Morton Hill Resurgence
BENTON HARBOR — Supporters of Morton Hill in Benton Harbor want to make sure they are part of the rejuvenation of the city as former factory towns bounce back.
“Nationwide, not just Benton Harbor, we see a resurgence of downtowns and cities,” said historian Chuck Jager, who lived on the hill for 10 years and is a longtime member of the board of directors for the Morton House Museum. “People are now going, ‘Hey, I want to live in cities. I want to hang out in cities.’ It’s becoming the cool thing to do.”
Jager spoke Saturday about the history of Morton Hill at First Presbyterian Church, which has been on the hill for almost 125 years.
After his presentation, the future of the hill was discussed by people from the museum, the church and the Morton Hill Improvement Association.
Association founder Corey Bell said he grew up in Benton Harbor and bought a house on Morton Hill in 2003.
“I like that Morton Hill is adjacent to the new Benton Harbor,” he said. “There’s movement in the (Benton Harbor) Arts District.”
In addition, he said he has always admired the Morton House.
“It is elegant,” he said. “I love those pillars. And I’m into the historical significance.”
Bell said he has teamed up with First Presbyterian Church on several projects to clean up the hill. His association meets at 7 p.m. the last Tuesday of every month at the church.
“My whole goal is to shine a spotlight on this little special section of town,” he said. “I want to let my fellow Benton Harbor (residents) know that we’ve got to become better stewards of Territorial Road and Morton Hill. I believe we’ve inherited a very special neighborhood.”
To help highlight Morton Hill, Bell said his association will build a welcome area at the corner of Paw Paw Avenue and Territorial Road this summer using $25,000 in grant money issued last fall by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Besides the welcome area, he said the money will be used to hire an architect to draw plans for the area along Territorial Road and Paw Paw and Waukonda avenues.
He said the plans will be used to attract additional grants to fund improvements.
“We’re trying to build momentum and make it contagious,” he said.
The Rev. Laurie Hartzell of First Presbyterian Church said the church is looking at how it can improve Morton Hill.
“This church, it’s heartbeat is partnerships with the community,” she said. “It’s really put its money into that and not into bricks and mortar.”
But, she said the building is more than 50 years old and in need of repair.
“We had to decide what are we going to do with our building,” she said. “… The church is the people, not the building. Should we stay here?”
She said the roof leaks in the winter and the narrow hallways create a cramped feeling.
“We basically heard in the community that they want us to stay,” she said. “So, we’ve decided to stay.”
Hartzell said it is estimated to cost $800,000 to fix the roof and expand the entrance of the church to make it more welcoming.
“We don’t have a lot of space for children and youth activities. Opening up our (entryway) also opens up other space in the building to be used for other things,” she said.
She said the church is raising the money before it starts construction.
In addition, Morton House Museum has plans for expansion.
Jager said when the museum opens for the season May 14, it will unveil an archive room, which was built by his son, Sam Jager, as his Eagle Scout project.
“It will be a place where people can do research and use our materials,” he said.
He said the Morton House will have a busy summer as it holds activities celebrating the city’s 150th anniversary.
Jager said the board’s long-term plan for the Morton House is to rebuild the Morton barn, which got termites and was torn down in the 1960s. He said the rebuilt barn would be used for additional exhibit space and office space.