never more than 6 miles (9.7 km) from a natural water source. ]
A regional transformation began in the early twentieth century which brought about a shift in priorities from farming to tourism. At the time the Irish Hills were still traversed by dirt road, but anticipation of a new paved surface from Detroit to Chicago brought a commercialized interest in capitalizing on the area’s natural beauty. The highway that traverses the Irish Hills, known today as U.S. 12, was a former Native American road known as the “Great Sauk Trail.”
With plans in place by the state to start paving the “Chicago Road” in 1926, businesses began planning tourist destination stops to take advantage of the region’s beautiful views. One such outfit was the Michigan Observation Company (MOC), an enterprise that made a business of erecting 50-foot (15m) observation towers around Michigan to boost tourism.
The Brighton Tower
For its Lewanee County location, the MOC chose a knoll overlooking Iron Lake as the ideal spot to build a tower. The knoll was bisected by a property line: On one side was the farm of Edward Kelly, on the other side was the farm of Thomas Brighton.
In 1924 the MOC approached Edward Kelly and inquired about purchasing his property on the knoll to build an observation tower. However Mr. Kelly was not interested in bringing crowds to his property, and passed on the offer. The MOC then asked Kelly’s neighbor, Thomas Brighton, if they could purchase his property. Brighton was more receptive and allowed the sale.
As it would be, the highest point on Brighton’s land stood just six feet from the property line with Edward Kelly. It was there the MOC decided to build its tower, a fifty-foot tall wooden structure with a twenty-four feet square base.
The observatory was opened during a gala celebration on October 4th and 5th of 1924. During its first weekend more than 1,200 visitors paid five cents to ascend the stairs of the Brighton Tower and enjoy the stunning views of “the ‘Hills.”
[ Other Michigan towers: The 109-foot-tall White Swan Tower (pictured), built in 1930 along then-US 127 (now US 223) near Devils Lake, had an elevator to the viewing platform. In 1945 most of the top floors were taken off and the building was used as a restaurant and bar; the rest of the tower was demolished in 2001. The 50-foot Bundy Hill observatory, built in 1924 on US 12 north of Jerome (map), was also built by the MOC and had a similar in design to the Irish Hills towers. It was torn down around 1956, and today the site is one of the state’s largest gravel pits. ]
The Spite Tower
Ed Kelly was not pleased, and decided to build his own tower just twelve feet away. Only Kelly would build his taller. His monument to stubbornness was erected less than sixty days later, opening in late November of 1924. Known as the Gray Tower due to its lack of adornment and drab paint, Kelly’s tower stood 60 feet tall (18m) and eclipsed the MOC tower by ten feet (3m).
The MOC responded to what became known as Kelly’s “Spite Tower” by erecting a second observation enclosure on top of their existing tower, raising its overall height to 64 feet (19.5m). In a passive-aggressive jab, the MOC re-named their tower “The Original Irish Hills Tower.” Kelly returned volley by adding a raised platform to his tower, also bringing it to 64 feet in height. However he did not paint his tower, which earned it the “Gray Tower” moniker.
Before Kelly could surpass the MOC tower in height once more, the company threatened to demolish its tower and construct a metal observatory so large, Kelly’s efforts would be for naught. The farmer acquiesced, and instead focused his efforts toward maximizing revenue from the new venture.
During the primordial years of the two towers, the Michigan Observation Company’s “Original Tower” was the superior visit. The company’s greater resources allowed for more amenities, such as an arcade, a gas station, a pet feeding station, picnic grounds, and a restaurant – all within several years of opening. The Original Tower also had the giant telescope formerly used at the Chicago World’s Fair installed on its observation deck.
A tourism boost came to the Irish Hills in 1927, when the stretch of the old Chicago Road (known today as U.S. 12) by the towers was finally paved. Greyhound added a bus terminal, and by 1929 up to fifty-two buses a day stopped at the Irish Hills Towers. The buses dropped off thousands of people stopping to climb the observatories or grab a bite to eat.
Fires were a problem. Two fires in 1931 claimed the barbecue restaurant, bus station, and the Original Tower Café and Hotel. Each was promptly rebuilt. Thanks to favorable winds, the towers were spared. The Original Tower restaurant and hotel would burn in another fire in 1949, only to be rebuilt a third time.
Views from the Irish Hills Towers
Combining the Towers
During World War II the Irish Hills waned in popularity among tourists. In 1944 the Michigan Observation Company opted to exit the business, and sold its interest in the Original Tower to Frank Lamping, the man who hatched the idea to join the towers. Mr. Lamping approached Mr. Kelly to make an offer on the second tower, however Kelly rebuffed Lamping’s overtures.
Watch: A trip to the Irish Hills Towers in the 1940s
For the next decade the towers enjoyed a brief renaissance, partially fueled by the post-war boom in the United States. Returning GI’s were buying cars, and road trips were returning to popularity.
When Ed Kelly died in 1955, his estate sold the Gray Tower to Frank Lamping. Thirty one years after they were built, the Irish Hills Towers finally shared an owner. Under Lamping the towers enjoyed a significant renovation; he connected them via a gift shop on the ground floor and allowed guests to ascend both towers for the price of one admission.
Mid-century, the Irish Hills enjoyed a resurgence as U.S. 12 became littered with attractions. Up sprouted a frontier city, Mystery Hill, and a prehistoric forest. By 1966 two million guests had visited the towers of Irish Hills.
Rough Patches in the 1960s & 70s
Lamping devoted more than twenty years to the towers before selling them to Anthony and Janet Moustakases in 1966. The following year construction began on the Michigan International Speedway, just five and a half miles away from the Irish Hills towers.
Seeking to capitalize on the expected increase in traffic, the new owners decided to build a restaurant on top of the towers. The original tower tops were removed, but the project ran out of money before the restaurant was built.
A tight financial situation also forced the owners to close the attraction for several years. From 1967 until 1972, the Irish Hills towers remained topless.
Help came with new ownership in 1972. That year, Allen and Dorothy Good of the Killdowney Corporation purchased the towers and began a major refurbishment. The grounds were re-landscaped, the towers repainted and repaired.
The Goods spent $40,000 replacing the observation decks in June of 1972. Two, five-ton platforms were assembled on the ground before being lifted into position by an eighty-foot hydraulic crane (pictured). For the first time in nearly 50 years, the towers matched in appearance.
The Goods also alleviated two-way congestion in the tower staircases by adding the walkway across the tops of the two towers. This 1972 addition allowed visitors to ascend in the east tower and descend in the west tower. In July of that year a local newspaper announced the revival by proclaiming “the Irish Hills Towers shall rise again.” (pictured)
But it was a short Renaissance. After two years revenue from the gates was failing to pay the bills. The Goods could no longer repay the loans, and in late 1974 the National Bank of Jackson assumed ownership on the defaulted mortgage.
Good fortune would smile upon the Irish Hills Towers in May of 1976, when Ronald and Donna Boglarsky of Onsted, Michigan, purchased the landmark attraction from the National Bank of Jackson. Like the previous two owners, the couple had an analogous vision to renovate and re-open the towers. Unlike the previous two owners, Ronald and Donna completed their renovations and enjoyed a modicum of success.
After extensive renovations in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the towers were once again a popular stop along the Heritage Trail across Southern Michigan. In 1986 up to three hundred visitors per day were still paying admission ($1.00 for adults, 50 cents for children) to catch a glimpse of the glorious Irish Hills.
In 1987 the “Leprechaun Hills” 18-hole miniature golf course was added to the base of the Irish Hills Towers, with hopes of stimulating traffic. Ten years into their ownership, the Boglarskys had successfully revived the towers.
Throughout the 1990’s, the towers experienced a marked decrease in visitors. Toward the end of the century, operative costs were growing while revenues were declining. By the year 2000, the Irish Hills towers had been an area icon for seventy-six years; they would not be open for their seventy-seventh.
After the summer season in 2000, Ronald and Donna Boglarsky closed the towers to the public.
[ The Irish Hills Towers were added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 2, 2007. ]
Ongoing Threat of Demolition
For the next ten years the towers remained closed and slowly deteriorated. After Ronald Boglarsky passed away in 2008, Donna assumed control of the towers and began an aggressive campaign to preserve and restore the local icons. Donna founded the Irish Hills Historical Society in 2010, and later deeded the property to the non-profit in 2013.
Meanwhile, the towers’ deterioration landed them in the cross-hairs of Cambridge Township officials, who in April of 2013 deemed the eighty-nine year-old towers unsafe. Ideally, the township wanted to see repair work begin; however an extended period of inactivity left city officials with little faith of the owner’s financial capability to make progress.
According to township building official Bruce Nickel, the towers had “severely deteriorated because of the weather and the openings and the condition they’re in. The integrity of the structures is to the point where they’re unsafe.” The towers were declared a public nuisance, and in violation of a local buildings ordinance.
In May of 2013 local papers revealed the Irish Hills Towers needed $300,000 in repairs by August 1st, 2013, to avoid being torn down. Donna Boglarsky intensified fundraising efforts and increased lobbying of city officials to give the society an extension.
She hoped that removing the tops of the towers and performing some stabilization would forestall the demolition order. Township officials made no promises, but agreed to re-evaluate after the work was done.
The historical society began removing the tops of the towers on July 1st, 2013, with repairs conducted shortly thereafter. More detail was provided on the historical society’s Facebook page:
“The first step is the removal of the top platform and the top floor of the Towers. The construction of a temporary roof on each tower will follow. This work, along with some minor repairs in other places, hopefully, will remove the order of demolition that has been issued by the Township as long as the Township feels they are no longer dangerous. Then we will look forward to construction new top floors, viewing platforms and connecting bridge as the next big phase of the renovation of these iconic structures.”
North American Dismantling, the company hired for demolishing the Irish Hills Towers, was the bearer of bad news. In their opinion, deterioration was so advanced the society’s hope to remove the tower tops and make repairs was “not a possibility.” To their estimation, it had become a dismantling project.
“A lot of people hate to see the towers come down, but they are ALMOST BEYOND REPAIR.”
– Harvey Hawkins, Cambridge Township Supervisor
Boglarsky’s hands may have been tied, but the towers still needed to be brought up to code. And there was no guarantee the project would save the towers from demolition. Nevertheless, Donna loaned the society $20,000 toward removing the tops, installing temporary roofs, and securing the water leaks plaguing the bases of the towers. In July of 2013, cranes brought the tower tops back down.
The minim of progress wasn’t enough to avoid the demolition order, but it did buy the historical society more time to conduct additional fundraising. Over the course of the next year progress in both fundraising and restoration was falling behind schedule. In August of 2014, the township reminded Boglarsky the towers needed $200,000 in repairs to avoid demolition. The clock was ticking.
“At times, it’s looked like there might be hope for the towers, but they have kind of REACHED A STANDSTILL on fund-raising.”
– Rick Richardson, clerk of the Cambridge Township Board
A Stay of Execution
In September of 2014 the Irish Hills Historical Society presented a letter to the Cambridge Township Board from a Michigan state historic architect. In the letter, professional architect Scott McElrath praised the historical society’s work and offered the opinion the towers were no longer structurally dangerous.
With these new developments, the Cambridge Township Board voted in September of 2014 to defer demolition proceedings.
Observation deck removal, 2013
(courtesy Irish Hills Historical Society)
But after nearly another year of inactivity at the towers, the board’s goodwill evaporated. In July of 2015 the Cambridge Township Board were again angling to implement the dangerous building ordinance to force demolition of the Irish Hills Towers. The board did give Boglarsky another extension, this time sixty days to provide a “detailed, step-by-step way of how they are going to redo those towers and where they are going to get the financing from.”
“We’ve given extension after extension trying to AVOID THE INEVITABLE.”
– Bruce Nickel, Cambridge Township building inspector
The cost to demolish the towers was the responsibility of the Historical Society, and according to attorney James Weiner, if there is no money to maintain the towers “the Township has the legal right to tear them down.” In July of 2015, Nickel estimated demolition would lighten the society’s wallet by $50,000. Boglarsky wasn’t having much luck with fundraising. At the time she and the Historical Society had only managed to raise $10,000. Making matters worse, they had been turned down for three preservation grants.
As a last-gasp effort, in early fall of 2015 the Irish Hills Historical Society filed a suit to appeal the Board’s decision to demolish the towers. James Weiner, attorney for the historical society, accused the township board of using the ordinance “because of its desire to redevelop the area, and the length of time it is taking plaintiff to raise the funds to rehabilitate the towers.”
“Currently, the towers are stable and safe for its current purpose, e.g. a vacant building awaiting rehabilitation. They are not in danger of IMMINENT COLLAPSE.”
– James Weiner, attorney for IHHS
An amicable resolution was reached in October of 2015. The Irish Hills Historical Society agreed to drop its lawsuit against the Township in exchange for another extension to stabilize and preserve the towers.
This time the historical society teamed up with a financially backed partner, JDS Historical. The firm offered to perform the structural repairs, and donated $35,000 toward the $92,000 project. Bogarsky had recently sold some property and was able to furnish the remaining amount, which gave the project the green light.
With the financial dilemma apparently solved, the Township Board unanimously voted to allow JDS Historical to proceed with the preservation. The proposed work includes new siding, stairs, and windows, as well as repairs to the ground-level gift shop. Barring unexpected delays, JDSH expected to start in the spring of 2016, and to finish by mid- to late-June.
According to building inspector Bruce Nickel, the work does not include electrical and properly structured exits. “It may improve the envelope of the building, but not take care of enough so they would be able to be opened to the public.”
“THE GOAL IS TO HAVE THE TOWERS OPEN, at least for limited tours, by June .”
– Dean Sutton, president of JDS Historical
During its heyday the Irish Hills offered a campground, carnival rides, a dance hall, three gas stations, a miniature golf course, a small zoo, and two inns that were supported by three restaurants. These attractions of the Irish Hills were popular for more than half a century, a requisite stop-over along the historic U.S. 12 corridor.
Now the towers – sans their observation platforms – barely peek above the area’s ungroomed overgrowth. It is a lonely highway that passes by the headless sentinels today, with only the abandoned Bucky’s and Kelly’s On the Hill (a relic from the Edward Kelly era) keeping company across the street. When the Irish Hills Towers closed in 2000, they offered the same sweeping views of the beautiful Irish Hills as they did in 1924. What changed?
One significant hurdle was the early 1960’s opening of the faster and larger interstate I-94, which spanned southern Michigan and diverted a sizable amount of traffic from U.S. 12. Around the same time, tourism was experiencing a qualitative change. Travelers had less free time and wanted to move faster with less distraction. Over the last fifty years the journey has taken a backseat to the destination. Air travel supplanted interstate jaunts, smartphones and tablets replaced prehistoric forests and mini-golf as the du jour entertainment appliances during road-trips.
When Chicago’s 1,729-foot Sears Tower was completed in 1973, the views from the 64-foot tall Irish Hills Towers were perhaps less spectacular. When the 750-foot Renaissance Center in Detroit was finished in 1977, the Irish Hills Towers were book-ended by the tallest buildings in each state. Attractions in Lewanee County had fallen by the wayside as travelers sought more impressive sights.
In the mid-1980’s a Detroit News reporter visited the towers and described the comparatively meager panorama as including “seven houses, a barn, two shops, four lakes, two boats and every shade of green appropriate to the Irish Hills around them.” It was beautiful, but it was not enough. Tastes had changed; the bar for travel entertainment had been raised.
But if the song of the Irish Hills lures future generations to the area again, the towers might still be around – thanks to the hard work of Donna Boglarsky, the Irish Hills Historical Society, and JDS Historical.
“We don’t intend to abandon the fight yet… I’m keeping MY FINGERS CROSSED.”
– Donna Boglarsky