Ben Weese spent all of his childhood summers at his father’s log cabin, located along 1,000 feet of Glen Lake, purchased in 1927 for a mere $1,000. Although his family still owns half of that land, Ben and his wife, Cynthia, have put down roots not on Glen Lake but instead in Empire. “It’s a special community, with wonderful people, and very egalitarian,” reflects Cynthia, who has been coming here for over 40 years.
The couple’s affinity for the village began in 1970. They came up from Chicago to stay with friends and spent a glorious winter weekend snowshoeing around Empire, enjoying the small town charm and walkability. Soon they began looking for a place of their own where they could bring their two young children year round. Their friends alerted them to a shed for sale on the corner of Niagra and Front.
They bought it and drew up plans that would right the listing structure and turn it into a cozy two-story house. Their riotous street side garden delights passersby bound for Empire Beach. “Gardening wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or as much fun if it were just for us,” remarks Cynthia.
Both are architects; Cynthia served as Dean of Architecture at Washington University from 1993 to 2005. In 1977 together they founded their award-winning firm best known for non-profit and educational projects with an emphasis on historical appreciation and preservation.
Their interest in historic preservation also prompted them to rescue a number of condemned houses from national parkland. They relocated them to Empire, believing that they would enhance the Village’s character. And when the Chippewa Run Natural Area was forming, the Weese’s led the charge on fundraising. They loaned money to jumpstart the “Gateway to Empire” project and also made significant contributions to acquire the land.
But perhaps their greatest community contributions lie in preserving land. The Weeses have donated a conservation easement on a 50-acre farm and woodland property along Hlavka Road in Cleveland Township. And they donated a seven acre wetland near their home to the Nature Conservancy (before our time), which turned it over to the Village, and today that seven-acre parcel is part of Johnson Park.
Most recently, the Weese’s conservation interests have turned to ecological restoration of a two-acre parcel across from their home—also preserved with a donated conservation easement to the Leelanau Conservancy in 1988. Ben describes the land, which adjoins the Johnson Park donated parcel, as “a window to downtown Empire.”
The restoration project began with the removal of a colony of invasive black locust trees. The Weeses hired a SEEDS crew to harvest and mill the trees into lumber. An interesting aside: Some of the weather resistant locust was used to build the beautiful boardwalk at Swanson Preserve. Removing the locust has made way for native species to thrive in the area.
Phase two of the project entailed hiring restoration ecologist Michael Ulrich. Decades of storm water runoff has covered a gravel stream bed present on the property with sediment and grasses. Plans call for halting further sedimentation and excavating to expose the existing gravel bed, so that the stream may flow more freely into nearby South Bar Lake. Native wildflowers were planted along the stream bank this year and more will go in next spring.
“Cynthia and Ben have the patience and long-term vision required to implement something of this scale. Where most people see the current grassy swale, they see a pristine wetland,” says Ulrich, also an Empire resident. “What has long been an overlooked asset in the heart of town will be a gorgeous landscape with great biodiversity and ecological function.”
As always, the Weeses have the community in mind. “When people go down to the beach they should enjoy a nice view as they go by,” says Cynthia. “We want people to see something that is restful and serene and lovely*.”
Founding Executive Director Brian Price has known the couple since the Conservancy’s earliest days. Making a difference is what the Weeses do, he says. “A couple of times a year I make an excuse to visit with Ben and Cynthia because they are always full of ideas and attuned to what’s going on,” says Brian. “And it’s refreshing to talk to a couple who consistently has the community’s best interest in mind.”
*Please note that this land is privately owned and not open to the public, although the view from Niagra Street everyone can enjoy.