2018-06-14 / Life in Leelanau

Biographer helps Leelanau discover big works of a little-known architect

By Jen Murphy
Of The Enterprise staff


PETERSEN-DESIGNED. The Suttons Bay Union School was designed by one of the first licensed architects in the state of Michigan: Jens C. Petersen. 
Photo Courtesy of Leelanau Historical Society Museum PETERSEN-DESIGNED. The Suttons Bay Union School was designed by one of the first licensed architects in the state of Michigan: Jens C. Petersen. Photo Courtesy of Leelanau Historical Society Museum Most Leelanau County residents do not know his name.

But they do know his buildings.

One of the first licensed architects in Michigan, Jens C. Petersen, designed Empire School, Maronook and the Mercantile building in Leland, the Poor Farm buildings, the stone school in Suttons Bay, cottages in Leland and at the south end of Lake Leelanau, as well as a house on Gull Island.

Those who have not heard Petersen’s name aren’t alone. Historian and biographer Julie Schopieray had never heard of him until she came across his name 10 years ago.

“I discovered his name while doing research, and a friend of mine told me about his plan books,” Schopieray said. “Then things snowballed out of control. I found out he was quite an interesting guy. And the more I found, the more I wanted to find.”


LELAND’S MARONOOK. The home of Walter T. Best, also known as Maro the Magician, was designed by Jens C. Petersen. 
Photo Courtesy of Leelanau Historical Society Museum LELAND’S MARONOOK. The home of Walter T. Best, also known as Maro the Magician, was designed by Jens C. Petersen. Photo Courtesy of Leelanau Historical Society Museum Petersen’s work was so interesting to Schopieray she wrote a book about him.

Her book, “Jens C. Petersen: From Bricklayer to Architect: The Life and Works of a Visionary Michigan Architect,” was published last year.

Schopieray said Petersen started his career as a bricklayer when he was a teen and later moved to Chicago to pursue a degree in architecture before returning to northern Michigan, where he lived for 35 years.

She said she came across his name in old newspapers.

“Petersen was featured in stories about buildings being built,” she said. “He also placed advertisements for his mail-order house plans in various publications.”

Schopieray added that during her seven years of research she was surprised by the reach of Petersen’s influence.

“He sent house plans all over the world,” she said. “People somehow found his advertisements, and he sent his plan book to them.” In fact, Schopieray said Petersen’s plans traveled as far as Spain, India, South America, Cuba and Norway.

Perhaps attractive to all people, Petersen specialized in “affordable housing.” Designing homes constructed with concrete block instead of lumber was Schopieray’s specialty. This choice of material cut expenses considerably.

Because he had practical experience as a builder prior to becoming an architect, Petersen could provide everything needed to build the house he designed. Schopieray said when a customer received a plan from Petersen, they would receive everything needed except labor.

“Everything was included,” Schopieray said. “You would send for a plan book and receive all the prices. You knew up front how much your house was going to cost you. He would price it all out for you. All the person would have to find is someone to build it for them.”

Petersen was known for his sense of humor, according to Schopieray.

“I managed to find his grandson, who lives in Nevada,” she said. “I contacted him and he dug out a box with pictures and scrapbooks. There was one photo that set the tone for his personality as I was learning about him.”

This photo is of an 18 year-old Petersen standing with a group of construction workers, raising his shovel up in the air. “He was a jokester,” said Schopieray. “He had a sense of humor. He’s just a unique kind of person. Selfmade, a self-promoter. He started out as a common laborer.”

Want to learn more?

Schopieray will present a program Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the Leelanau Historical Society. She will talk about her newly-published book, Petersen, and his connection to Leelanau County.

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