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What Has Rochester Lost? Museum Exhibit Illustrates Changes

A new exhibit features photographs and artifacts from Rochester's past.

If you’ve ever taken a history tour around Rochester, you know that some things are missing. Mills, schools, and buildings that were the source of many important historical events and places in Rochester have vanished over the past 194 years since James Graham and his family became the first white settlers of Oakland County and in what would become the Village of Rochester.

Some of our town’s historic treasures were lost to disasters like fires and floods. Others were torn down to make way for a spreading suburban population and the residential and commercial demands that followed.

Unfortunately, many who bike, shop and live in and around the greater Rochester community are not aware of what once stood on the sites where they buy a latte, sit down for a family dinner, ride the trails or relax with a soothing massage.

Luckily, some of our historic gems, including the at 400 Water Street, have been given new life. Others, such as the Rochester Elevator building on the corner of East University and Water streets, still retain their original charm and overall purpose, albeit in new and updated ways.

Yet, there are many locally significant sites that don’t have markers and have been covered or demolished by newer structures, roads, and subdivisions – the site of the , for example, is now the Bluffs subdivision off John R Road.

To remind many of us of what used to be in Rochester and to show those who never really knew, the is currently featuring the exhibit “Lost Rochester.” The exhibit runs through November and features selections from the museum’s extensive archival collection of newspapers, artifacts and photographs depicting the businesses, buildings and sites that were once a part of our community.

“The 'Lost Rochester' exhibit shows us how the community has changed over time and how we have influenced the changes through economic and political changes,” said Pat McKay, the museum’s director of interpretive services. “This includes consolidating schools, which really meant the demolition of nearly every schoolhouse, and the 1960s-70s, which were a time of new urbanization which meant the destruction of many historic buildings on main streets that could have and should have been adaptively reused.

“The exhibit also provides the challenge to us today to decide what helps create an identity for our community, what should be saved and how do we go about saving it. The exhibit really forces us not to take our historic structures for granted.”

Exhibit highlights

Woodward School

Among the lost is Woodward Elementary School, which opened in 1926 and closed in 1983. It once stood along Woodward Street in downtown Rochester – a site now occupied by rows of newer homes.

The school and the street were named after who once owned the land on which the school was built. At the time of its closing, Woodward Elementary taught students in kindergarten through sixth grade.  After the school closed, the building served as the home of the Older Persons Commission until it was demolished in October 2003.

Detroit United Railway

The interurban railway was a street-style train or trolley that transported villagers all over Rochester, Avon Township (now Rochester Hills) and surrounding suburbs. The railway opened for business on Sept. 27, 1899, and crowds stood by to watch the first car – a 42-foot maroon railway car – as it traveled to the south end of Rochester. In 1901, the railway merged with the Detroit United Railway (D.U.R.) and extended travel to the City of Detroit. Passengers could ride in style as some cars had heated bathrooms and others were designated smoking cars. The D.U.R.’s main powerhouse and other buildings were located east of Main Street between Paint Creek and the tracks of the Michigan Central. As Rochester’s population and commercial districts increased, the need to travel to Detroit to purchase goods and supplies decreased. The last D.U.R. cars left Rochester in April 1931.

St. James Hotel

The St. James Hotel once stood on the southwest corner of Main and University (or Fifth) streets in downtown Rochester. The hotel began as the Lambertson House in 1847. In the early 1880s, it was purchased by James Smith who renamed it the St. James Hotel. According to an exhibit label, Smith gained some local notoriety for his resemblance to President William Howard Taft. His hotel was unique for its time in that it featured hot and cold running water and electric lights. The 21-room hotel was known throughout Michigan for its tasty food and comfortable accommodations. It remained a hotel through WWII but then was abandoned. Suffering from neglect, the hotel was torn down in 1963.

Downtown businesses

The businesses that proliferated downtown’s Main Street in the early 1900s included Letts and Wiley’s Implement Store at 312 Main, E.A. Hudson’s Grocery Store at 440 Main, George Burr’s Hardware at 418 Main and Rochester Candy Works at 412 Main.

The “Lost in Rochester” exhibit also features photos and artifacts related to the Parke-Davis Barns, Ferry Morse Seed Company and Chapman Lake.

Historic Homes, Too

The Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm is also hosting a Historic Homes Tour on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. The tour features eight historic homes built between 1901 and 1930 on Griggs Street in downtown Rochester. The homes were built on land originally owned by John Hersey, a Rochester miller, and sold to Albert Griggs in 1900.

Griggs Street was named for Albert, who, with his brother, Charles, . The Rochester Elevator was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in Dec. 2010. Like the elevator building, some of the homes on the tour were built by the Griggs family and feature the architecture and design details of their time.

To purchase tickets to the Historic Homes Tour, visit the museum during its business hours, on its web site, or on the day of the event on Griggs Street beginning at 10 a.m.

Visit "Lost Rochester" during museum hours Friday and Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors 65 and older and $3 for students K-12.

David Gifford September 20, 2011 at 01:06 PM
I am certainly interested in the exhibit. It is very clear when you travel through cities like Detroit or Pontiac that so many buildings are gone. Most people don't realize that smaller towns like Rochester have changed so much over the years. There are little clues here and there: the old train bridge next to the Royal Park with remains of the dam, some structure in the Paint Creek under Main St, the stone fence pillar from the Chapman residence, a few old telephone poles next to the Paint Creek Trail. These small cules led me into my research into the history of Rochester. So much has changed over the years and there is often little to no evidence left aside from photos. It is fun looking at the old photos, then trying to find the exact site of the old structures. I understand why the museum has the hours it does, but it makes it hard to visit unless you are a child on a school trip or retired.
Patrick McKay September 20, 2011 at 03:44 PM
David - Thank you for your interest in Rochester's history. What hours would you suggest that the Museum be open to accomodate your schedule? Patrick McKay, Director Rochester Hills Museum
David Gifford September 20, 2011 at 04:06 PM
That is a tough question because I know that running a museum requires money and staff to operate, as well as customers. I would be more apt to visit on a week night or a Sunday as I work 5-6 days a week. This would not be an ideal time for most families as most are rushing home from work to eat and then onto the next school event. I may just have to come out on a Saturday. Thanks for your response though!
Rob Ray September 20, 2011 at 04:12 PM
I've actually been mulling-over an idea for a little while now, and this article makes me think there is some great promise for it: create a Rochester Wiki. A while ago I was doing some research and stumbled on the city of Davis, CA. A few people got together and created a wiki just for their city. To clarify, a wiki is an online database (think Wikipedia) that is maintained by it's users, and most importantly, free. There was so much information and history that it became nearly impossible to manage it all, so they decided to create an online repository so that anyone could access it, any time, and could be updated as the city grew: www.daviswiki.org Wiki software is simple, easy to use and did I mention it's free? All we need is a website domain, of which I'm happy to purchase and donate to kickstart this idea, assuming there is are a few people that would be willing to contribute the initial information -- it's my experience that you need to prime-the-pump in these situations before members of the community begin to contribute individually. What do you think Patrick?
Patrick McKay September 21, 2011 at 01:25 PM
Rob: Of course this sounds great! The challenge will be finding the time necessary to import all the information to the wiki site. The good news is that the Museum has loads of terrific historical information - our challenge will be how to maintain this site for the long term - who does it - and how does a local history museum, like ours, financially exist when all the information is given away for free? How do we generate the necessary revenue to preserve the artifacts and stories and pay the heating bill and yet find the time to keep a wiki site updated and running? We spend our valuable time creating programs that generate revenue to offset costs - but I'm interested. I'm at mckayp@rochesterhills.org and will promote anything to do with local history in our community!
Georgia September 23, 2011 at 07:21 PM
Great article. It is so valuable to have reminders of what once was, so that maybe we can be aware of how to protect what is. Maybe the Museum could cut a couple of hours out of the weekly schedule and add a short evening once or twice during a special exhibit. Georgia
Patrick McKay September 23, 2011 at 08:56 PM
Georgia - this is a great idea! What night of the week would you suggest and what hours should we be open? - I'd love to hear what our community wants - we want our buildings open and enjoyed by as many as possible too - when would you come Rochester community? Patrick McKay, Rochester Hills Museum Supervisor
David Gifford October 29, 2011 at 02:13 PM
Hey Rob, has anything come from your Rochesterwiki idea?
Rob Ray October 31, 2011 at 01:52 PM
Hi David! Not yet... there was some concern that an online and free resource would detract from visitors actually going to the museum to pay admission -- something any organization should strongly consider. And although I can understand the concern, not to mention the work required to get things started and to maintain it, I believe it's a resource that could expand the museums visitors; people will always pay to actually experience something firsthand. I've lived in Rochester for 14 years and had never heard of the museum; to Patch's credit, having an online presence helps expand visibility. This article would suggest that some organizations are considering expanding the tools at their disposal, and is making me consider just launching the Rochester Wiki and letting those interested participate: http://rochester.patch.com/articles/history-web-site

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