From Humble Roots
Depressed and unable to hold a job, Well House founder Marian Clements found refuge within a Quaker community. Inspired by their constant positive attitudes, Marian lifted herself out of her negative situation, and in 1977, determined to stand on her own feet as well as help others in a similar situation, purchased an 1879-era home near the intersection of Cass and Pleasant Street in Grand Rapids, MI. The cost? $350.00. She called it Well House.
“I didn’t want to be at the end of my life and say I’d done nothing with it.”
An Urban Homesteader
Marian’s style of living emphasized living gently on the earth and with each other, so she built her home around this concept, demonstrated by her refusal to have electricity in her home. Gradually, her influence in the community lead to a change in city housing code allowing a single-family home owner to live without electrical power. Marian repaired her home using recycled materials, and heated it with a wood furnace. She showered in her greenhouse, and composted under the sink, recycling water to water the greenhouse garden, kept goats for milk and cheese, and maintained a garden growing alongside the house. She purchased an adjacent lot for $1.00 and planted fruit trees, and used a 55-gallon metal drum to create a sawdust commode, in which the sawdust organically decomposed waste in an environmentally friendly way. What’s more she did all this on an SSI stipend.
Marian’s lifestyle eventually ran into problems. In 1982, she was required upgrade plumbing by replacing the sawdust commode with cement brick containers, and installing a gray water system and an overflow line from the system to the city’s storm-water system. Marian had 45 days to comply or spend that same amount of time in jail. She did not comply within the 45 days and ended up spending five days in jail. Stating her case, Marian’s lawyer said, “She has demonstrated that enforcement for enforcement’s sake of rules and regulations which seek apparent conformity for conformity’s sake perhaps is an inappropriate standard.”
The Community Expands
In 1991, the Well House community expanded with the purchase of a second house, and in 1992, the city of Grand Rapids donated a third home—in an unusual manner. The home was scheduled for demolition, but Marian requested that the money allocated for its demolition be used to move it to the Well House campus, where it was renovated using funds from area supporters.
In 1994, Marian received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, garnering her national recognition for her long-term dedication to help others. Unfortunately, in 1996, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she fought for a year, entering the hospital only one day prior to her passing. Marian Clements literally helped others until the day she died.
The Mission Continues
Marian’s friends, Grand Rapids’ activists Judi Buchman, Tami VandenBerg, and many others have continued the Well House mission.
Today, our tenant’s stay is a time to rest and to set directions. In total, 5,000 men, women and children from all walks of life have called the Well House community home; some for a couple of months, others for several years.
Thanks to the generous contributions of the community, the capacity of Well House has continued to grow and opened its 14th home in late 2019. Urban gardens dot the landscape, managed in partnership with Urban Roots, growing food for the tenants and the rest of the neighborhood.