By Maxwell Harden
Nestled in the heart of downtown Dowagiac is a historic home with a new purpose.
The property — a five-bedroom whole-home vacation rental that sleeps up to 10 — was named after the year it was built. Ownership documents dating back to the 1800s show the home was built in 1870 for a Frank Jones, and retains most of the original woodwork and detailing today.
The house features an enclosed side porch complete with a swing, multiple first-floor living areas and a formal dining room, as well as a large smart TV and reliable Wi-Fi. Two of the five bedrooms are located in the Derby Wing, which can be closed off from the rest of the house and also provides desks to accommodate remote work or schooling.
The couple created their website 1870House.com as a way for guests and potential customers to see what both the property and the community has to offer. The website features a blog section, which will include things to do in the area, interviews with local business owners and longtime local residents about why they love the area and more.
The project is a labor of love for Richard, a retired chef, and Zena, an executive at a tech company working fully remotely. With Richard retired and Zena’s work schedule more flexible, the couple decided they wanted to spend more time in Michigan and moved to downtown Dowagiac from Chicago in August of last year.
After settling in, they noticed there seemed to be a limited number of good options in town for people to stay in the short term. When the historic home directly across the street from theirs became available, the couple saw an opportunity to market the property as a short-term vacation rental to bring out of town guests to the area.
“When this became available, we felt like it was just ideal for a whole-home vacation rental in addition to the many, many opportunities to host people coming into the area for weddings, reunions and family events,” Zena says. “Notre Dame games, professional commitments, whatever. We really feel like there’s an opportunity here to market the property and the area to feeder markets like Chicago. It’s the ideal location for everything southwest Michigan has to offer. The home has really unique grandeur and history.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people work. According to a study from Upwork, the world’s largest work marketplace, by 2025, 36.2 percent of Americans will be working remotely — that is an 87 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels. A 2021 VRBO Trend Report says “flexcations” — longer stays mixing work and play — are becoming more popular. Zena and Richard feel the 1870 House is tailor-made for flexcations and more.
“We want to accommodate lots of different types of groups, but also lots of different moods,” Zena says. “We’ve got the shuffleboard table and a couple dozen board games in one living area. We’ve got a second living area here where you can just relax and binge TV shows on the smart TV. We like to say it’s got the charm of a 150-year-old home with today’s conveniences. If you’re trying to get things done when you’re renting a place, whether that could be work or catching up on whatever it is you’re binging on Netflix, lots of people really want those modern conveniences, right so we feel like this is a unique property in that aspect.”
Zena and Richard began renovating the house in November and are preparing to welcome their first guest on March 17. The couple believes a whole-home rental will appeal to both locals, business groups and tourists from larger cities looking to get away.
“This is a place where lots of different types of groups can come,” Zena says. “People from the community who have friends and family that they want to host for reunions, vacationers from feeder markets like Chicago and Detroit, you name it. It’s nice to have a car out here but when you’re a seven-minute walk from the Amtrak stop, which is a $25 ticket from Chicago, you may not even need one.”
If guests wish to travel, destinations like Kalamazoo or South Bend are well within reach by car or train.
“Nothing out here is a really long drive,” Zena says. “Kalamazoo might be 45 miles away but it’s a 50-minute drive. In Chicago, when my husband and I would go to visit a friend who lived across town who lived eight miles away it could take us more than an hour so here you have these stores and hops in walking distance but then to also have it where nothing in southwest Michigan is really that far of a drive. We feel like that’s one of many things that will attract people to the area.”
With the downtown real estate district in easy walking distance, Zena and Richard hope their new venture will bring money into the city. The property’s welcome basket will include a box of candy from Caruso’s, a $10 gift card from The Baker’s Rhapsody, along with information on their offerings and story.
“The hope is that guests will take advantage of the gift card, love what they offer and become repeat customers over the length of their stay,” Zena says. “We’re working on putting together similar inclusions with other businesses, designed to drive awareness for/dollars into Dowagiac establishments. Hopefully, they’re gonna keep going into those businesses for their meals, for their coffee, for their Danish, workouts and more. We’re still locking those down and we hope that increases our guest satisfaction and opens up opportunities for a number of local businesses and helps to support what we think is the really incredible local business community out here.”
Bookings for the 1870 House are run through Airbnb, VRBO, and select other booking platforms. If readers have a personal reference in the area and would prefer to book directly, they are asked to reach out at email@example.com. χ