Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Main Street Stories: The Curtis Building

The building at 307 S. Main was built in 1907 by Lewis W. Curtis (1879-1976). Curtis was a 1902 graduate of the University of Michigan College of Dentistry, and after receiving his degree he returned to his home in Rochester to establish his dental practice. By 1907, he was successful enough to build a new brick building on Main Street which housed his offices on the second floor and provided retail space on the first floor.

Several different businesses have occupied the ground floor of the Curtis building. It served as the first home of the A & P grocery store after the chain located in Rochester in 1923. In 1926, Alvah N. Dean opened a feed store there, and a feed business would occupy 307 S. Main for over half a century thereafter. Dean asked one of his employees, Al Michalka, to manage the feed store in 1927, and Michalka added a line of pet supplies to the store on his own. By 1933, the Dean feed store and the hatchery business that he also operated were suffering from the effects of the Great Depression; manager Michalka was no longer being paid and his only income was that which he earned from his pet supplies side line. When Dean's business failed completely in the summer of 1933, Al Michalka decided to take over for himself. Al's son, Robert Michalka, shared this story with me:
...he met with the owner of the building, Dr. Lewis Curtis, and offered to rent the building at a reduced rent. Dr. Curtis said, "how do you think that you can make it when Dean couldn't?". My Dad said that he could and Dr. Curtis agreed to rent him the building with my Dad setting his own rent and raising it himself as conditions improved, which he did until he bought the building in 1960. The counter had been removed and my Dad went to see Mr. Dean and told him that he needed the counter as he was going in to business for himself. Dean said that he couldn't as he needed it. My Dad told him that he had not been paid for two months and that Dean was going to give him the counter and have one of his men and a truck deliver it. He then opened his jacket to reveal a gun. Mr. Dean provided the man and a truck. ... Those were different days.

Main Feed and Seed, the name by which Al Michalka's business was known, operated at 307 S. Main until March 1982, and is fondly remembered by several generations of Rochester residents. Even though Dr. Curtis may have questioned whether Michalka could make a success of the store, Michalka himself apparently had no such reservations. For the 1935 Double Jubilee festival held in downtown Rochester to celebrate the centennial of Avon Township, a commemorative program was printed which included an ad for Main Feed and Seed. That advertisement carried the tag line "we'll be here when your kids grow up." Al Michalka kept that promise. Main Feed and Seed was still there when I grew up, and my own father hadn't even been born yet when that Double Jubilee ad was printed!

Since Main Feed and Seed passed from the scene, the Curtis building has been occupied by a coffee house and several boutique businesses. The ground floor is currently occupied by the Dragonfly Boutique. The Curtis building celebrates its 102nd birthday this year.

Robert Michalka took this photo of 307 S. Main in June 1968 and kindly provided it for this post. The man shown in front of the store is Ernest "Red" Ennis, who worked for Sutton's Market and later, for Main Feed and Seed.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Rochester's Famous Scientist

On 16th Street in Washington, D.C., stands a house that is a National Historic Landmark. This building is not a national landmark for its age or architectural significance, but for its connection to a man born in Rochester, Michigan who was an important historical figure in the field of science. The house on 16th Street is listed because it once served as the residence of Robert Simpson Woodward (1849-1924), noted American physicist and geologist.

Woodward was born in Rochester on July 21, 1849, the third of five children of pioneer farmer Lysander Woodward and his wife Peninah Simpson. Although Lysander Woodward was a progressive farmer who applied scientific agricultural principles to the operation of his farm and served as president of the Oakland County Agricultural Society in order to urge others to do the same, he nonetheless did not believe that university education had any real merit and had to be convinced to allow his son to attend the University of Michigan after he completed his basic education in Rochester.

Robert S. Woodward was graduated from the University of Michigan in 1872 with an engineering degree. He worked on the United States Lake Survey and also served as an assistant astronomer with the United States Transit of Venus Commission. He then moved on to the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was chief geographer in charge of the Division of Mathematics, and there conducted research and published numerous scientific papers.

In 1893, Woodward became Professor of Mechanics and Mathematical Physics at Columbia University. He remained at Columbia for a dozen years and then accepted the position of president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, at which time he made his home in the District of Columbia. He retired from the Carnegie Institution in 1921, three years before his death.

Robert S. Woodward also served as associate editor of the journal Science - still published today - from 1889 to 1924. He was regarded as a leading authority in his field, and the list of his publications, honors and awards goes on for pages. He died in Washington D.C. on June 29, 1924 at the age of 74, from lingering ailments after a bout of influenza.

A lengthy professional biography of Robert Simpson Woodward, prepared in 1937 for the National Academy of Sciences is available online here. A photo and information about his residence in Washington, D.C., a National Historic Landmark, is available here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Main Street Stories: First National Bank Building

The building at 339 S. Main Street has been occupied by the same type of business for its entire history thus far, and is one of only a handful in the downtown district that may claim the distinction. In 1924, directors of the First National Bank of Rochester, which was then located at 338 S. Main (in the Opera House block now occupied by Lytle Pharmacy), decided that the bank needed larger quarters and purchased property across the street on the southwest corner of Fourth and Main.

The Bond-Hubbard Company of Chicago designed and built the new bank block, which included office, retail and apartment spaces in addition to the bank quarters. Dillman and Upton supplied the building materials, including brick, hollow tile, cement, plaster and lumber for the $100,000 project.

The new bank opened its doors to the public on February 14, 1925. A few years later, during the banking crisis of the Great Depression, First National Bank of Rochester was liquidated and re-organized as the Rochester National Bank. When the bank re-opened, under the leadership of Milton H. Haselswerdt, community members showed their confidence by opening more than 400 new accounts. Haselswerdt was commended for restructuring the old bank without any harm to depositors.

In May 1955, Rochester National Bank merged with National Bank of Detroit, so the name on the front of the building changed, but not its purpose. National Bank of Detroit then became known as NBD Bank after its merger with First National Bank of Chicago in 1995. Four years later, another merger changed the name of the institution to Bank One, and in 2006, Bank One became part of J.P. Morgan Chase, the current occupant of the building.

The First National Bank Building will celebrate its 85th birthday this coming February.

This ca. 1961 photo shows the building wearing the National Bank of Detroit name.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Listening For the Calliope

When I was a youngster growing up in 1960s Rochester, Trick-Or-Treat was the main event of the autumn season. As stores broke out the Halloween displays, our minds mulled over costume ideas and we kids bugged our parents to buy us just the right mask for the event. Kresge's had a seemingly endless selection of the hard plastic masks held in place with a skinny elastic band that always broke before the Halloween night festivities could end.

A week before Halloween night, there was a special event in town that served to build our anticipation of things to come. The Monday prior to Halloween was Kiwanis Flare Night. The Rochester Kiwanis Club and the fire department came through the streets of town selling packages of road flares to be used to illuminate the sidewalks on Halloween night. Some years, they used a calliope mounted on one of the trucks to announce their presence in the neighborhood for the flare sale. Our ears strained to hear that music pipe up and we would immediately announce to Dad that "they're coming down our street!".

On Halloween night, Trick-Or-Treat was officially begun when the fire siren blew at 7:00 p.m. A few minutes before the appointed time, every father in the neighborhood was sitting on his front porch or stoop with a bundle of road flares in hand, patiently waiting for the siren to blow. Everyone was very obedient, and nobody ever lit their flares until the siren was sounded. Promptly at 7:00, we heard the long-awaited wail, and flares simultaneously lit the sidewalks up and down the street. The whole neighborhood was soon eerily alight with a pinkish-orange cloud of sulphur dioxide smoke, and kids raced out their front doors with plastic jack-o-lanterns or pillow cases at the ready to begin collecting their loot. Trick-Or-Treat was on!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Talley Motor Sales

In March of 1946, the Rochester Era announced that construction of an ultra-modern automobile dealership had begun on North Main at the corner of Drace. Talley Motor Sales had been founded in Rochester six months earlier, quartered temporarily at 115 East Third Street, in a building that had been used for storage by McAleer Manufacturing. President and majority owner in the firm was Charles W. Talley, who had previously worked for Community Motors and National Twist Drill. Other principals were Glenn Warren, vice-president; George Hillman, vice-president; and J. William Davis, secretary-treasurer.

Talley's success as the area's Chrysler-Plymouth agency led to the need for a new building. The garage and showroom at 1001 North Main was 90 feet wide and 165 feet long. The five-car showroom was of Art Deco design similar in lines to the D&C building at Fourth and Main, which was built during the same era. The construction cost of the new facility was estimated at $35,000.

The building served as an automobile dealership for its entire useful life. The firm later became known as Talley-Warren Motor Sales; in 1957, Ray Rammler and Les Dallas bought the company and added the Dodge line to the showroom floor. In the 1960s and 1970s, the company was known as Town and Country Chrysler-Plymouth, and after that Meadowbrook Dodge. After Meadowbrook Dodge removed to the corner of Auburn and Rochester roads about 1999, the Talley Motors building was demolished to make way for the Flagstar Bank branch office which currently occupies the site.

Photo: This photo of the Talley Motor Sales building at 1001 North Main was provided by Rod and Susan Wilson.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Subdivision Stories: W.C. Chapman Addition

One of Rochester's early real estate developers was William Clark Chapman (1866-1946), who with his older brother, Charles Sherwin Chapman (1864-1912), brought the Western Knitting Mills to Rochester in 1891. Both men made their home in Rochester after locating the WKM here, and both built fine residences in the village. In March 1899, William C. Chapman platted and sold land lying north of Fifth Street (now University Drive) near Paint Creek as the W.C. Chapman Addition. This plat consisted of six lots facing Fifth Street and seven pairs of lots lying to the immediate north of Fifth Street along a side street to be named Ludlow. This street was named in honor of the Vermont birthplace of William C. Chapman's wife, Ada Josephine Barney Chapman. William Chapman himself was born in Cavendish, Vermont, the town neighboring Ludlow. (The Chapman family had many friends and relatives in Ludlow, Vermont, and visited there often. At their deaths, both Chapman brothers were interred in a Ludlow cemetery near their parents' graves.)

At the time that the W.C. Chapman Addition was laid out and sold, there was great economic potential in developing land on the north side of the village. The Detroit Sugar Company was in the process of building a huge beet sugar processing plant on what is known today as Woodward Street, and an interurban streetcar line was laying track toward Rochester at the same time. Chapman's 1946 obituary commented that, having experienced a housing shortage for workers when he and his brother brought the Western Knitting Mills to town in 1891, he decided to invest in real estate and housing development when the Detroit Sugar Company faced a similar situation nearly a decade later.

Ludlow Avenue was extended to the north by two later plats of the land adjoining the W.C. Chapman Addition, and eventually ran all the way to Paint Creek, where it was connected to Woodward Street.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

This month we look back at a catastrophic fire on Main Street and a Rochester tradition that was born from it. On October 20, 1926, the newly-built Phillips & Jerome Ford showroom and service garage at 215 S. Main Street caught fire. An acetylene torch being used at the back of the garage ignited gasoline in a tractor tank and the resulting fire spread quickly, feeding on the various combustibles normally found in garages. An alarm was turned in, but the village fire siren failed to sound, and the members of the volunteer fire department responded only as word of mouth alerted them to the situation. The Pontiac Fire Department was also called to assist, but by the time firefighting resources could be assembled at the scene, there was little to do but contain the blaze and prevent it from spreading to neighboring buildings. Employees of the dealership saved a few automobiles by pushing them out to the street through the showroom windows, but in the end, the building and most of its contents were a total loss.

Local legend has it that the fire siren failed to sound because a bird had built a nest in it. A week after the Phillips & Jerome fire, the Rochester Village Council ordered that the fire siren be sounded weekly at noon to insure that it was in working order. That order was soon amended to make the siren test a daily event at noon, and that tradition has continued for the past eighty-three years, and counting.

Phillips & Jerome rebuilt their showroom and garage at the same location, and occupied the building at 215 S. Main until the mid-1960s. The fire department has installed more sophisticated communication equipment as the years have passed, but we still hear the noon whistle every weekday to remind us of that long-ago fire.