Saturday, August 20, 2011

Main Street Stories: James Wilson Smith Block

Postcard view of the Smith block about 1910
The business block on the southeast corner of University Drive and Main Street, with addresses 436-440 S. Main, was originally known as the James Wilson Smith block when it was built in 1901. At the time, J.W. Smith was the owner of the Hotel St. James on the southwest corner of Fifth (now University) and Main and had a barn on the southeast corner. He took advantage of an economic boom in Rochester at the turn of the twentieth century to build his new business block, and for its design he tapped the Detroit architects Frederick H. Spier and William C. Rohns, who had just drawn the plans for the Detroit Sugar Company factory in Rochester two years before.

The Rochester Era of August 23, 1901, announced the new building this way:
The building occupies the site of the old hotel barn and will be the finest building in Rochester with the possible exception of the Masonic Temple.  The building will be completed by the time the snow flies, James S. Stackhouse, the well-known contractor, is the builder and the architects are Spier & Rohns, who designed the sugar mill.

Early tenants in the Smith block were the Edwin A. Hudson grocery, the Korff meat market, and the Idle Hour theatre (before Smith built a new home for it adjoining his hotel).  The best known occupant, however, was the Crissman pharmacy, which made its home in the building until 1966.  The soda fountain at Crissman's was a popular meeting place and gossip clearinghouse in Rochester for decades.

On May 20, 1992, the northern two-thirds of the building were completely destroyed by a devastating gas explosion that resulted when a construction crew hit an illegal and unknown gas line in the area. The Crissman family, owners of the building, immediately rebuilt the destroyed portion in complete sympathy with the original design, including the ornamental stepped-out brickwork on the west elevation.

As it currently stands, the southern portion of the building (bearing the address 436 S. Main) is the original structure built in 1901; the northern portion (bearing the addresses 438-440 S. Main) is the reconstructed portion built in 1992-93.

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