Ex­plor­ing the small town that’s home to a ‘House With a Clock in Its Walls’

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel & Life - Story and pho­tos by Lori Rackl [email protected]­bune.com Twit­ter @lorirackl

Mar­shall, Mich., is the in­spi­ra­tion for New Zebedee in the 1973 chil­dren’s book and soon to be re­leased movie star­ring Jack Black, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls.”

MAR­SHALL, Mich. — Long be­fore Harry Pot­ter cast a col­lec­tive spell with his wiz­ardly ways, a chubby Mid­west kid who dab­bled in magic was fend­ing off evil in the fic­tional town of New Zebedee, Mich.

His name is Lewis Bar­navelt, the lov­ably nerdy pro­tag­o­nist in a se­ries of gothic mys­ter­ies that de­buted in 1973 with the chil­dren’s book “The House With a Clock in Its Walls.”

Nearly half a cen­tury later, late au­thor John Bel­lairs’ best-seller is get­ting the big-screen treat­ment. The fan­tasy film star­ring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett hits movie the­aters in September.

You can bet your last But­ter­beer that no place is more pumped about the up­com­ing film than Bel­lairs’ home­town of Mar­shall, aka the “real” New Zebedee, a south­ern Michi­gan city of about 7,000 on the banks of the Kala­ma­zoo River.

Walk along the his­toric down­town’s main drag, and you’ll see a pa­rade of New Zebedee signs with the hash­tag #HouseWithAClock posted in store­front win­dows. City lead­ers have lined up a slew of ac­tiv­i­ties for The House With a Clock in Its Walls Week­end, Sept. 21-23, in­clud­ing guided walk­ing tours of lo­ca­tions in Bel­lairs’ books, com­plete with cos­tumed char­ac­ters. Bogar Theatre, where a young Bel­lairs surely saw many a film back in the day, is host­ing a red car­pet pre­miere Sept.

20, the night be­fore the movie’s na­tion­wide re­lease.

“The book has been fly­ing off the shelf,” said Jim Don­ahue, owner of the Mit­ten Word Book­shop on Mar­shall’s Michi­gan Av­enue — make that Main Street in the New Zebedee uni­verse.

Stand­ing on the side­walk in the neon glow of the old-fash­ioned Hem­mingsen Rex­all Drugs sign, it’s easy to pic­ture that warm sum­mer evening when Lewis’ bus pulled up to “Heem­soth’s Rex­all Drug Store” and the 10-year-old or­phan met his Un­cle Jonathan to start a new life in this won­der­fully strange and some­times scary place.

Bel­lairs was born here in

1938. He grew up sur­rounded by the town’s en­vi­able stock­pile of well­p­re­served 19th-cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture, an echo of Mar­shall’s glory days as a pop­u­lar rail­road stop be­tween Chicago and Detroit.

“It is full of Vic­to­rian man­sions and his­tory,” the au­thor once said of his home­town, “and it would work on the cre­ative mind of any kid.”

One man­sion, in par­tic­u­lar, cap­ti­vated Bel­lairs’ imag­i­na­tion: an Ital­ianat­estyle gem with a tall tur­ret built in the 1870s for a wealthy mer­chant fam­ily. Known as the Cronin House, it in­spired the spooky set­ting for “The House With a Clock in Its Walls.”

The mys­te­ri­ous home with a sin­is­ter se­cret is where Lewis — played by Owen Vac­caro in the movie, which was filmed in Georgia — lives with his Un­cle Jonathan (Jack Black), a good-na­tured war­lock.

In real life, the home at

407 N. Madi­son St. be­longs to Florida res­i­dent Jeff Hamil­ton. He’s a lawyer and real es­tate bro­ker, not a war­lock.

Hamil­ton had no idea the house was a lo­cal celebrity of sorts when he pur­chased the fixer-up­per in

2016. “I just thought I was buy­ing this cool house in the mid­dle of nowhere,” said Hamil­ton, who grew up in Indiana and was in the mar­ket for a sec­ond home in the Mid­west. “I didn’t know about the book.”

He was in the dark about an­other well-known Mar­shall fact: The Cronin sis­ters, who lived in the house un­til the early 2000s, would al­ways hand out full-size candy bars on Hal­loween. Now Hamil­ton does too. And he’s read the book. He’s even grown ac­cus­tomed to fans tak­ing self­ies on his front lawn.

“Peo­ple walk through the yard all the time — treat it like a park,” Hamil­ton said with a laugh. “That’s OK. The house is part of the town. I don’t want to iso­late it. It’s a spe­cial place.”

The home needed some magic when Hamil­ton bought it; it was in sham­bles. The ra­di­a­tors had busted. The par­quet floors were so warped that some of the doors wouldn’t open. A lit­tle time and a lot of money later, the Cronin House looks re­gal again. (The base­ment is still “su­per creepy,” Hamil­ton ad­mit­ted, al­though he hasn’t heard any tick-tock sounds em­a­nat­ing from the walls.)

The house is one of the stops on Mar­shall’s His­toric Home Tour, Sept. 8-9. Now in its 55th year, the an­nual event in­cludes a look in­side eight pri­vate homes and sev­eral other build­ings and mu­se­ums, like the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Magic, the quirky Honolulu House Mu­seum (known as the Hawaii House in Bel­lairs’ books) and the Mar­shall His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum at the GAR Hall, where a small ex­hibit about the au­thor show­cases the 1950 bi­cy­cle he ped­aled around town as a kid. Tick­ets for the home tour cost $20 in ad­vance, $25 start­ing Sept. 4; www.mar­shall­home­tour.org.

The Cronin House is at the cen­ter of a cou­ple of events dur­ing The House With a Clock in Its Walls Week­end. On Sept. 21, it will host an evening re­cep­tion with ma­gi­cians and book sign­ings by au­thor

Brad Strick­land, who con­tin­ued to write Lewis Bar­navelt mys­ter­ies af­ter Bel­lairs died in 1991 of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease at age 53. Call 269-781-5163 for de­tails and tick­ets.

A chil­dren’s tea with Bel­lairs’ char­ac­ters takes place on the Cronin House lawn Sept. 22. For ticket info and to reg­is­ter for the free walk­ing tours, call the li­brary at 269-781-7821. Check out www.choose­mar­shall.com for a full sched­ule of events.

No mat­ter when you visit

Mar­shall, a lit­tle imag­i­na­tion is all it takes to get hap­pily lost in Lewis’ New Zebedee. It feels like a game, try­ing to pin­point the real-life places that made their way onto the page, whether in words or in the form of Ed­ward Gorey’s evoca­tive il­lus­tra­tions.

Go for a stroll through Oakridge Ceme­tery, whose tomb­stones and mau­soleums served as the back­drop for a piv­otal scene in the book.

When the sun turns in, take a seat at col­or­ful Brooks Memo­rial Foun­tain to watch the nightly light show de­scribed by Lewis.

Have a beer at Dark Horse Brew­ing, where roughly 4,000 mugs hang from the walls and ceil­ing. Dark Horse wasn’t around dur­ing Bel­lairs’ life­time and has noth­ing to do with the books or movie. It just has good beer. Un­cle Jonathan would love it.

The 1870s-era Cronin House in Mar­shall, Mich., top, was the model for the spooky set­ting of John Bel­lairs’ 1973 novel “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” The Hem­mingsen drug­store in Mar­shall, above left, may have in­spired the book’s de­scrip­tion of Heem­soth’s Rex­all Drug Store. Brooks Memo­rial Foun­tain, above right, was ded­i­cated in 1930, when roughly 7,000 peo­ple re­port­edly turned up to watch its mul­ti­col­ored lights il­lu­mi­nate the night sky.

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