Superior Street Commercial Historic District, ID Number P2399
Significant Dates: 1845-1945
National Register Listed: 08/18/1997
Statement of Significance
The Superior Street Commercial Historic District is among the most significant in southern Michigan due to the variety and quality of commercial buildings and the broad range of dates of construction expressed within. The building inventory, erected between the 1850s and the 1940s, also includes significant non-commercial types, such as the depot , library, city hall, residences, clubs, and churches, which are found on the downtown fringe. Many of the commercial buildings have associations with leading pioneer families, such as the Peabodys, Crowells, Eslows, and Sheldons. Initially, industrial functions were intermixed with commercial functions, but rail service and a resulting industrial expansion as well as a reduced reliance on water power allowed manufacturing to shift away from the downtown to new developments along the the railroad lines. Examples of this shift include the City Bank building, which was built in 1845 as Jesse Crowell’s Stone Mill and intensively remodeled in 1916 for use as a bank, and the Knickerbocker Elevator, built in 1880 and moved to the Market Place in 1917 to allow for the increased commercial development on Superior Street. Social functions are expressed in the district, including the Albion Opera House, library, and Mary Sheldon Ismon House. Also important in the story of Albion is the work of long-term mayor Norman Weiner, who helped the community weather the Depression by securing major WPA projects, including the construction of the city hall and the re-bricking of Superior Street, one of the few remaining brick trunklines in Michigan.
Source: Michigan’s Historic Sites Online, Downloaded 2003.
The Superior Street Commercial Historic District is generally linear in plan, with a north-south orientation and comprises the core of Albion’s business district. The land within the district is generally flat, but north of the district slopes gently upward and slopes more dramatically north of Michigan Avenue. Albion is the second most populous city in Calhoun County, Battle Creek being the largest. The district, like the city, follows a general grid pattern. At the north end of the district are the former Michigan Central Railroad tracks, which run with a west-northwest/east-southeast alignment. The west-flowing Kalamazoo River runs along the east end of the district and crosses through the northern end of the district. The district focuses on Superior Street (M-99), Albion’s main street, and includes blocks to either side containing historic commercial, public, and institutional buildings. The district building stock (ranging from the mid 1850s to the 1950s) consists primarily of two- and three-story brick commercial buildings, the greatest number of them Italianate. There is visual unity along Superior Street, owing to the relatively uniform building heights and the repetition of decorative window hood moldings on the corridor’s buildings. A majority of buildings face the brick-paved north-south running Superior Street, which is 99 feet in width from storefront to storefront. East of Superior is the Market Place. This area, which slopes to the southeast, is paved and contains primarily municipally owned parking. Buildings in this area include the Albion Elevator and a meat market. To the south, near East Erie Street, is Stoffer Plaza, which contains a farmers market. Beyond Erie Street, this eastern zone is marked by parking lots, and mixed residential/commercial buildings. A grassy strip and paved walk follows the course of the river along the east edge. Behind the buildings west of Superior are parking lots, and buildings serving the districts cross streets. Beyond Clinton Street is primarily residential. The district contains eighty-eight buildings, of which, seventy-five are contributing.
The red clay bricks of Superior Street, one of the few intact brick trunklines in the state, are the result of a 1993 resurfacing. This project replaced a brick street laid in 1940, itself a reconstruction of the original red brick street laid in 1903. Prior to 1903 Superior Street was dirt. The 1993 project was the first state trunkline to be resurfaced in brick in decades. Getting the project done required a high level of cooperation between the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the Federal Highway Administration, and the city. Local attachment to the roadway spurred leaders to work towards retaining the traditional brick surface, which is an integral element of the overall ambiance of the Albion downtown. Residents were disappointed when it was ruled that a double yellow line was required down the middle of the street. Because Superior Street is park of trunkline M-99, no variance could be offered. MDOT attempted to find yellow brick suitable for the lines, but in the end were forced to paint the lines. In 1994 MDOT was honored by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network’s Government Award for the successful recreation of the brick street. Original brick streets can be found on Erie Street, running one block east and one block west from South Superior Street.
There is minimal landscaping in the commercial district. A few young trees have been strategically planted on each block in recent years. This planting effort coincides with Albion’s “Tree City” designation. Until recent years, trees were non-existent along the commercial strip, although historically, several businesses were fronted by shade trees. In sharp contrast is the tree lined streetscape of the residential area on Superior Street immediately south. Two downtown parks are found in the district. At the corner of North Superior and East Cass is Bournelis Park on the site of Bournelis’s She Repair shop. The park is laid with geometric paving stones, some trees, and a concrete tablet commemorating the Bournelis brothers. The park offers a view of the Cass Street bridge and river viewscape. The second park is Corner Park, on the southwest corner of North Superior and Michigan. This vest-pocket park contains the American Molder, a statue dedicated to the workmen of Albion in 1974.
Superior Street has long been the focal point of commercial activity in Albion. Along these blocks were found the businesses of Albion’s pioneers, including the first blacksmith and the first hotel. During the early development phase of Albion, mills and other manufacturers were concentrated on the east side of Superior for the close proximity of the Kalamazoo River. The west side of the street attracted the more genteel business concerns such as hotels, banks, clothiers, and professional practices. With the arrival of rail service in 1844 a new commercial and building boom hit town. Due to an abundant supply, wood was initially the building material of choice for the young town. Fires destroyed many of the early buildings, including a major fire on September 1, 1861 that consumed several buildings along the west side of Superior and south of Porter Street, and a second major fire on December 6, 1898 that swept through most of the remaining wooden buildings on the west side of Superior from Cass Street south to the alley. As Albion became more prosperous, buildings were constructed of brick or stone. By the early 1880s, Superior Street was lined primarily with brick commercial buildings.
Most of the buildings are two or three stories in height and constructed of brick. The buildings are similar in size and arrangement. A majority reflect the Commercial Italianate style. There is a visual homogeneity created by the relatively uniform building heights, and by the presence of decorative cornices and window lintels on the buildings. The cornices vary in degree of decoration, running the gamut of plain, bracketed, corbelled and modillioned. Like many communities, several buildings have lost their decorative cornices over the years due to deterioration or intentional removal. Horizontal divisions of buildings created by symmetrical fenestration patterns add to the visual unity of the streetscape. Windows are tall and narrow with either round or flat arches at the top, framed with plain or decorated lintels, and have lug sills. A notable example is the Brockway Block, located at the corner of South Superior and Erie Streets. This two story Italianate style commercial structure has its original ornately decorated cast-iron cornice moldings and many of its window hoods. It is a substantial building spanning at least half of the block. The space currently occupied by Albion Ace Hardware, 313 South Superior, has it’s original cast-iron storefront.
The first floor storefronts vary in appearance and in material. Most of the storefronts retain their original nineteenth century footprint of a recessed doorway framed by plate-glass windows. Some have been modified by covering the windows with an envelope of wood or aluminum siding. Others have been substantially altered by covering the original storefront imprint with wood or brick to assimilate a non-recessed storefront. Several storefront transoms have been altered with applied pent roof devices with shingle cladding. The Albion Opera House at 223-225 South Superior carried such a treatment from about 1970 to 1996. Built in 1869, the Opera House is a large, three-story Italianate style structure with tall, thin, round-arched windows. Unfortunately, very little stylistic ornamentation remains. A local dentist has purchased the building and has begun restoration and renovation. On the rear of the opera house are painted advertisements that cover large portions of the exposed rear walls of the structure.
There are several buildings of the Prairie, Second Empire and Romanesque styles. Parks’ Drug Store (314-318 South Superior), formerly the Allen Hotel, is a notable example of a Second Empire style commercial building. The building features a centered gable and straight mansard roof. The roof is clad with patterned slate tiles and has cresting along the roof line. The front center gable facade has two dormers with ogee window surrounds on the third floor and two paired windows with center ogee openings on the second floor. The bays on either side of the center gable have one dormer with entablature window surrounds on the third floor and tripartite grouped windows with stepped arches on the second floor. The bays on either side of the center gable have one dormer with entablature window surrounds on the third floor and tripartite grouped windows with stepped arches on the second floor. On the West Erie elevation of the building there is a one story decorative entrance hood of milled wood. The building originally had a non-functional verandah under the second story windows on the South Superior Street elevation. A visually distinctive feature is the second-floor cornice that is interrupted by the dormer windows and the combination of entablature and ogee dormer window surrounds found on the third floor.
A three story Romanesque Revival building (401-403 South Superior) stands at the southeast corner of East Erie and South Superior streets. The third story has round-arched windows, giving the illusion of a colonnade at the roof line. There is a projecting overhand along the entire first floor of the corner storefront of this building that was added in the 1950’s. Decorative merlons were removed from the top of the wall at the roof line. 403 South Superior still has the original Romanesque storefront with arched doorways and windows.
Further down the street at 501 South Superior Street is the Prairie style Albion Public Library built as a Carnegie Library in 1919. The front section of the building has a low-pitched hipped roof with broad projecting eaves. Continuous bands of windows are placed directly below the cornice. The windows are dived into geometric patterns. The window frames are light colored in contrast to the dark brick veneer. In 1975 a rear addition (east) was added to effectively double the size of the facility. The gabled roof of the addition blends into the roof structure of the original building. Other elements of the 1975 addition, such as windows, eaves, and brick are similar and complementary to those found on the original 1919 section.
The A.P. Gardner House/Gardner House Museum, 509 South Superior Street, is listed as an individual historic property on the National Register of Historic Places. Augustus P. Gardner, a prosperous hardware store owner, had this yellow brick Second Empire house built for him in 1869. The house is two-and-one half stories tall with concave mansard roof, finished with multi-colored patterned slate shingles, that terminates with iron cresting. The footprint is of a modified square with a three bay façade and two bay sides. A one-story bay window looks out onto Elm Street. The windows are capped by heavy hoods. Brackets are used on the front entry porch, side bay, and roof eaves. The wall dormers are finished with overhanging gables finished with verge boards and sawn wood ornamentation. The house was restored in 1966-1967 by the Albion Historical Society for use as a house museum, which was opened to the public in May of 1968.
The church located at 119 West Erie Street, at the corner of Clinton Street, is an example of Gothic Revival. It is a broad, and rather low building with a steeply pitched, gable roof. The building has a full-length projecting portico. The west side of the portico is intersected by a square entry/bell tower with a polygonal roof and decoratively capped battlements. At the mid-point of the west elevation is a projecting ell with a hipped roof. There are a variety of window styles, including pointed arch, ribbon, multi-light, and those bordered with small square lights. An open-air, connecting breezeway links the church to the rectory, which is located east of the church. Between the two buildings is an outdoor courtyard. Prior to 1963, the present rectory and connecting breezeway did not exist. The church appears to contain it’s original external elements. According to the cornerstone, this church building was erected in 1885 for the St. James Episcopal congregation, which had been organized in Albion in 1839.
Rebuilt around 1940, the J.C. Penney building at 301 South Superior Street, is a transitional Moderne style building. It serves as an excellent example of a modernistic retail structure with second story ribbon windows, enameled metal wall surfaces and large single plate-glass display windows on the street level. The building is entered through an entry of multi-colored tiles. Centered in this entry is a section of white tiles with the name J.C. Penney Co. spelled in black tiles.
One of the largest and most notable buildings in the district is the grain elevator in the Market Place. This structure was built in 1880 on the 200 block of South Superior Street and was moved back (east) from the street to its present site in 1917. This move was made to create a more dignified, business-minded face to Superior Street. The elevator previously was adjacent to a mill built in 1845 at 207 South Superior. The mill was converted into a bank in 1916, with an applied Neo-Classical façade covering the original 1845 façade. Other elevations of the building still carry the original early Italianate features of the original stone-walled mill building.
There are very few non-contributing buildings in this district. Of the buildings deemed non-contributing, most are less than fifty years of age or have been so significantly altered that they have lost their historic character.
Albion has an active Downtown Development Authority (DDA), which is championing this National Register District nomination project.
Statement of Significance
The Superior Street Commercial Historic District is among the most significant in southern Michigan due to the variety and quality of commercial buildings and the broad range of dates construction expressed within. The building inventory, erected between the 1850s and 1940s, also includes significant non-commercial types, such as the depot, library, city hall, residences, clubs, and churches, which are found on the downtown fringe. Many of the commercial buildings have associations with the leading pioneer families, including the Peabodys, Crowells, Eslows, and Sheldon’s. Initially, industrial functions were intermixed with commercial functions, but rail service and resulting industrial expansion as well as reduced reliance on water power allowed manufacturing to shift away from the downtown to new developments along the railroad lines. Examples of this shift include the City Bank building, which was built in 1845 as Jesse Crowell’s Stone Mill and intensively remodeled in 1916 for use as a bank, and the Knickerbocker Elevator, built in 1880 and moved to the Market Place in 1917 to allow for increased commercial development on Superior Street. Social functions are expressed in the district, including the Opera House, library, and Mary Sheldon Ismon House. Also important in the store of Albion is the work of long-time mayor Norman Weiner, who helped the community weather the Depression by securing major WPA projects, including the construction of the city hall and the rebricking of Superior Street, one of the few remaining brick trunklines in Michigan. The brick street is a critical element in the sense of place in downtown Albion, even so that residents worked closely with the Michigan Department of Transportation to have the roadway replicated in 1992.
The City of Albion, located in Sheridan and Albion townships, Calhoun County, Michigan, has a population of just over 10,000 people. The city is largely blue collar, although agriculture and Albion College play critical roles in the local and regional economies. The community is esthetically and culturally diverse, with strong German, Eastern European, and African-American representation. Much of the ethnicity of the community can be traced to periods of economic growth and industrial expansion. The first land grants in the future Albion were to Ephraim Harrison in 1830 and Darius Pierce in 1831. Both men purchased their parcels for speculative purposes. Tenney Peabody, of Niagara County, New York, purchased Pierce’s holdings in 1832. Settlement began in 1833 with the arrival of Peabody and family. James Sheldon, the head of what would become one of Albion’s leading early families, arrived later in the same year. Several families followed in 1834, but perhaps the most significant figure in Albion’s early history, Jesse Crowell, arrived in 1835.
Jesse Crowell was born on November 17, 1797 at Bridgewater, New York. Before coming to Albion, Crowell had worked as a teacher, merchant, lumber man, and New York State legislator. Perhaps more significantly, he had experience developing water power in Oswego County, New York. Crowell recognized a great deal of possibility in the small village known as “The Forks” and immediately purchased rights to all of the water power in the area.
Albion, named for the township that Crowell had moved from, was platted in 1836 by the Albion Company. The principals in the company were Jesse Crowell, Tenney Peabody, Issachor Frost and Judge Daniel L. Bacon, of Monroe, Michigan, Charles Hobart Carroll, of Groveland, New York, his brother, William T. Carroll (who served as U.S. Supreme Court Clerk from 1827-1862), and Samuel Bard McVicar, of New York City. The site of present day Albion was selected at the confluence of two forks of the Kalamazoo River where the flow of water was strong enough and the drop in elevation sufficient to power a number of water-turned mills. The early developers built a dam and two millraces, one to the east of the river and one to the west. The east millrace, built in 1854 by Tenney Peabody’s sons, still flows, while the west millrace, below the present day Market Place, has been filled in. By 1837 there were at least two mills, one grist (at the site of the former Consumers Power Substation, Erie Street) and one saw (at the site of the Riverfront Café, Market Place) operating in the tiny village. The recorded plat planned for two main thoroughfares, Superior Street running north and south, and Erie Street running east and west. Initially development was concentrated near Erie Street, where the two rail lines anticipated by the Albion Company plat were expected to cross.
The Albion Company was perhaps just hopeful when they drew in the rail lines at the south end of their ambitious plat. But the presence of a railroad was a tremendous selling point in attracting settlers. Enough families had settled in the area by 1838 that Crowell (Post master from 1838-1849) was able to secure a post office for Albion.
The Michigan Central Railroad reached Albion in the summer of 1844, but crossed at the north end of the town, causing a gradual northward shift in development. Representative of the transportation component are two buildings in the historic district. The Michigan Central Railroad passenger depot at 300 North Eaton was built in 1882. The brick Victorian depot was used until 1970, when passenger service to the community was discontinued. The building was vacant and deteriorating until the mid-1980s when a major restoration effort began. The restored depot was reopened in 1986 when Amtrak service was renewed.
The second rail related structure in the district is the freight building at 301 North Clinton Street. This warehouse building was built in 1920 to replace a freight building built in 1885 that burned in 1920. In 1973 the building was converted to commercial use as the Land of Hobbies, which operated until 1984. The building reopened in late 1995 as a sports-theme bar.
The effect of the railroad on Albion cannot be overstated. The railroad eased moving into the area, opened up vast and distant markets and provided an economical means of getting raw materials and manufactured goods from the east. A result was an inflow of people who established farms in the area, established commercial operations in the town, and began manufacturing ventures. The demand for mills increased as more and more farmland was opened up in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Kalamazoo River basin. Jesse Crowell, a leading pioneer in the village, erected a stone flour mill in 1845 to exploit the increased grain traffic. Serving the mill was a masonry grain elevator built in 1880 by Charles Knickerbocker and his son William, members of a prominent farming family. In 1916 the mill was converted into a bank and remains in use at the original site at 207 South Superior Street. In 1917 the elevator was moved several yards back to it’s current location in the Albion Market Place in response to a desire to make downtown Superior Street entirely commercial. But perhaps most importantly, the growth created by the railroad provided the basis for a strong foundry-based industry that would grow to dominate the community’s economy.
Foundries have been an important element in Albion since the early years. In 1842 Alexander Moore opened a foundry at the northwest corner of South superior and Elm streets to produce plows and other goods for a localized market. In 1846 James Monroe opened a plant to build threshing machines at the southeast corner of South Superior and Cass streets. Numerous companies failed, but those that succeeded, such as Gale Manufacturing and Albion Malleable Iron, found the need to expand and moved their factories to the edges of the town along the rail lines. This allowed for increased commercial focus along Superior Street.
Champion Eslow is another of the early enterprising pioneers of Albion. Eslow arrived in 1836 and is noted for building a stone mill, the first blacksmith shop and the second frame house in the fledgling community. In 1844, on the site of 214 South Superior Street, Eslow constructed a house and brick shop, where he operated his blacksmith trade until 1867. The present building, a three-story Italianate structure with circular window hood moldings and corner pilasters, was built around 1868 by Eslow and his sons. The building at one time house the Bijou movie theater at the front and the forty-room Commercial Hotel at the back. The arch entrance on the south side of West Porter Street led to the Airdrome theater. The building lost a fourth floor and crowing cornice in a 1919 fire. The Eslow family also operated a sash and door factory sited where the Albion Meat Locker (formerly the Maple City Dairy) is now located.
The Sheldon family was another of the leading families in the development of Albion and southern Michigan. James Sheldon was born in Ovid, New York in 1796. He migrated to Albion in 1833 and his family joined him in 1835. James Sheldon was a well known master-builder in New York, but in Michigan turned his attention to farming and real estate. In 1837 he was elected the first supervisor of Albion Township. He was elected to the State House of Representatives and later served on the Board of Prison Inspectors.
With partner W.L. Granger, Sheldon purchased the Albion Hotel. He held ownership of the hotel until 1857. The Albion Hotel (built by Abraham Becke in 1836-1837) was located on the site of the present day Parks Drug Store (314-318 South Superior Street). Joseph Allen bought the hotel in 1857 and continued its operation. The original building burned and the present structure was erected in 1872 and was known as the Allen Hotel, although the parcel continues to be known as the Sheldon Block.
James W. Sheldon, James Sheldon’s second child, was born at Parma, New York on April 25, 1830. James W. grew up on the 640 acre family farm and a graduate of the Wesleyan Seminary (Albion College). Rebuffed by his father in his request to attend law school, James W. began clerking for Jesse Crowell and Company. Soon after he began work as a bookkeeper at M. Hannahs and Sons Bank. During that time he married Mary Peabody, daughter of Albion’s first white settler, Tenney Peabody. In 1858 he took over the Hannahs and Son bank, reorganizing it as the Albion Exchange Bank.
James W. Sheldon was remembered for his successful settlement of the debts of the Crowell Company, which went bankrupt in 1870, paying ninety cents on the dollar, and for his active promotion of industry in Albion. He served on the local Board of Education and gave his time liberally to the Albion College Board of Trustees, serving as president for eight years. Sheldon died on September 24, 1894 but was memorialized by his daughter and grandson with the construction of the James W. Sheldon Memorial Hospital in 1923.
The collapse of the Crowell Company hurt the fortunes of Tenney Peabody, although the family legacy remains. The building at the southwest corner of West Erie and South Superior Streets (400 South Superior) was built in 1852 by the sons of Tenney Peabody, during their tenure as owners of Moore’s foundry. The Peabody Block is a three-story commercial structure that also housed a hotel for many years.
A second railroad, the Lake Shore and Southern Michigan Railroad, reached Albion in 1872. Manufacturers were by this time less reliant on water power and were able to move their plants away from the river to areas with more room for expansion and better connection with the two railroads.
Foremost among the business leaders of this period was the Gale Manufacturing Company, a foundry that gained world-wide fame for it’s agricultural implements. The Gale Company moved to Albion from Moscow, Michigan, in 1862. The success of the firm required a major expansion in 1888. Facing the threat of the company moving, the city provided land and a bond issue to entice Gale into staying. A new plant was built on Albion Street on a seventeen acre tract in 1888. The company continued to prosper, selling implements throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, Australia, and South Africa. They produced war materiel during World War I and in the 1920s shifted their manufacturing focus to castings for the automobile industry. The company fortunes declined in the 1960s and folded in 1968. The old factory, at the northwest corner of North Superior and Cass streets was taken over by the Albion Malleable Iron Company, owned by the locally prominent Harry B. Parker and William S. Kessler of Chicago. In 1900 the factory was replaced by the current building, the Parker-Kessler Block, as Albion sought a purely commercial focus for the downtown. Malleable Iron continues to operate at Harvard Industries.
Manufacturers were faced with a shortage of labor during the second half of the nineteenth century through the World War I years. William H. Brockway, a blacksmith by training and Methodist Episcopal preacher, brought four German families to Albion in 1869 to join a growing German community. Among the early families was Carl Schumacher and family, who built numerous homes, commercial buildings, and local landmarks.
Immigrants from Eastern Europe began to arrive in the early twentieth century, recruited to fill jobs at Albion Malleable Iron Company. During World War I African Americans from the southern states were brought in to fill another manufacturing boom. Albion Malleable Iron built housing for the new arrivals and also helped to organize their churches.
Many other ethnic groups are represented here as well. Italians came late in the nineteenth century. One of the leading families is the Cascarellis, who operated a fruit and grocery business early in the twentieth century and today operate a long running restaurant at 114 to 116 South Superior. Greeks also made Albion home. Among them were Nick Demosthenes and Peter Kostianes, who were partners in a candy store at 203 South Superior for many years, and the Bournelis brothers, who operated a shoe repair business at the corner of South Superior and East Cass. Mexicans and other Hispanics initially came to the area as migrant farm workers, but numerous families have established themselves here.
With the growth of the local economy and population came the need to provide modern utilities. Telephone service was first offered in 1884 and electrical service began in 1888. In 1885 the city floated a bond issue for $50,000 to build the water pumping station at 107 East Cass Street. Manufactured gas came to Albion with the formation of the Albion Gas and Coke Company in 1896. Natural Gas was piped in beginning in 1943 to supplement manufactured water-gas, and in 1945 the switch to all natural gas was made.
Clubs and fraternal organizations played an important role in the social, political and commercial lives of Albion’s citizens. One representative building of this theme is the Masonic Temple (200 West Center St.). The Temple building, built circa 1900 for the Fraternal Order of Eagles, is in close proximity to the political and commercial power bases of the city. This would be a very natural and obvious location, considering the political and economic clout enjoyed by Masons in communities across the nation. The site and situation of the building further illustrates a general pecking order for urban functions, with commercial functions taking the forefront, followed by political enterprise, and fraternal and religious functions on the fringes but still clearly linked to the dominant commercial zone. The Albion Masonic Lodge was chartered in 1864. Women also had their social organization which served as civic forums, educational opportunities, and as arenas for displaying social position.
The Mary Sheldon Ismon House (Leisure Hour Club), at 300 South Clinton, is an important contribution to Albion’s social history. In the prosperous times of late-nineteenth century Albion, many social and fraternal organizations formed, catering to the merchant class with leisure time. Mary Peabody Sheldon Ismon built the clubhouse to have a meeting place for men’s and women’s social clubs as well as to shelter the Ladies Library Association, formed in 1870. One of the social clubs that used the building was the E.L.T. Club (Emitte Lucem Tuum), organized in 1890. The club, organized as a reading society, had a devoted and limited membership of thoughtful-minded women. Based on the study of texts by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the group pursued a goal of mutual improvement and transcendentalism. Although the building is owned by the city, the basement and first floor are leased to the original Leisure Hour Club.
Refined culture was also expressed through libraries. Any community worth its salt sought space to collect morally edifying texts. Albion, of course, is no exception. The Ladies Library Association operated a small library in the Ismon House, but soon found that they needed more space for a proper library. The Albion Public Library (501 S. Superior St.), a beautiful Prairie style building, was opened in 1919, after an effort of well over ten years.
In 1903 the Carnegie Foundation offered Albion a grant of $17,500 towards building a library building the grant had some strings attached, including stipulations that the community invest money towards the building and long term maintenance of the facility. Many communities rejected Carnegie grants rather than bow to outside control. Albion balked at accepting Carnegie money for several years, but in 1917 the voters accepted a bond issue to meet Carnegie requirements.
In 1918 R.A. LeRoy, a Kalamazoo architect, was selected to design the library. LeRoy had previously designed the Commercial and Savings Bank building. The building was erected on the site of Barry & Moore, monument dealers, and the Richard W. Walsh blacksmith shop. Opening day was on Thursday, April 31, 1919 and was held with much fanfare.
Popular entertainment was generally focused in the downtown area of a community. Concerts, sporting matches (such as bare-knuckle boxing or wrestling), and plays provided a respite from the routine and helped bring a sense of worldliness to the patrons. Initially the Town Hall might serve as a venue for these productions, but entrepreneurs quickly saw the need for buildings that offered spaces specifically for entertainment. A sign of a community’s growth in size and prominence required specific entertainment venues. In the early years the theater functions were commonly housed on the upper floors of commercial buildings. Albion is no exception and offers buildings that are illustrative of the development of theaters in America.
Eslow Hall (214-216 South Superior Street) was built by Champion Eslow in 1868. The second floor hall offered a variety of productions, including a performance by the celebrated duo of General Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt in 1869. The hall also offered space for card-playing, a very popular pastime. Card playing was popular enough that a catwalk was built between the Commercial Hotel and the Eslow Block. The catwalk was used on Sundays to permit card players to move from the hotel to the card games at Eslow Hall without being seen by Albion’s more pious citizens.
The Albion Opera House (223-225 South Superior Street), built in 1868-1869 by Theron Soule and George N. Davis, was an important and large (for the time) venue for entertainment. The theater took up the two full upper floors of the building and could seat 500. The stage was thirty feet long by forty-eight feet deep and eighteen feet high. Four dressing rooms served the various performers. A large brass chandelier (10’ tall, 15’ diameter) lit the auditorium. The fixture was set in a false dome done up in a floral motif in shades of blue. In the late 1960s the chandelier was dismantled and installed in pieces in the restored A.P. Gardner House down the street.
The Opera House was highly popular, offering plays, sports, minstrel shows, and the occasional mass meeting of citizens bent on some sort of political change. It has been said that young men would save a few cents by perching on the elm trees out front of the theater in order to peek through the windows and watch the shows for free. In 1897 Hadley H. Sheldon, a pharmacist from Monroe County, purchased the building and installed his drug store on the first floor. He leased the theater to other “good men” who added Vaudeville to the offerings. Sheldon also owned the Censor theater for a time.
In 1918 the Albion Opera House was declared a fire hazard and ordered closed. The era of theaters on upper floors was passing as people became more aware of the difficulty of evacuating large crowds. The Opera House would continue to be used on occasion during the 1920’s for Albion High School productions. The theater is currently undergoing restoration and renovation.
Another highly notable theater in Albion has been the Bohm Theater (201 S. Superior St.). The Bohm was built by George A. Bohm, opening to the public on Christmas, 1929. Like numerous theaters of the day, the Bohm offered live performance as well as movies, including concerts by the Bohm Saxophone Quartet.
A Detroit company, Michigan Theaters, divided the theater into three screen in April of 1990, following a national trend towards multi-screen movie houses. Hard times and low profits pushed the owners to make the changes, but profits remained low, leading to a final curtain in 1991. The building was condemned in December of 1991, but has been partially restored by new owners David and Elizabeth Nelson of Waterford, Michigan and is now again open.
George A. Bohm, the founder of the Bohm Theater, was highly active in the Albion theater scene. At one time he owned the Censor Theater (223 S. Superior). Bohm also bought the Nickelodeon-Airdrome theater (116 W. Porter) in 1915. This theater, opened in 1913 by James Eslow, featured an open-air auditorium and covered stage. In 1940 Bohm bought the Albion theater at 416 S. Superior, which had been opened the previous year. Other Albion theaters included the Temple at 217 S. Superior St., the Princess at 121 S. Superior, the Bijou at 216 S. Superior St., both of which opened in 1913, and the Colton, which opened in 1932 at 201 S. Superior.
In the 1920’s, strong economic growth in Albion paralleled national characteristics. The halcyon days of the 1920’s came to an abrupt end as the nation plunged into the Great Depression. Albion fared slightly better than many communities during this period, largely through the efforts of Mayor Norman Wiener. Wiener was successful in attracting numerous Works Progress Administration projects to pave many streets, reconstruct and re-brick Superior Street, and build a new City Hall.
The land for the Albion City Hall was donated to the city in 1933 by Harry B. Parker, a prominent industrialist and civic leader. Albion native Frank E. Dean, an architect with the Detroit firm of Dean, Meritt and Cole, was commissioned to design the building. Frank Dean was the son of George E. Dean, a successful contractor who was a prominent and active trustee with Albion College. The younger Dean designed many buildings in Albion, including Belmont Manor (home of George E. and Belle Dean) in 1928, several Colonial Revival houses in Colfax Square (1939-40) and played a large role in the design and construction of Albion College’s Goodrich Chapel (1957-1958). Mayor Wiener was instrumental in getting the city hall project off the ground. Through his skills he was able to secure the assistance of the Works Progress Administration, the Civil Works Administration, and the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act in erecting the $225,000 building. City Hall was ready for occupancy in 1936.
Typically religious functions are found adjacent to the central business core, close by but not dominating the scene. Two downtown Albion churches serve as local representations of this.
The first services were held at St. James Episcopal Church (119 W. Erie St.) on March 6, 1886. Reverend Belno A. Brown, rector, led the efforts to build this building after their first church consecrated in 1865, burned in 1885. In 1951 and 1964 additions were added to the original building.
Albion’s German community was able to bring their first Lutheran minister to the community in the late 1860’s. Pastor Frederick Wilhelm held the first Lutheran services in Albion on October 25, 1868 at a vacant Presbyterian church at the southwest corner of Clinton and Erie streets. In 1869 the growing congregation was able to buy the former Presbyterian church, and moved the building to the corner of South Superior and Elm streets.
This frame building was replaced in 1888-189 by the present building. Pastor J. Fritz, who led the building drive, dedicated the new St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in November of 1888. The old church was moved to a farm on Duck Lake Road, currently owned by Elmer Hesler. A parsonage, no longer extant, was built next door at 605 S. Superior in 1906.
St. Paul’s Evangelical moved to a new building at 100 Luther Boulevard in 1958. The South Superior church served as a Church of God for a time, and was later sold to the Church of Latter Day Saints, who used the building until the mid-1980’s. The current owners, Faith Community Baptist Church, purchased the church from the Mormons and began a renovation project, including extensive masonry repair and the replacement of the roof. Faith Community Baptist held their first services on Good Friday, 1986.
Italianate was the predominant commercial style of choice for Albion. This is reflected in the great concentration of commercial Italianate business blocks on Superior Street, which span the development of the style from the 1850s to the 1880s. The earliest surviving examples in the district, numbers 112, 204-206, 305-309, and 400 South Superior Street, express a modest beginning for Italianate, with square-headed or low segmental arch windows, that seem to serve as an intermediate between Greek Revival simplicity and the full-blown Italianate that followed.
An outstanding feature found on Albion commercial buildings is the broad use of ornamental brickwork friezes and cornices, often in place of the more conventional attached wooden or metal cornices. While not particularly unusual, what is unique here is the high concentration of buildings exhibiting this building trait, indicating a local or regional idiosyncrasy. Numbers 103 to 114 South Superior features a tall, paneled frieze with single brick deep panels capped with triangular, stepped heads. Numbers 114 and 310-312 South Superior use corbelled bricks that give an impression of bracketing and carry dentilated window caps. Number 300 to 302 South Superior carries a frieze divided into panels by raised bricks. Within each panel is a corbelled brick semi-circles. Arcaded, corbelled brick friezes are used on 102 to 104 East Erie Street and 204-206 South Superior Street, the later also carrying a brick cornice in a dentil and modillion pattern.
Unusual for any downtown, Albion is able to boast of two Second Empire commercial buildings. The Sheldon Block (314-318 South Superior Street), built in 1872, and the Hayes Block (106-108 East Erie Street), built circa 1875, feature the distinctive Mansard roofs, pierced by dormers that are hallmarks of the style.
At the southeast corner of the South Superior and East Erie is a handsome Romanesque commercial building, the Putnam Block (c. 1890), which carries round arched windows and columns that imply turrets. Also distinctive about this building is the mix of textured brickwork and stucco. Two eclectic Late Victorians with gabled facades are present in the district at 110 and 210 South Superior. The building at 210 S. Superior, built in circa 1887, features stepped arches over Chicago windows, a cutting edge window type at the time. The wall dormer gable at the top of the building is embellished with a Palladian window, an element of the Free Colonial fad, a precursor to the Colonial Revival. Capping this window is a stone lintel done in a sunburst effect. The commercial building at 110 S. Superior is a more ominous looking building, carrying a look that is more old European. This three story building carries arched top floor windows. Pyramid gables are located on the east and north facades, the north one carrying an oversized pediment.
A prominent example of the Post Victorian shift to simplified presentations is the Parker-Kessler Block at 101-109 North Superior, built in 1900 to replace a factory. Commercial block. This two-story, rounded-corner building is topped by a corbel cornice. Beneath the cornice are bricks set in a subtle checker pattern. Flat stone sills and lintels are used on windows.
In 1916 the 1845 Stone Mill (207 S. Superior St.) was converted into a bank. The extensive remodeling included a limestone façade, a very typical look for banks of the period. Nearby is the Bohm Theater, built in 1929. The Bohm was treated with a number of neoclassical allusions, such as arcaded windows, semi-circle corbelled brick arches, and terra cotta crosses, but at the time was considered to be quite modern in that it was designed primarily as a movie house.
Hidden from the bustle of Superior Street behind Seelye’s Men’s Wear building at 113 North Superior Street and a section of the Knuth Furniture building at 109 North Superior Street is the unique construction technique of projecting buildings over a river. These buildings are connected to the North Superior Street bridge at their frontage and project out over the Kalamazoo River through the use of concrete and steel piers. This is an element also found in Rochester, New York.
A disastrous flood in the early spring of 1908 washed away most of the bridges in the area, including the Superior Street bridge, built in 1900. The collapse of the bridge carried the front quarter of the Seelye’s building with it, but oddly left the rear three-quarters intact. When the bridge was rebuilt, using stronger and more numerous piers, the buildings projecting over the river were rebuilt as well.
The Cass Street bridge over the Kalamazoo River, built in 1896 entirely out of stone, managed to survive the flood of 1908. The bridge was known for the first few years as “Dickie’s Folly.” When the bridge was being built, workers discovered a patch of quicksand in the area. Mayor Samuel Dickie, a professor and the president of Albion College, ordered an additional $4,000 be spent to reinforce the bridge pilings. This cost overrun led to many howls from the community. But when the Cass Street bridge was the only local bridge to survive the 1908 flood intact, Samuel Dickie was treated to numerous apologies and was hailed a genius.
While contributing charm to the Albion streetscape, the bridge suffered one key flaw. The channels of the bridge were angled diagonally against the natural flow of the river. This resulted in a buildup of silt and debris around the foundation of the bridge as well as causing some irregular erosion against the bridge. A concrete and steel bridge of the same design replaced the original in 1996. In 1997 the new bridge is to be faced with stones salvaged from the old bridge.
A critical linking element for the overall district is the brick paving of Superior Street, the last local element of what was once a major road surfacing material. The paving program began in 1903 and was completed in 1910. Superior Street, between the Michigan Central Railroad south to Ash Street, was paved with red brick in 1903. The roadways were replaced in 1913. By the 1930s these streets had again deteriorated badly. Mayor Norman Wiener began a campaign to solicit the needed funs for a second street replacement. In 1940 his labors paid off when the WHPA sponsored the re-bricking program. The project involved running a concrete substrate that was covered by new bricks laid in regular patterns. White bricks were used to mark the center lines, cross walks, and parking spaces – a unique innovation. The completed project came in at a total cost of $55,319. A three day celebration, complete with a parade down the new roadway, marked the end of the project. The brick street was replaced again in 1992 through Michigan Department of Transportation funds. Community attachment to the brick paving was critical in this most recent effort, as initial plans called for replacement with more contemporary paving materials.
The Superior Street Commercial Historic District is representative of the economic benefits that a combination of water power and rail service can have on a community. The wealth and prosperity created is reflected in the commercial architecture in the district. Good planning, foresight, and diversity are reflected in the continued viability of the historic commercial core after industry and transportation foci have moved elsewhere. Historic pride is reflected in the upkeep of the appearance of the commercial district, from individual buildings to maintenance of the brick roadways. Albion’s Superior Street Commercial Historic District is an example of such pride, foresight, and planning.
Closing Notes on the Nomination
Interest in developing the Superior street Commercial Historic District began in the 1970s, but lay dormant for a number of years. In 1994, City Manager Ralph Lange revived the project and contacted Dr. Ted Ligibel of Eastern Michigan University, Department of Geography, Geology, Historic Preservation Program, to seek assistance in getting the necessary research and nomination preparation started. Dr. Ligibel’s students in a graduate course, Documenting Historic Structures, were divided into teams and researched the community in the fall of 1994. Each team prepared a mock district nomination for a section of the commercial zone as a component of their class requirements. These projects were compiled and edited into a rough draft by Graduate Assistant Heather Richards and formed the basis for this nomination, which has augmented and expanded the work done in the fall of 1994. The new City Manager, Lewis Steinbrecher, has been particularly supportive of the project, as has Kaz Zeltkalns, Director of Planning and Community Development. These officials have acted as liaisons, and champions, for this nomination, prepared under the auspices of the Albion Downtown Development Authority.
Isaac David Kremer, Albion Interactive History, www.placepromo.com/aih, 2001-2011, [December 29, 2016].