Sunday, April 26, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Hilltop Lanes

When the new Hilltop Lanes building opened for business in October 1950, the Rochester Clarion referred to it as a bowling “palace.” Compared to the less spacious Rochester Recreation bowling alley located in a Main Street basement (more about that one in a future post), the modern, new 12-lane center perched on the top of South Hill probably did seem palatial to local keglers.

Ray Ludwig was the general manager when Hilltop Lanes opened to the public at 893 S. Rochester Rd. on October 11, 1950. State-of-the-art Brunswick equipment was in place to greet the league bowlers in the brand-new building on the first day of business. Today, we wouldn't think of a 12-lane bowling alley as large, but as a kid, Hilltop seemed like a pretty big place to me. I recall accompanying my Dad on a few occasions for his Wednesday night league games there, when he was bowling for Jack Long Ford Sales. What seemed a bit incongruous to me (and still does), is that after a night of bowling (and in some cases, drinking), customers of Hilltop would head out to the parking lot only to be greeted by posted signs demanding QUIET because the Avon Center Hospital was located just over the fence and didn't want its patients' rest disturbed by noisy revelers.

The growing area was soon served by additional bowling centers, but Hilltop was the first in the community designed and built specifically for bowling. The bowling lanes closed in the late 1970s when House of Denmark bought the property for a retail store offering Danish modern furniture. The furniture store, later operated under the names Contemporary Furniture and The Desk, continued until about 2005, when the property was sold to Russell Shelton, owner of the adjacent Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealership. The building was razed in 2008 to make more lot space available for the dealership.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Parking Meters

Under the heading of “nothing new under the sun” we file the recent stories about parking meters in downtown Rochester. According to published reports, the city council is discussing whether the business district might be able to get along without the gadgets, given that the parking program runs an annual deficit of about $70,000. Shoppers, of course, wouldn't miss having to feed the meters, but there is concern that parking spots will not turn over in a timely fashion if parking is not regulated. Council is considering a test program during the summer months, eliminating parking fees on Saturdays.

This debate reminds me of the one that happened in Rochester 59 years ago, when the post-war boom in population and automobiles was causing an acute parking shortage in the business district. There were no meters then, and few municipal lots off Main. To make matters worse, most spaces were being occupied by business owners and their employees throughout the day. The village council's first attempt to address the problem was a two-hour parking limit, enforced by Chief Sam Howlett and his officers, but business owners just made a routine of swapping spaces every two hours to avoid the police officer's chalk stick. Parking meters were suggested, but some merchants and village officials felt that the devices would deter shoppers. Others responded that a lack of parking was already turning potential customers away, and that parking meters would help to alleviate the problem, not make it worse.

After considerable discussion, parking meters were installed on Main, and the village council fretted over the considerable expense involved. The meters went into service on July 16, 1951, and the price of parking was a penny for every twelve minutes. The Clarion reported that a regular turnover of downtown parking spaces was immediately evident. Critics backed off when the meters generated $808 in revenue during the first two weeks of operation and collected more than $15,000 in the first year, making it possible for the village to recover its investment in the equipment more quickly than originally expected.

If you're interested in the origins of the parking meter, check out this interesting video showing public reaction to the installation of the nation's very first parking meter in Oklahoma City in 1935.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Main Street Stories: 406 S. Main

In the summer of 1927, excitement was bubbling over in Rochester as all eyes watched the progress of the construction of the new South Hill bridge. Business owners were looking forward to the completion of the new concrete span, which would finally provide easy access to town for autos approaching the village from the south. A flurry of fix-up and modernization projects erupted along the Main Street store fronts, and one of the projects was a brand-new brick building at 406 S. Main.

The Clarion announced on July 1, 1927 that the old frame building adjoining the Masonic block to the north was being razed to make way for the construction of a modern building. The old building had been the home of the recently-departed Joe Fabiano fruit market. The new structure, a project of Milton H. Haselswerdt and Louis E. Becker, was designed to house a new restaurant. Haselswerdt and Becker were both officers of the First National Bank of Rochester, and doubtless saw the opportunity for business growth that the new bridge would provide.

In February 1928, the formal opening of the Merchant's Restaurant was advertised. Charles W. Asher was the proprietor, and promised excellent service, wholesome food, and as an added bonus, a powerful receiving set installed in the building so that patrons could enjoy the best radio programs on the air as they dined.

After the Merchant's Restaurant departed, several others followed. 406 housed The Village Grill, one of Harold Bebout's eateries, and was also one of the locations of the Four-O-Six Bar. (Not to confuse its regular patrons, the Four-O-Six kept its name when it moved on to another Main Street address.) In the 1960s, the address was the location of Wilhelm's Bavarian Rathskeller. Later business tenants included The Learning Ladder, Sunny's Hallmark, and most recently, the Wild Wings Gallery. The building is currently vacant, and celebrates its 81st birthday this year.

Photo: This photo from the early 1960s shows 406 S. Main as it looked when Bebout's Restaurant occupied the building.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Vanished Rochester: The Billboard

It's hard to imagine billboards in downtown Rochester nowadays, with sign ordinances in place to regulate the size, shape and location of advertisements, but there was a time that several large ads could be found along Main Street. One of the best remembered stood on an empty lot at 303 S. Main (currently the location of the Mixx Salon). It was not until 1959 that the building at 303 S. Main was erected, and before that a large billboard occupied the space.

Robert Michalka lent me this great photo, taken in front of his father's store at 307 S. Main, which shows the billboard next door. That's Bob with his bicycle in front of Main Feed & Seed at 307 S. Main, and behind him is the billboard standing on the neighboring vacant lot. The billboard is featuring an ad for Koepplinger's bread. Remember the slogan? Koepplinger's - how do you spell that? B-R-E-A-D!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Main Street Stories: Oliver P. Gibbs Block

Oliver P. Gibbs, who broke ground for the business block located at 431-433 S. Main in September 1919 and opened it to tenants in early 1920, was well-known in Rochester not for his business activities, but for his political ones. Gibbs served as Supervisor of Avon Township from 1927 to 1952, and also served two terms as chairman of the Oakland County Board of Supervisors. He led the township during a time of spectacular growth and development, when the first planning and zoning efforts were made for what would eventually become the city of Rochester Hills.

One of the first tenants in Gibbs' new building was Mac's Furnishings, a menswear store at 431 S. Main. At 433 S. Main, the Cole Brothers Sugar Bowl, an ice cream and confectionery shop, held its grand opening on April 16, 1921. The Rochester Era described the Sugar Bowl as “elegant,” and having an all-white interior with booths lining both walls. No doubt the business benefited nicely from the patronage of moviegoers at the Idle Hour Theatre directly next door.

Longtime Rochester residents, however, will most associate the Gibbs block with paying their gas bills or getting shoes fitted. In 1926, Consumers Power Company began laying gas mains and providing natural gas service to customers in Rochester, so the utility took a long-term lease on 431 S. Main and opened a local office that would serve the community for the next half century. In February 1930, A.F. Zimmerman and his son, Earl, moved their shoe store up the block to the 433 address, replacing the Sugar Bowl in the north half of the building. For more than fifty years to follow, a shoe store would occupy the space, as Jack Burr's bootery followed Zimmerman's in the same location.

Consumers Power closed its Rochester office in late 1972, and Burr's Bootery closed a decade later, after expanding into the former gas company space. In recent years, a variety of businesses have come and gone, including Ballen Supply at 431, and Record Time and Brooklyn Pizza at 433. Currently, Flair Boutique is located at 431 S. Main; 433 S. Main is vacant and is slated to be the new home of the Silk Worm.

The Gibbs block celebrates its 90th birthday this year.

Photo: The Oliver P. Gibbs block at 431-433 S. Main as it appeared in the 1940s when it was occupied by Consumers Power and Zimmerman shoes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Rochester Road Kings

In the summer of 1953, the Rochester Police Department cracked down on hot rodding in town at the behest of the village council, which had expressed its displeasure at increasingly frequent incidents of reckless driving and exhibitions of speed. According to an August 6, 1953 report in the Rochester Clarion, Chief Sam Howlett's enforcement effort in response to the council mandate netted fifteen unlucky hot rod drivers.

Just two years earlier, in 1951, the editor of Hot Rod magazine had founded the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in southern California. Wally Parks' goal was to “bring order out of chaos” and create a safe environment for hot rodders – one that did not tolerate reckless driving or illegal street racing. In the same year, the Michigan Hot Rod Association was formed for the identical purpose, and in 1952 the MHRA hosted its first Autorama show to generate funding for a dream racing facility at New Baltimore, Michigan.

In Rochester, some local hot rodders formed their own club along NHRA guidelines and called themselves the Rochester Road Kings. The NHRA handbook cautioned that club names should suggest “skillful and sensible driving,” and further warned that “names that include such words as 'Maniacs,' 'Killers,' 'Hell' or 'Wrecks' have a tendency to give the public the wrong impression of hot rodding.” The membership oath of the Rochester Road Kings required inductees to promise “careful and considerate driving on public highways and … strict observance of the Motor Vehicle Codes.”

The pamphlet shown here, containing the governing documents of the Rochester Road Kings club, is from my Dad's personal memorabilia collection (no, that's not his name written on the cover). He may – or may not – have been one of the hot rodders the Rochester police were hoping to shut down back in those days, and it is possible that he may – or may not – have received an occasional ticket for exhibition of speed or excessive noise. Any former hot rodders out there with a story to share?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Whitey's Restaurant

Today we are accustomed to convenience marts at round-the-clock gas stations where beverages, snacks, sandwiches and even pizza are offered. But in Rochester from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, if you wanted food and gasoline at the same stop the place to go was Whitey's Restaurant, located adjacent to the Rochester Gulf Station on the southwest corner of Main and Third streets.

The little restaurant was built by Louis H. Cole at 227 South Main in the spring of 1941 and held its grand opening on June 21, 1941. At first it was known as the Hamburger Bar, and a September 1941 advertisement in the Rochester Era boasted hamburgers for a nickel and round-the-clock service. By 1952, the cafe was operated by Lee R. White and was known as Whitey's, the name by which it is still remembered.

Whitey's wasn't just a convenient food stop for motorists, it was a handy lunch place for people who worked in town as well. My Dad and his fellow auto mechanics at Larry Jerome Ford walked up the block to take their coffee breaks there. Fellow historian and long-time Rochester resident Robert Michalka told me that he recalls patronizing Whitey's in the late 1950s, as it was just a couple of doors down from his father's store. Bob remembers that a pack of cigarettes from the machine at Whitey's cost 28 cents in those days, but the restaurant's vending machine took 30 cents, so it would dispense the customer's cigarettes with two pennies taped to the package.

Whitey's vanished from the local landscape in the late 1960s, when the Gulf station was being rebuilt and the area where the restaurant stood was needed for parking. When Gulf Oil Company's fortunes turned in the 1980s, the station was also torn down.

Do you remember Whitey's? If so, you are invited to share your memories with other readers by posting a comment. Just click on the comment link at the bottom of this post, choose Anonymous from the “Select Profile” drop-down menu, and type away! You don't have to reveal your name unless you choose to do so.

Photo: Robert Michalka kindly lent me this view of Whitey's Restaurant, taken just before the building was demolished. Today, this location is the home of the Hermitage Gallery and other boutique businesses in a building that was erected in 1984.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Main Street Stories: 435 S. Main

It may not stand out from the block today, but for the first forty years of its history, the building at 435 S. Main Street was a theater and entertainment center in downtown Rochester. In October 1913, the Rochester Era announced that James W. Smith, owner of the Hotel St. James at 439 S. Main, had purchased property adjoining his hotel to the south in order to build a new theater. Smith promised that construction would be rushed on the new building which would be "up-to-the-minute in every particular."

True to his promise, Smith opened the New Idle Hour Theatre under the management of Oscar Price in February, 1914. The Era told its readers that the new moving picture house was "of white brick with steel ceiling and sidewalls, concrete floors, asbestos operating booth, perfect ventilation, steam heat, and ... absolutely fireproof." It was described as seating 400 patrons, and boasting an 18-foot stage with a depth of 16 feet, suitable for live performances as well as film screenings. The premiere of the new house offered a live performance by the Rochester Comedy Company, entitled True Irish Hearts.

The following year, Edward J. Cole took over the Idle Hour, and eventually the operation of the theater passed to Charles L. Sterns, who renamed it the Avon Theatre in 1936. The Avon was Rochester's only movie theater until 1942, when Sterns opened the Hills Theatre across the street. The larger Hills became the town's first-run house, and the Avon presented second-run titles and serials.

The Avon Theatre closed in the early 1950s, and the building was sold in 1955 to the owners of Oberg Electric and Appliance. While the Obergs were in the process of remodeling the building in May 1955, the facade of the building peeled off and crashed to the sidewalk when a steel beam across the front of the building collapsed. Nobody was hurt in the mishap, but it brought an abrupt end to the Art Deco face of the building. Oberg Electric occupied the building for about a decade, and it was home to Michigan Chandelier, another electric supplier, until the mid-1980s. A number of retailers have come and gone since then; among the recent ones were the Varsity Shop, the Body Tonic Spa and the current occupant, the Who UR Upscale Resale for a Cause (formerly the Women Helping Others Resale Shop).

The former Idle Hour theater building celebrates its 95th birthday this year.

Photo: This view from of the west side of Main, south of University, shows the Avon Theatre as it looked in the 1940s with its Art Deco facade.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

April was the month in which local elections were always held when Rochester was a village. On April 12, 1869, residents of the village voted to incorporate and govern themselves separately from the surrounding Township of Avon. They elected a village council that met monthly to conduct business, and that form of government lasted until November 1948, when voters passed a new charter converting the village to manager/council governance. In total, Rochester was governed as an incorporated village for 98 years, until opting for cityhood in 1967.

For 68 of those years, the seat of village government was this building, located on East Fourth Street at the East Alley. The building housed the village clerk and manager's offices, and the police department was located upstairs. The village of Rochester used this building until 1961, when it was razed after a new municipal center was opened at 400 Sixth Street.

Photo: This view of the Rochester Village Hall is part of the local history collection of the Rochester Hills Public Library. Today, this site is a city parking lot.