Sunday, March 29, 2009

Vanished Rochester: The Charles Chapman Estate

After the Western Knitting Mills moved into its new, state-of-the-art factory in Rochester in 1896, the company's president and general manager, Charles Sherwin Chapman (1864-1912), decided to relocate his family from Detroit to Rochester as well. On April 28, 1899, the Rochester Era reported that “ground was broken last Monday for C.S. Chapman's new residence on the bluff north of the village.” The house, overlooking Paint Creek on the east side of North Main Street, was one of the few residential designs created by famed industrial architect Albert Kahn. Chapman named the estate “Oak Bluff” for its obvious natural attributes and enjoyed the fact that he could commute from his home to his office at the Western Knitting Mills by taking a small motorboat across the mill pond that stretched between the two locations.

Chapman, his wife Minerva Robbins, and his children Frank and Doris made their home in the stately shingle-style mansion. After the deaths of the senior Chapmans, the house passed to the ownership of Frank Chapman (1901-1977) and his sister Doris Chapman Blackwood (1896-1989). Frank's wife, Lou Blackwood Chapman (1900-1992), told me in an 1980 interview that she remembered fondly the hand-carved staircase and fireplace mantels, heavy stone walls, and music room. She also recalled that the bathroom was “enormous,” with decorative cupids painted on the large tub and on the ceiling as well. A billiard room was located on the third floor. The Era reported that the estimated cost of construction of the house was $20,000.

Neither Frank nor Doris Chapman chose to live in their childhood home after the death of their mother, and leased the house for use as the Stoney Croft rest home, a nursing home for women. According to Lou Chapman, that arrangement ended after authorities determined that the house lacked sufficient stairways and other safety features for use as a residence for the infirm. After Stoney Croft moved out, the house was closed up, but was often visited by squatters and vandals. Concerned about liability, the Chapman family placed the property on the market and sold it for redevelopment. On February 13, 1968, the community was shocked by the sudden destruction of the house and the mature oak trees that surrounded it when the developer abruptly bulldozed the property. There was considerable public outcry over the loss of the once-elegant landmark, but lacking any viable alternative for the property, the owners had considered themselves out of options. The unfortunate loss of the C.S. Chapman house was one of the events that served as catalyst for the formation of the Rochester-Avon Historical Society in the year that followed.

Photo: View of the Charles S. Chapman estate formerly located at 714 N. Main. Today, the Rochester Square Apartments occupy the site

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Octagon House Program Coming on April 2

The next meeting of the Rochester Avon Historical Society will feature author Judith Anders, who will discuss the history of the Loren Andrus Octagon House in neighboring Washington Township. This eight-sided brick residence is now an historical museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has a varied and fascinating history. Anders is a past president of the Friends of the Octagon House and is the author of a recent book on the building entitled The Loren Andrus Octagon House, 1860, Washington, Michigan: Myths, Facts and Legends.
The program will be held on Thursday, April 2 at 7:00 p.m. at the Rochester Hills Public Library, 500 Olde Towne Road. The event is free and everyone is invited to attend. (For a full schedule of the Rochester Avon Historical Society's upcoming events, visit the RAHS web site.)

You may read more about Judy Anders and her book by clicking here. To visit the web site of the Octagon House, click here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rochester's Noted Architect

Over our history, several noted architects have called Rochester home, including some current ones, but the first among their number to gain real prominence was John Scott. Scott was born in Ipswich, England (in 1851 according to his official biography, or in 1850 according to the date on his tombstone at Mt. Avon Cemetery). He emigrated with his family to Windsor, Ontario while still a small child, and from there on to Detroit where his father, William, established an architecture firm. He followed in his father's footsteps by studying civil engineering and architecture, and worked, along with his brother, in the family business. In 1889, after his father's retirement, he renamed the firm John Scott & Co.

At the age of 25, John Scott married Emma Catherine Woodward of Rochester, daughter of prominent farmer and businessman Lysander Woodward. The couple made their home in Detroit, where in 1886 John Scott designed and built a beautiful red brick and sandstone Queen Anne style residence at 84 East Ferry Avenue. The John and Emma Scott home, used today as an inn, is now part of the East Ferry Avenue Historic District in mid-town Detroit, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As an architect, John Scott is probably most remembered for his work in designing the Beaux-Arts Wayne County Building at 600 Randolph Street, which opened in 1902 and is now also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to W. Hawkins Ferry's history of Detroit architecture, John Scott is also noted for having given a young Albert Kahn his first job in the business – as an apprentice and office boy. The relationship didn't last long, however, because Scott decided that Albert Kahn had no aptitude for architecture and dismissed him.

In 1914, John and Emma Woodward Scott retired to Avon Township and lived out the rest of their lives in the Rochester community. John Scott died on December 8, 1928 in Rochester, and was laid to rest in Mt. Avon Cemetery.

Click here to view photos of the John and Emma Scott house at 84 East Ferry in Detroit, now part of the Inn on Ferry Street.

Photo: The final resting place of John Scott and his wife Emma Catherine Woodward in Mt. Avon Cemetery.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Main Street Stories: Frank Burr Block

During the year 1890, there was a flurry of building activity on the east side of Main Street, south of Fourth. On the corner, the opera house block was under construction, and right next to it, two other business blocks were going up at the same time.

The immediate neighbor of the opera house block is the Frank H. Burr block, consisting of two stores at 334-336 S. Main. Frank H. Burr was the brother of two other well-known Rochester businessmen, and all three men left lasting marks on Main Street. Frank's brother, Charles A. Burr, built the opera house block and was also part of the group that built the State Savings Bank building at 408-410 S. Main in 1907. Another brother, George Burr, was a hardware and implement dealer whose building at 429 S. Main still bears his name today.

Early occupants of 336 S. Main were hardware merchants; these included the Frank Burr, Winans, H.L. Wood and McCreedy & Myers hardware stores. Later occupants included the C.J. Smith grocery, Gamble's, Shaw Appliance, and Rochester Refrigeration. In more recent years, the 336 address has been the home of Robert R. Rose Jewelers and J. Powrie Jewelers.

For the past couple of decades, 334 S. Main has been the home of Tower Pizza, and during the 1960s it was occupied by the Pastry Shoppe. For a large part of its earlier history, the building was the location of Becker's Barber Shop, and the Shoemaker sisters had a dressmaking shop upstairs.

Although the business blocks he and his brothers built have endured and are now downtown Rochester landmarks, Frank Burr himself came to a tragic and bitter end. In the 1920s, he and his wife relocated to Highland Park, where they ran a hardware business. One day in 1924, when Frank failed to come home as expected after closing the store, his wife sought him out and found him on the floor of the empty store, shot through the heart with a revolver lying in his lifeless hand. Fortunately, we can remember Frank Burr for the handsome building he left behind and not for the troubled circumstances of his death.

The Frank Burr block celebrates its 119th birthday this summer.

Photo: View of the Frank Burr block (the two storefronts on the left) as it looked in 1912 when occupied by McCreedy & Myers hardware and Becker's Barber Shop. Notice the barber pole near the curb.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Carnival Time

The outdoor temperature is still a bit nippy for a spin on the Tilt-A-Whirl or the Ferris wheel, but spring reminds me that carnival time will soon be here. When I was growing up, the annual spring carnival came to the North Hill Shopping Center each May. The merchants there started Carnival Days in 1960 as a promotion, and they offered special sales for the adults and discount ride tickets for the kids. Wade Shows came in to set up the amusements. This photo is a time-exposure that my Dad took during the 1963 spring carnival at North Hill - notice the Kresge's sign in the background. The other merchants who sponsored the carnival that year were Young's Men's Wear, Welch's gift shop, Cunningham Drugs, Wrigley's, Ross Shoes, Richard's Boys' and Girls' Wear, and Krazy Kelly's Furniture & Appliances.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Going Grocery Shopping

The days of the small grocery store have mostly passed away, although niche retailers like Trader Joe's appear to be bringing them back in a somewhat upscale form. As a kid in 1960s Rochester, I trailed along with Mom while she did her grocery shopping in town. The groceries my parents patronized were the Food Center on South Main near the bridge (now FedEx Kinko's), and the A&P on North Main near Paint Creek (now the Rochester Athletic Club). These were grocery stores as opposed to supermarkets, and they only sold food. Neither store had a bakery department, deli department, florist, pharmacy, salad bar, gourmet coffee shop, bank or wine shop. In the Food Center, as I recall, if you wanted wine you had your pick of the inexpensive and jug wines that were stored on top of the butcher case in the back of the store. There was Gallo, Mogen David, Manischewitz, Inglenook, and that ever-popular favorite of the high school set, Boone's Farm.

Checking out at the register was a bit different in those days, as well. Mom insisted that our items be placed on the cashier's conveyor belt in categories – meat, dairy, frozen, produce, bakery and general grocery items had to be organized together, all with the price tags facing up. The cashier had to key in each item's price and department on a mechanical cash register with actual keys that had to be depressed – no touch screens, scanners or keypads in those days. Produce had to be weighed with an old-fashioned mechanical scale. And when the total was rung and payment was tendered, the register didn't tell the cashier how much change to refund to the customer – she did the arithmetic in her head!

Shoppers didn't save money by having the cashier scan a customer card on their key rings, but they could collect S&H Green Stamps or Holden Red Stamps with each purchase and paste them into books until they had enough for redemption. The grocery stores also ran occasional promotions that allowed shoppers to collect points toward purchase of inexpensive glassware, towels, or even encyclopedia sets.

Today, as I stand in line at the self-checkout, I wonder how our parents found the time to shop the old-fashioned way!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Main Street Stories: State Savings Bank Building

The business block at 408-410 S. Main (east side, between Fourth and University) was built to be the home of the State Savings Bank of Rochester, one of the shortest-lived banks in Rochester history, but the building also has ties to one of the community's oldest businesses.
The State Savings Bank of Rochester filed its articles of incorporation in April 1907, with George M. Flumerfelt as president and Charles A. Burr as cashier. Later that same month, the bank announced its intention to build a new, two-story brick business block on Main Street. The new State Savings Bank building opened in the summer of 1907, with the bank occupying the north side of the block at the 410 S. Main address, and the furniture and undertaking business of Sullivan & Tuttle occupying the south side at 408 S. Main.
William Sullivan and Edward A. Tuttle had formed their furniture and undertaking partnership in 1906. Sullivan, of Royal Oak, also had a funeral business in that city, and after a couple of years in Rochester returned to Royal Oak and left the Rochester business in the hands of partner Tuttle. Edward Tuttle sold his part of the business to Thomas E. Nichols in 1910, and Nichols subsequently bought out Sullivan's interest. (William Sullivan continued on with his Royal Oak funeral business, which eventually became known as Sullivan & Sons, and continues today with locations in Royal Oak and Utica, which are operated by the fourth generation of the family.)
Meanwhile, in Rochester, T.E. Nichols' undertaking business prospered, and eventually moved to West Fifth Street (now University Drive). In 1920, Nichols formed a partnership with Vern A. Pixley and the business became known as Nichols & Pixley. In 1953, it became the Pixley Funeral Home.
The State Savings Bank of Rochester, however, had a much shorter history. It lasted only three years, until August 1910, at which time it was liquidated and merged with the First National Bank of Rochester.
Over the years, the 410 side of the State Savings Bank building has been occupied at various times by Hale's Shoe Store, the Rochester Eccentric office, Carlson Wagonlit travel agency, and since October 2008 by the Green Baby store. The 408 side of the building has been home to Sullivan & Tuttle, the Rochester Imperial Laundry, Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor, and for the last couple of decades, the Subway sandwich shop (among others).
The State Savings Bank building celebrates its 102nd birthday this summer.
Photo: The State Savings Bank building as it looked when it opened in 1907.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Rochester Junction

During the 1969 Rochester Centennial celebration, an unusual shopping venue was opened at 600 North Main, on a siding of the Penn-Central (formerly Michigan Central) railroad tracks. Businessman Ronald J. Roberts bought six old railroad cars, including a caboose, from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and created a boutique shopping center called Rochester Junction. The railroad cars hosted Roberts' paper memorabilia business, an antique shop, a penny candy store, and a restaurant. As a little kid, I had no great interest in paper memorabilia or antiques, but the penny candy store got my attention because that was just about all the ready cash I was allowed to carry around at the time.
The restaurant car was the one closest to the street, and it housed several different eateries over the years that Rochester Junction was in existence. The most memorable, for me, was the Purple Pickle, because during its tenure there the restaurant car was painted a garish purple all over, and really stood out from the landscape. Later restaurants featured a more sober paint scheme.
Rochester Junction survived until the mid-1980s, but by then the railroad line had been abandoned and was in the process of being converted to the Paint Creek Trail. Today, the site of Rochester Junction is the parking lot behind the building which most recently housed the True Value Hardware at 600 North Main.

Photo: The Rochester Junction sign on North Main about 1982.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

The month of March demands a look back at our founding father, James Graham. On March 17, 1817, Graham and some of his family established Rochester as the first non-native settlement in the region that would become Oakland County. The history books take up the story from there, and tell us about the other settlers and how the village and township grew, but they don't say much about James Graham, Revolutionary War patriot. I decided to consult the available sources to find out more about the military service of the man who founded our community 192 years ago this month.

The record is inconclusive about the place of James Graham's birth. One genealogy claims that he was born in Scotland, emigrated to the colonies and indentured himself as an apprentice to a New York physician in order to pay off the cost of his passage. Another claims that the immigrant family member was William Graham, James' father, who came to the colonies about 1733, and that James Graham was born in the Wyoming Valley area of Pennsylvania in 1749. The few remaining official documents tied to the life of James Graham do not state his place of birth.

In any case, we know from his Revolutionary War pension file that James Graham was living in the Wyoming Valley community of Lower Smithfield in April 1778, when he and his brother enlisted with an independent company of volunteers that was raised in the area and attached to the Connecticut line of Continental soldiers. The Wyoming Valley was a grain-rich region and major food producer for the Americans, so Loyalist and British forces had begun raiding and looting the area in order to disrupt the food supply to the Continentals. Things came to a head on July 3, 1778, when the Battle of Wyoming ensued. Commanded by Captain Dethick Hewitt, James Graham and his comrades in arms fought in this bloody confrontation in which the Continental forces numbering about 300 were beaten and afterwards massacred by British and Iroquois forces numbering more than 1,100. The horror of the atrocities committed at the Battle of Wyoming served to steel American resolve to evict the British from their shores, and also garnered the sympathy of the French toward the American cause. As Captain Hewitt and all but a half dozen of his men had been killed during this battle, James Graham was assigned to another company, and later served as a messenger for Major General John Sullivan, who, in the aftermath, was tasked by George Washington with crushing Iroquois and Loyalist resistance in the region. James Graham completed his enlistment term and was discharged after one year of service.

This story might have fallen through the cracks of history were it not for the efforts of two patriotic societies. The Daughters of the American Revolution marked the grave of James Graham in the family cemetery on Crooks Road, identifying him as an American patriot, but the designation was lost in 1926 when the remains of the Graham family were transferred to the new mausoleum at Perry Mount Park cemetery in Pontiac. For decades after, there was nothing on the tomb of James Graham to signify his service in the war for independence. This oversight was remedied in 2008 when the Michigan Society of the Sons of the American Revolution rededicated the marker on the tomb of the Graham family, and engraved the emblem which identifies James Graham as an American Revolutionary War patriot.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Rochester's Famous Actress

If you are thinking Madonna, you're way off base! Look back a century before Madonna left the halls of Rochester Adams High School for the glamour of New York, and you'll find that Florence Gillette was Rochester's claim to fame in front of the footlights.

Florence Lillian Gillette was born near Birmingham in Oakland County on October 3, 1851, and came with her parents, Hartson and Lucia Fidelia Woolley Gillette, to Avon Township when she was a small child. Young Florence attended school in Rochester, but also received tutoring from her mother, a published author and well-known lecturer who was a Universalist minister and is believed to have been the first woman clergy person ordained in the province of Ontario.

As a child, Florence showed early interest in drama and hungrily devoured her mother's volumes of Shakespeare. She corresponded with Edwin Booth, and entered the dramatic profession on the strength of her contacts with Booth and actress Charlotte Cushman, who was known for using her own fame to champion the fledgling stage careers of other women. Florence played leading roles in New York and Chicago theatres, including the parts of Juliet and Camille, and toured extensively throughout the United States, Canada and England.

Florence Gillette met and married George A. Flett in 1889 and soon after retired from public life. The marriage ended in divorce within a decade and produced no children. Florence, by then in poor health, returned to Rochester to live with her widowed mother. She died in Rochester at the age of 48 on October 25, 1900. After her daughter's death, Lucia Fidelia Gillette told the Rochester Era that she planned to relocate away from Rochester, and that once she was settled, she would have the remains of her late husband and daughter re-interred near her new home. Lucia retired soon thereafter to the Messiah Universalist Home near Philadelphia, and arranged for the remains of Hartson and Florence Gillette to be buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery in nearby Germantown, Pennsylvania.

Photo: This photo of Florence Gillette was published in the 1897 pamphlet Beautiful Rochester. A better portrait of Florence made during her stage career is part of the New York Public Library's Billy Rose Theatre Collection photograph file, and may be viewed by clicking here.