Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Main Street Stories: 415-417 S. Main

The business block at 415-417 S. Main might appropriately be called the Palmer Block after the jeweler and optician who built it, but the label also rightly applies to the entire row of storefronts from 405-417 S. Main.

Louis Eugene Palmer, who built his first commercial building at 405-405 S. Main Street in 1883, bought adjoining lots in the same block and was soon the landlord for several businesses on the west side of Main between Fourth and Fifth (now University Drive). The double storefront at 415-417 was built about 1896-97; when it was ready for occupancy, Palmer moved his jewelry store up the block from its previous location to 417; 415 was occupied by William J. Fraser, who ran a harness making operation there in addition to his justice of the peace office.

Palmer's son, Fred, and daughter, Pauline, followed him into the business and even operated stores in competition with their father at various times. The 417 S. Main location was a Palmer jewelry store until 1935, when the senior Palmer died in his apartment above the business.

Tenants in the 415 location have included Brownell's Grocery in the 1920s, and Baldy Benson's barber shop in the 1930s and 1940s; later occupants were Joe's Barber Shop, Wayne Heating and Cooling and Del Van Skiver's Avon Photography. The 417 side of the building was the home of the House of Custom Colors for a couple of decades, and was also a Sherwin Williams paint store for a time. In recent years, a variety of businesses have come and gone from the location.

In 1960, a major renovation of the building exterior replaced the original facade with a faux-colonial design, eliminating the cornice and the windows across the front of the second floor. The building is currently undergoing an historic restoration of the Main Street elevation which will return it to its 1897 appearance.

This postcard view of 415-417 S. Main shows the building when it was occupied by the Louis E. Palmer jewelry store and William J. Fraser's harness-making shop and justice of the peace office. Notice the clock on the pole in front of the store, styled as a pocket watch.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Vanished Rochester: The RHS Bridge

When Rochester's high school students moved from the old school at the corner of Fifth & Wilcox to their brand new school at the corner of Walton & Livernois in the fall of 1956, they had to adjust to living with a very unfamiliar building layout. Architects had designed the new RHS to be expanded as future enrollment might require, with two long wings extending eastward from a center hub. If a student had a class at the end of the south wing, which extended to the gymnasium, followed by a class in the north wing, the walk was almost impossible to make through the school corridors in the allotted time between bells.

The problem was solved as the result of a 1966 bond issue which funded the addition of a swimming pool in the gymnasium complex and an auditorium adjacent to the music classrooms on the north wing. To connect the north and south wings at their eastern ends, a covered pedestrian bridge was built from the gym to the auditorium, and it was opened to students in January of 1968. The Rochester Clarion announced the happy news:
Students at Rochester High will be saving miles of walking next week when this novel bridge is expected to open, linking two distant wings of the building. The bridge connects to the two front wings and will greatly cut congestion in the present main hall. Many students now dash through the cold across the concourse to reach classes on time.
In terms of its practical use, the RHS bridge turned out to be a short-lived feature of the building. By the time that my class arrived in the halls of RHS, only five years after the bridge had been opened, it was already off limits to student traffic. The north end of the walkway was blocked off and was used to house a student store, unimaginatively named "The Bridge." The south end of the walkway was used to store chairs, dollies and other paraphernalia needed in the gym. Once again, students were dashing across the lawn in order to make it from one wing to the other before the second bell rang.

A major expansion and renovation of the high school building in 1986 enclosed the former main courtyard area to accommodate a new media center and more gymnasium space, and that construction project consigned the RHS bridge to the pages of Vanished Rochester.

This photo shows part of the bridge as it entered the gymnasium complex at the end of the south wing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Subdivision Stories: Belle Cone Gardens

The Belle Cone Gardens subdivision was laid out in Section 33 of Avon Township, along the Avon/Troy boundary, in late 1926 and early 1927. The development was part of a post-World War I building boom that exploded in southern Avon Township along the Auburn/South Boulevard corridor. Belle Cone was one of several subdivisions that transformed the farmlands of Avon into affordable housing lots for laborers in the Pontiac automobile factories.

The subdivision lies on land that was owned by one of Avon's pioneer settlers, Linus Cone, who first came to Michigan from points east in 1821, and purchased land in Section 33 of Avon Township in 1826. He met and married Mary Crooks (of the family for whom Crooks Road is named) in the following year, and the couple farmed their land and reared three sons there. Linus Cone was well-known in agricultural circles for espousing modern farming theories and practices, and he also served for a time as editor and publisher of the Michigan Farmer. He lived on his farm in Avon until his death in 1875; the property eventually passed into the hands of his son, Frederick W. Cone, and then later to Frederick's widow, Annabelle "Belle" Cone.

In October 1926, the first of three plats for the development known as Belle Cone Gardens was filed on behalf of Belle Cone and several investors. The names of the subdivision streets reflect the names of the project's investors and developers. Belle Cone's partners were Detroit real estate broker Leslie J. Leinbach and his wife Grace; Leslie Leinbach's partner, Harry B. Leinbach, and his wife Rose; Mildred D. Decker; and Samuel W. Smith and his wife Alida DeLand Smith. Belle Cone Gardens includes streets named for the Cone family, Grace Leinbach, Mildred Decker, Alida DeLand Smith, and Samuel W. Smith.

Samuel W. Smith is another prominent figure connected to Belle Cone Gardens. Smith served as prosecuting attorney of Oakland County, was a member of the Michigan legislature, and served in the United States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1915. During his years in Congress he was known as a champion of the extension of rural free mail delivery.

The Belle Cone Gardens subdivision is 83 years old this year.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Vanished Rochester: DeLisa's

In 1942, the area immediately north of Tienken and Rochester roads was "out in the country." National Twist Drill had only recently moved to the area from Detroit, and the rest of the Township of Avon that lay directly north of the village limits was still rural in character. Today, a wealth of dining and entertainment options are available at that very corner, but in 1942, Floyd L. and Oliver Relyea were the first on the scene.

On July 2, 1942, the Rochester Clarion announced that the Relyeas were about to open a new dining and dancing hall called Relyea Acres at 6980 N. Rochester Rd. Nine years later, in 1951, John DeLisa took over the business and changed its name to DeLisa's Restaurant. DeLisa's specialized in pizza pies, a fast-food delicacy that was just beginning to gain popularity in the United States at that time.

DeLisa's closed in September of 1968 and the restaurant building was torn down the following year to make way for the construction of a gas station.

The advertisement shown here is one that appeared in the Rochester Clarion in 1955.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Main Street Stories: George Burr Building

The building at 429 S. Main is the only older building in the downtown business district that has had only two retail occupants in its entire history. Hardware and implement dealer George Burr built the store in 1914, after he had outgrown his previous location across the street at 418 S. Main. George Burr was the brother of fellow Rochester merchants Charles A. Burr, builder of the Opera House block at 4th and Main, and Frank H. Burr, who built a two-store block to the immediate south of the Opera House block.

In 1920, George Burr retired from the business he had founded and passed the management of the store to his daughter, Neva, and her husband, Ward Crissman. When Ward Crissman died suddenly in 1935, Neva Crissman brought her own daughter, Arlene, and son-in-law Leon Robertson into the business, and they continued to manage it until they decided to close the hardware store and sell the building in June of 1965.

On August 30, 1965, the grand opening of Green's Artist Supply was held, introducing to Rochester residents only the second business ever located in the building. Forty-four years later, Green's still occupies the building erected by George Burr in 1914.

The George Burr building celebrated its 95th birthday this year.

This ca. 1961 photo from the collection of Marjorie and the late Walter Dernier shows the building at 429 S. Main while it was still occupied by the Burr Hardware.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

This month is the forty-first anniversary of one of the most devastating fires in Rochester's downtown business district. In the early morning hours of December 12, 1968, a fire started in the Case's Hardware building at 335 S. Main Street. The blaze was first discovered at about 4:15 a.m. when a resident of one of the apartments in the National Bank of Detroit building next door was awakened by strange noises and realized that the adjacent hardware store was burning. The apartment resident called the fire department and awakened his neighbors, insuring that everyone was safely evacuated and possibly saving several lives through his actions.

According to William A. Cahill's history of the Rochester Fire Department, the Case's fire was a three-floor attack that was difficult work for the firefighters. Additional alarms were sounded and brought the Brooklands, Avondale and Lake Orion fire departments to the scene. By 5:20 a.m., the Troy fire department had responded to a fifth alarm after Rochester's veteran 1937 Seagrave truck blew a hose line. As firefighters attacked the fire from the Main Street side of the building using Troy's brand new aerial truck, others fought the fire from the alley side, elevated in the bucket of a Detroit Edison truck.

Cahill relates that the blaze was further fueled by the flammable goods and chemicals normally found in hardware stores. The intense heat of the fire also ignited the live ammunition stored there, making the firefighters feel as though they were in a war zone.

Weather conditions worked in the firefighters' favor, as the temperature was above freezing and winds were not a factor. Firefighters were able to save the surrounding buildings and there was no loss of life or serious injury.

Case's Hardware, however, was a total loss. The inferno had completely gutted the building and collapsed the storefront. My dad remembers that the huge safe in the office had fallen to the basement when the floor collapsed, and Byers' wrecker had a very difficult time pulling it out of the rubble. The losses were estimated at more than $100,000, and the cause of the fire was never precisely determined because of the utter destruction of the building. Case's Hardware, which had been a fixture at that location since horse and buggy days, never re-opened. The rubble of the old building was removed from the site and a new, one-story structure replaced it at 335 S. Main.

This photo from the collection of Marjorie and the late Walter Dernier was taken about 1960, and shows how the building appeared at the time of its destruction. The original storefront had been covered with the "modern" facade in 1955.