Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Horvitz Connection

Horvitz building renovation (David Gifford)
Recently, as the Horvitz building at 301 S. Main has been stripped of its faux front, interest in the structure's history has been renewed.  We know that a dry goods merchant named Burnett A. Horvitz built the store in late 1888, but this week I decided to find out what I could about Mr. Horvitz and his personal story. An 1891 biography reveals that B. A. Horvitz was born in Russia in 1859 and that he and his family fled to America in 1869 to escape the persecution of Jews that was occurring at the time. Burnett "Barney" Horvitz then became a traveling salesman, and during a stop in Rochester in 1880 he decided to make his home here. He built his new store on Main Street in 1888 and in 1893 he married Gertrude C. Straus of Detroit.  The couple had two children, both born in Rochester: a son, Gerald Joseph Horvitz, and a daughter, Florence M. Horvitz.  The Horvitz children were reared in Rochester until about 1907, at which time B. A. Horvitz moved his family to Detroit.

Gerald Horvitz went on to attend the University of Michigan and was graduated with the class of 1916. He moved to New York and became a scientist and researcher of some note, specializing in chemistry and metallurgical engineering. Horvitz served as president of the New York Testing Laboratories and was engaged in highly classified research during the early 1940s.  His daughter, Betty Slegman, herself a U of M graduate and one of the first women journalists to work for United Press,  recalled that her father would never talk about his work, but expressed irritation at the number of security people who were hanging around his laboratory.  It was only after the surrender of Japan ended World War II that Betty found out that her father had been one of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project, and that his specific role had been to develop a key component of the trigger mechanism of the atomic bomb.

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