Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Hotel St. James

Predating the Home Bakery building by two years, the Hotel St. James was erected in 1847 by John V. Lambertson and was originally called the Lambertson House. The hotel was located at 439 S. Main, on the southwest corner of Main and today's University Drive, known in those days as Fifth St. J.V. Lambertson came with his parents to Avon in 1834; in addition to the hotel, he also ran a mercantile business with his brother, Hiram.

The Lambertson House was one of two commercial houses operating in nineteenth-century Rochester, the other being the Pavilion Hotel at the corner of Third and Main. An 1888 directory of hotels tells us that the room rate at the Lambertson House at the time was $2 per day.

One of the Lambertson's claims to fame was its role as the birthplace of Rochester's government. It was within the parlors of the hotel that the official organization of the village of Rochester took place on April 12, 1869, when the eligible townsmen met to conduct the first village election and voted to incorporate the village and govern it separately from the Township of Avon.

James W. Smith, a Dubliner who had settled in Avon in 1880, bought the hotel in 1892 and renamed it the Hotel St. James. The St. James offered 21 guest rooms, and if the promotional literature of the day is to be believed, it was “famous all through Michigan for the excellence of its cuisine.” Smith was a prominent business leader in Rochester; he built a merchant block at 436-440 S. Main (known today as the Crissman block) and erected the Idle Hour theater adjacent to the hotel. Jim Smith also fancied himself a lookalike of President William Howard Taft and once entertained himself by posing as the chief executive when Taft was expected to make a visit to the Hotel Ponchartrain in Detroit in 1914. According to a Detroit Tribune account, Smith sauntered around the lobby of the Ponch before Taft was scheduled to arrive and enjoyed being greeted as "Mr. Taft" and "Mr. President."

Smith's widow continue to operate the hotel for a time after his death in 1933, but by the 1940s the hundred-year-old structure was showing signs of neglect and decay and was home mostly to some small businesses. A lunch counter, appropriately named Rochester Lunch, served as a local hang-out there, and the waiting room for the Martin Bus Lines was also located in the hotel. By the time the once-proud building's demolition was ordered in 1962, it was generally considered to be an eyesore, and there was little interest expressed for saving it.

After the St. James fell in December 1962, a new brick building replaced it, serving as home at first to the Frank Shepard real estate offices, and later the Weisman medical offices. The new building was substantially rebuilt and expanded in 1996, and housed a Starbucks coffee shop for a time. The Bean & Leaf Cafe is the current occupant of the former hotel site.

Photo: My Dad took this photo, documenting how the hotel looked on the day it was demolished, December 4, 1962.

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