Sweet House ‘never will be for sale’


Sweet House Foundation President Irene Nowak said the Wedgwood room has hosted four U.S. presidents. Photo by Ehren Wynder

The Sweet House is not for sale and never will be, according to the foundation that oversees it.

Even though the Women’s City Club in April vacated its historic home on 254 Fulton St. SE in Heritage Hill, the Sweet House Foundation still maintains the property, and its members want to be clear they are keeping history alive.

Now the fifth owners of the house originally built by 19th-century grain merchant Martin Sweet, the Sweet House Foundation intends to keep the history of the house alive and open to members of the public.

“Right now, we are trying to host at least one major event a month,” said Irene Nowak, foundation president. “Hopefully, that will grow to more.”

The Sweet House will be open to a variety of events, including lunches, brunches, dinners, business meetings, holiday parties and weddings, and those looking to rent space do not need to be a member of the foundation or the Women’s City Club.

Nowak said in a newsletter to foundation members, “Martin Sweet gave a great deal to this city, so we must keep his spirit alive and continue to keep his house an important landmark in Grand Rapids.”

The foundation also will maintain the contents of the house, including all art and furniture, as well as real estate properties tied to the house.

Sweet built the four-story, 9,000-square-foot Italianate house in the 1860s. Nowak claimed it is the last remaining original home of one of the “great movers and shakers” of Grand Rapids.

Foundation members and staff report encountering the ghost of Sweet’s wife, Desdemona, on occasion. Sweet House Foundation General Manager Sue Pemberton claimed to have felt her presence while working late nights.

“I never believed in ghosts, but I do now,” Pemberton said, laughing. “It’s not anything harmful, that’s for sure. It’s just a situation where this is her home, and she wants to make sure everyone’s happy in this home.”

When Sweet and his wife passed away, the house became a conservatory for violin, piano and vocal lessons. Ottokar Malek, a musician from Bohemia, the present day Czech Republic, set up his music school in the house.

During the 1920s, the Sweet House became a “second rate” boarding house, a short period in the house’s history, which the foundation does not regard favorably.

“As a boarding house, it was chopped up, and a lot of things had been done to it,” Nowak said. “And (the Women’s City Club) tried to get as much of the original furniture.”

The Women’s City Club purchased the house in 1927 for $55,000 and renovated it completely, adding a main dining room, auditorium and the Wedgwood dining room, which Nowak said has hosted four U.S. Presidents: William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Gerald Ford.

The Sweet House Foundation was established in 2005 as a 501(c)(3) organization and continues to maintain the house via a tax-deductible contribution from foundation members.

The Sweet House has been an open venue for ArtPrize, drawing several thousands of guests to experience the home each year, even when the Women’s City Club was present, and Pemberton said this would not change.

“We are excited about ArtPrize,” Pemberton said. “We’ve had anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people through here.”

Nowak said this fits with the foundation’s mission to allow the public to experience the Sweet House. The foundation continues to participate in the Heritage Hills tour for the same reason.

“All of the events that we’re going to be hosting from now on are open to the public,” she said. “So, it’s not just Sweet House Foundation members or Women’s City Club members, but the public is invited, as well.”

Pemberton said the auditorium has a maximum capacity of 150 guests and the main dining room holds 124. The Sweet House also owns 22 private parking spaces in an adjacent lot and 52 in a lot on 30 Lafayette Ave. SE.

The house is scheduled to host a dinner event June 26 with Hank Meijer, third-generation owner of the Meijer retail chain. Meijer will discuss his new biography about former U.S. senator and Grand Rapids native Arthur Vandenberg.

“We are just really honored and very appreciative of having this opportunity to showcase the house,” Pemberton said. “It’s such a great space … we’re not for sale, and we never will be for sale.”

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