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Honored for preserving a piece of history

Jennifer Radcliff was honored for her preservation efforts, May 15 in Ann Arbor. Photo by Trevor Keiser. (click for larger version)
May 19, 2010 - With a standing ovation, Clarkston resident Jennifer Radcliff was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Michigan Preservation Network in Ann Arbor, May 15.

"When you're honored by your peers that's the best kind," Radcliff said. "It will be a real mark upon me to have come to this place. The best thing is I didn't set out to accomplish that, I just set out to learn everything I could and to help where I could."

In 1972, Radcliff and her husband, Hank, came to Clarkston to build a house on Main Street. Within the first month of living here, she became involved with the historical society and their effort of "how to coexist with the state highway department plan to widen Main Street."

"That was my introduction to preservation in Michigan," she said.

Radcliff worked with Ruth Basinger, who was on the city council at the time, and others to put Clarkston on the National Register Historic District in 1980, which protected against federal funds being used to widen the road. Michigan also passed a state law in 1970 that allowed local historic districts to be established.

Clarkston city council voted in favor of creating a local historic district in 1981.

"Ruth is very bright, very committed person, very passionate about Clarkston's history," Radcliff said. "With her guidance those two things were in place to protect us against, in regards to the highway and things that might happen at the local level."

A year after forming the district, city council voted to rescind the ordinance because the council didn't like complaints about one of their decisions, according to Radcliff.

"If you start to lose a district in a small way and there is nothing to keep that from gathering momentum. Before you know it, you have no borders that make sense, no consistency of historic fabric," she said. "There is no integrity left to the district."

Radcliff said she started seeing changes happen since the commission was dissolved.

"We lost a house on W. Washington. We were in danger of losing some of our historic stone walls along Main Street, there were fašade changes to several other buildings in town and so all of that incremental change was starting to take place," she said. "But there wasn't anything that could be done about it as long as there was no political will to have a historic district."

The council brought back the historic district in 1985-1986.

"For two years, I led the project of restoring the Ritter House. It was during that time after we moved the Ritter House onto our property, people began to see preservation as something that a filled their streetscape with good looking stuff," she said. "We used federal tax credits so it made sense for people economically to do this, especially for properties which were income production."

While working at the local level, Radcliff also volunteered with the state preservation network from 1980 to 1995. In 1995, the network received grant money to form a staffed organization. Radcliff was added as the first staff person and served as president from 1995 to 2001.

Radcliff said she isn't sure what got her interested in preservation. She was born and raised in Royal Oak, where there was a "continuing stable history" in neighborhoods and the downtown district.

"When we were newly married, for financial reasons we moved into an apartment complex in Warren that was none of those things because it was all too new," she said. "The town felt rootless, it had no center commercial district, it just gradually dawns on you 'this is a different place, which would I prefer?'"

Looking for property to buy not too far from Detroit where her husband worked, Clarkston fell within the ring on the map. Radcliff remembered going through Clarkston as a child, heading up north with her family.

"I began to see Clarkston because M-15 was the route," she said. "We'd stop for ice cream and my mother walked up and down the streets looking at the gorgeous architecture because she was sort of the design person in our family."

She attributes both her mother and her father, who was in the construction business also, to her efforts in preservation.

"We came to Clarkston because it was so lovely. It just felt secure in its loveliness, it wasn't just a painted on image of beauty," she said. "It was something that had built up over generations, decade after decade with good work, good care."

As a child Radcliff said she was most interested in biographical history, which she calls "the personal side of history."

"It's the impact of a place on the individual that has always been my most favorite topic of conversation," she said. "It's allowed me to see the impact of preservation on a community, neighborhood, and family and be grateful certain things were in place that allowed those kinds of good experiences to happen to make people feel good about their town."

Radcliff graduated from Wheaton College in 1962 with Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. She has been married to Hank for 46 years, they have raised two children, Miles, who still lives in Clarkston, and Rebecca, who lives in Birmingham.

She is also president of the Michigan Light House Fund, serves on the Main Street Oakland County Advisory board, and was editor for Clarkston's Heritage book, which is read in all the elementary schools, as well as books for both Springfield and White Lake Townships.

"My contribution to local history is just as important as anything," she said. "I found preservation to be my way to put things back in. I would like everybody to find their way. Making good schools, good government, there is plenty to do."

Trevor graduated with degrees in English and communications from Rochester College. He wrote for his college and LA View newspapers before joining The Clarkston News in May 2007.
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