From Words to Walls

Words by Carley Hull

Poets find a home at the May Prentice house

The May Prentice House, located on Lincoln St. and home to the Wick Poetry Center. Photo by Molly Morgan.

On Thursdays, we talk about writing. In a dining room fit for a family dinner, Alice Cone, an instructor for the Department of English at Kent State University, sits across from me, critiquing my work. In a room that smells of rich wood and aging books, we are not the first to feast on poetry, nor is Cone the first of her family to sit in this room. Nearly 110 years ago, Cone’s great-grandaunt, May Prentice, sat here. As the first female faculty member at Kent State, Prentice’s name follows you on campus from Prentice Hall to the Esplanade’s Prentice Gate, and now her home is preserved as the Wick Poetry Center.

The door of Wick Poetry Center reads “Poets are in” because the May Prentice house is a home for poets and learning. The 20th century, craftsman-influenced home still remains much the same with a front porch greeting those to the door and three windows underneath a gabled roof that peaks to a point. The changes are subtle with new shingles and a fresh coat of taupe paint replacing the last owners dark green window trim. The original woodwork is polished, and aging pocket doors close off a 21st century kitchenette where coffee is brewing.

Even with the modern touches, we are still in an historical landmark at Kent State that could have been lost. It took the power of the written word and chance occurrences to preserve Prentice’s house and give the Wick Poetry Center a home Prentice would be proud of.

The early years

“I was thrilled,” Cone says. “I just couldn’t believe it. It all fell into place as if it were meant to be. And it seems like maybe it was. It feels really good to be there. It feels wonderful to teach there.”

As an instructor of English at Kent State since 1988 and a Wick Poetry Center Advisory Board member since 1997, Cone now gets to teach in and enjoy the home of her ancestor.

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“The Aunts” on the steps of the May Prentice house in 1931. Pictured, from left, are Gene (Eugenia) Prentice, May Prentice, Georgianna Clark and Georgie (Georgiana) Prentice on the front step. Photo courtesy of H. E. Williamson.

Teaching has been in the Prentice family’s blood. Prentice started teaching at 16 in various school houses before she started her career in higher education. Throughout her teaching career, Prentice had a deep respect for the power of literature at a time when teaching children something they enjoy was seen negatively. Prentice disagreed, writing in an article in a 1906 Library Journal that the role of the teacher was “To be the atmosphere from which the child breathes in love for and delight in good books.”

In the 1900s, Prentice met John McGilvrey while working at the Cleveland City Normal School. There, she worked as McGilvrey’s assistant for nine years before following him to work at Western Illinois State Normal School. When McGilvrey was appointed president of the Kent State Normal School, a teaching school that predated Kent State University, he asked Prentice to join him.

In “A History of Kent State University: Nearing a Century of Kent Pride,” William H. Hilldebrand, professor emeritus of English, discusses the origins of Kent State. According to the book, the Kent State Normal School was formed in 1910 after the Lowry Normal School Bill of 1910 authorized two new normal schools in Ohio. At the time, normal schools were two-year degree programs that trained elementary school teachers, but McGilvrey had plans to make Kent different so it would endure.

“He sensed, as early as 1911, that the crest of the normal school movement was subsiding and that the rising tide favored institutions that trained teachers for the state’s burgeoning high schools,” Hilldebrand writes. In the school’s first academic catalog, McGilvrey outlined his plan to eventually make Kent State a four-year college.

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An undated studio portrait of May Prentice. Photo courtesy of H. E. Williamson.

Prentice took her educational experience to Kent State Normal School in August 1912 as the director of the training school and as the first female faculty member at Kent State. In October 1912, the school started classes as a standard normal school, with 849 students attending extension centers in surrounding cities as the first classrooms were built in Merrill Hall and the first dorms were built in Lowry Hall. Instruction at the Kent State Normal School campus began on May 1913.

May Prentice acquired a property on 128 S. Willow St. in 1914, as indicated by a housewarming party announcement in the Kent Courier-Tribune (now the Record-Courier). Prentice’s two younger sisters, Georgiana (Georgie) and Eugenia (Gene), eventually lived with her in Kent. When the girls’ mother, Amelia Humphrey Prentice, fell ill and eventually died in 1881 back home in Ashtabula county, Prentice took responsibility for the girls. Developmentally disabled, Gene had the mind of a 12-year-old, Cone says, and both of her sisters cared for her until their deaths.

Teachers, family and students were in and out of the house. Prentice’s friend and fellow teacher Georgianna Clark once lived in the house, and Prentice’s sister Georgie eventually became a schoolteacher. Teaching was in the Prentice blood. Cone’s great-grandmother Harriet, another sister of Prentice, worked as a teacher as well as Cone’s sister Cindy Cone.

In 1930, Prentice retired from Kent State. Five years later, she passed away on February 6, only three weeks after the dedication of the May Prentice Gate on Kent’s campus. After Prentice’s death, Georgie rented rooms to students. Family members of Georgie continued to stay at the home including Cone’s Aunts Millie, Harriet and Kathryn, and her father Richard.

“Almost all of my dad’s siblings lived there for at least a time while they were in college and so did his cousin,” Cone says.

In a creative non-fiction piece published in the Pittsburgh Press on July 7, 1963, the cousin, Bill Delahan, wrote, under the pen name David Gleason, that “Aunt Georgie lived in a college town and in the last years of her life took college boys as roomers. If they were thin when they started living with her they soon lost their spare look.” She borrowed money from her nieces and nephews but always paid them back.

“The truth was that she had been investing in the stock market,” Delahan says. “Her investments, almost without exception, proved wise ones.”

Georgiana died in 1955, and the house was sold sometime after out of the Prentice and Cone family. Cone wasn’t born until 1956, but has an odd memory of visiting the house as a child when her family visited Kent State.

“We would go past the [Prentice] Gate, and we would go up to Captain Brady’s and get some stick candy, and we would sit on the gate,” Cone says. “I just had this memory that we would go by the house, but I felt like earlier we went through this basement, that we went through the side door.”

Set for demolition

After numerous owners and slate blue siding, the Prentice house was back on the market for a short time in 1995. Cone says she was tempted to purchase the home and turn it into a poet’s house, but decided not to buy it.

“We weren’t aware of the history of it at the time.”

“I was thinking more of a place to stay, like a boarding house,” Cone says. “A place you could write for a while and stay for awhile.”

In 2011, Kent State was in the process of purchasing homes on Willow Street in order to build the Esplanade and purchased the property so it could use the land. Cone was alerted that the house was likely to be demolished like the other houses purchased and took immediate steps in an effort to save the house. Cone says Tom Clapper, former director of University Risk Management and Real Estate, suggested she would need help from others to save the house.

In March 2011, Cone and her cousins Sue Williamson Eisenmenger and H. E. Williamson wrote to Michael Bruder, executive director of Facilities, Planning and Design at Kent State, about the historical significance of the house and suggested the university use the home instead of tearing it down.

“She sent me a letter that said that this house had belonged to May Prentice and the connection to it. That was the first we had really heard,” Bruder says. “The university had just purchased the parcel just from the current owners. We weren’t aware of the history of it at the time and then when that came to light, the decision was made through the administration to save the house.”

In June, David Hassler, director of the Wick Poetry Center, and Suzanne Holt, director of Women’s Studies, also sent letters to Bruder. Cone also alerted the Wick Poetry Center Advisory Board of the situation and expressed her concern at a Dec. 2011 meeting that she did not want the house torn down with its historical significance. The Wick Center helped Cone by signing a letter written by Will Underwood, director of the Kent State University Press, to ask Kent State to save the house. Right before the letter was sent, the Architects Office had plans to save the house.

“At the time, we were only helping to facilitate saving the house and maybe having to have multiple uses for different departments and centers, visiting professors, etc,” Hassler says.

The Wick Poetry Center

Brothers Robert and Walter Wick established the Wick Poetry Center in 1984 in memory of their sons.

Robert’s son Stan was a poet and died in 1980, and Walter’s son Tom died in 1973. Both of their sons died in automobile accidents.

The Wick brothers worked for newspapers under their father’s company, Wick Communications, and serve as co-chairmen of the Board of Directors. Robert Wick is now sculptor in Arizona and a former art department faculty member at Kent State. The large tree-like sculpture in the poetry park was created and donated by Robert Wick.

Maggie Anderson became the founding director of the center in 1992 and worked for the center until she retired in 2009. That same year David Hassler became the director.

The Wick Poetry Center offers Wick Poetry scholarship funds provided by the Wick brothers as well as a space for creative writing classes and poetry readings. It also houses the offices for the center’s staff.

The center celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2014.

With the house saved, its purpose was not yet decided, but the house still had to be moved to start construction on the Esplanade since an Ohio Department of Transportation grant funding part of the project had a timeline attached to it. Stein House Movers were hired to move the home from its original 128 S. Willow St. location to 212 S. Willow St. on Feb. 20, 2012.

The house was separated from its foundation and hoisted and secured onto an oversized semi truck bed. Slowly, the truck inched down the road. There the house sat on blocks, barely squeezed between two other homes owned by the university.

Becoming a new home

Around the same time Kent State decided to forgo demolishing the May Prentice House, plans to create a Wick Poetry Center park were in the works. In 2012, Tom Euclide, associate vice president for Facilities Planning and Operations, helped Hassler develop a proposal for creating a small Wick Poetry Center park on the Esplanade.

“We weren’t sure what that was going to look like,” Bruder says. “There was no specific place on campus for that. We were aware of the success of the Wick Poetry Center and also knew that the English department was pretty crowded in Satterfield Hall and that Wick was in there.”

The connection to May Prentice, Cone and the Wick Poetry Ccenter started to come together for a bigger idea.

“When we met with the vice president of Facilities, Gregg Floyd, he not only loved our idea about the poetry park, but he said, ‘Well what about this house? Would you be able to raise some funds to renovate this house and make it the new Wick Poetry Center?’ ” Hassler says. “Literally, it was presented to us like a full blown idea.”

“It’s not easy to just convert a house to a public building for a university.”

Floyd says when he met with Hassler, the light bulb just came on that he had had the perfect home for the poetry center.

“When talking about what he wanted to do, it just seemed right,” Floyd says. “It seemed like a perfect marriage.”

Floyd worked with Bruder, Hassler, Euclide and to get started on Kent State’s new project.
“It all kind of came together that this would be a really kind of special thing to do,” Bruder says. “So the decision was made that it would become a new home for the Wick Poetry Center.”

The Wick Poetry Center seized the opportunity. Hassler worked with Mindy Aleman, executive director of the Center for Gift and Estate Planning, to raise $460,000 from individuals, foundations and businesses in the Kent community for a poetry park and renovations on the historic home to create offices, a community classroom, a reading room and a poet’s loft on the third floor. The fundraising was a Kent State record-breaker for a project this size. Cone’s cousin Dr. H. A. Williamson and his wife Mary also made substantial contributions to restore the home.

“It seemed like a perfect marriage.”

On Aug. 13, 2013, Stein House Movers returned to move the house another 20 feet to its new location along the Esplanade on Lincoln and behind the plaza where Starbucks is located. Bruder began working with his staff and consulting architects to design the upgrades to the house such as accessible entryways, public restrooms, an elevator and a generator.

“It’s not easy to just convert a house to a public building for a university because there are a lot of accessibility guidelines and codes that private businesses sometimes get exempted from but as a state agency we’re not,” Bruder says.

Now, Hassler sits in the Maggie Anderson Director’s Office overlooking the Esplanade on the second floor of the home. Modern carpet covers the floor and a large desk replaces a space for a bed.

“This office has layers of significance,” Hassler says. “It’s named after my mentor and predecessor Maggie Anderson. It’s the bedroom of May Prentice … so working here, and not to mention my view, we love it because we feel that the house has been renovated and restored to be very functional and useful for a 21st century classroom and poetry center while at the same time it still feels like a home.”

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