Top 10: Buildings with Colorful Roles in Birmingham's Saga
Look what took place at familiar sites when the city was young.
We've all been inside or gone past restaurants, shops, a theater, a school and other sites that represent important chapters in Birmingham's story. Some wear Historic District plaques as downtown stars, while others are supporting players in the city's saga.
As part of our ongoing appreciation of local history, here are buildings that are a distinct part of Birmingham's identity. Just a note: We didn't forget them, but City Hall and Baldwin Library are sidestepped to give others a nod.)
1. Wallace Frost houses: At least 44 local homes are designed by Wallace Frost, who worked with noted architect Albert Kahn from 1919-25 and created a Birmingham house for himself at 579 Tooting Lane in 1921. In 1926, he opened an office at 460 W. Maple. Frost's small, light-filled residences typically have two-story living rooms, elegant woodwork, custom light fixtures, arches and limestone-framed windows and doors — a mix of English country, French Normandy and Italian influences absorbed during World War I service as an Air Force architect. A number of "Wally" houses — as owners and brokers call them — are near Quarton Lake and in the Holy Name neighborhood. A two-bedroom 1941 design at 436 Bonnie Brier in that area is currently listed at $425,000 by Hall & Hunter Realtors. Frost worked until 1961 and died a year later at 70.
- Historic footnotes: Famed sculptor Marshall Fredericks lived in a Frost home at 440 Lake Park. A 1957 Frost home in Lansing has been the governor's mansion since 1969.
2. Rail depot: The Tudor Revival train station built in 1931 at the corner of South Eton and East Maple earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Trains had served Birmingham since August 1838, when construction of the Detroit and Pontiac Railroad reached the city, running in the middle of Woodward Avenue. Grand Trunk, which operated in the line by the 1920s, agreed to relocate tracks a mile east at state expense so Woodward could become Michigan Route 1 (M-1). Two parades, speeches and a crowd of at least 25,000 people attended the depot dedication in August 1931. When Grand Trunk passenger service ended in 1978, the depot became Norman's Eton Street Station restaurant – now Big Rock Chophouse. (Amtrak passengers board from a platform alongside the parking lot.)
- Historic footnote: The landmark was designed and built by Walbridge Aldinger, a Detroit firm born in 1916, still based there and now a major national company that shortened its name to Walbridge in 2008.
3. Wabeek Building: Albert Kahn designed this Art Deco masterpiece on West Maple in the late 1920s, about the time he was planning the Fisher Theater in Detroit. It was finished in fall 1928, with offices upstairs and street-level shops such as Wabeek Pharmacy and Stroup's Market. Investors included Republican tycoon James Couzens, past mayor of Detroit (1919-22) and U.S. senator from 1922-36. A three-panel display case in the public lobby describes the office building's notable pedigree. It's worth a quick stop when shopping to see vintage brass trimmings, Deco chandeliers and ornate ceiling — big city elegance in our downtown.
4. Detroit Edison Building: Even amid the Depression, progress continued in Birmingham. The region's electric utility opened a customer service office in 1931 at 220 Merrill St. The red brick and peaked roof were intended to harmonize with the nearby Municipal Building (City Hall) and Baldwin Library. Residents could bring appliances for repair, pay bills and exchange burned-out light bulbs for new ones at no cost. (Incredible as that sounds, I did just that during the late 1970s.) When Edison moved a few doors west, the building was converted into a German-American restaurant in 1979. New owners renamed it 220 in 1993 and enlisted Birmingham designer Ron Rea to enhance the original slate floor, paneling and scrolled ceiling with a period look that includes antique chandeliers. A basement music club also has a fitting name: Edison's.
5. Birmingham Theater Building: Our most recognizable icon went up in 1926 with shops, offices, a basement bowling alley, a screen for motion pictures and a stage for vaudeville productions. Movies and occasional live shows — but not bowling — continued until 1994, when the theater shut for two-year restoration and conversion to eight screens.
- Historic foonote: Creem Magazine, a path-breaking national music magazine, was based upstairs in the 1970s and 1980s. Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh and Robert Christgau — legends of rock journalism — were among those writing behind frosted glass doors.
6. Adams School: When it opened in 1921, 750 elementary and middle school students were enrolled at the three-story brick school on Adams Road in the South Poppleton area. It and the adjacent road are named for 19th century settler Seymour Adams, who came here from western New York. It closed in the early 1970s and was sold in 1980 to The Roeper School for a campus serving middle and upper grades. More than five dozen 1960s-70s alumni reminisce about their schooldays on a Facebook page.
7. Shain Townhouses: The charming cluster of two-story stone buildings at West Maple and Peabody date from 1916, when they were built by 34-year-old businessman Charles J. Shain (1882-1951) as residential row houses in the Arts and Crafts style. Offices and shops now fill the spaces, with the handsome exteriors essentially unchanged as they approach their centennial.
8. Ford Building: The two-story commercial building at 101 North Old Woodward, which now includes Cosi, was commissioned in 1896 by businessman Frank Ford, who lived two blocks south in the Victorian-style Ford-Peabody mansion. Levinson's Department Store had the prime corner space from 1897-1916, followed by First State Savings Bank (later called Birmingham State Savings Bank). When the bank became a Depression victim, Wilson Drug Co. moved in and served the community from 1935-79. At a counter with swiveling stools, drugstore patrons of all ages enjoyed malteds, milkshakes and sundaes.
9. Detroit United Railways waiting room: Electric trolleys ran up and down Woodward during the 20th century's first two and half decades, linking communities between Detroit and Pontiac. Detroit United Railways, which ran "the Interurban," built a package depot and passenger lounge in 1910 at 138 South Old Woodward. In the late 1920s, it became Birmingham Savings Bank, which kept a small waiting room for streetcar riders. A crest with the initials B.S.B. remains on the upper façade. The building, now Olga's Kitchen, was designed by Detroit architects at Smith, Hinchman & Grylls — currently an 800-person national firm renamed Smith Group in 2000, and still based downtown.
10. Telephone Exchange Building: In 1909, when phones were as novel as iPads are now, publishers George Mitchell and Almeron Whitehead built a brick office structure at 148 Pierce St. for telephone switchboard operators on the second floor and their Birmingham Eccentric newspaper downstairs. In 1922, the telephone company bought and occupied the entire building. Since 1950, when Bell Telephone (now AT&T) built new quarters on Martin Street at Henrietta, the building has been used for offices and shops. It currently houses Lindamood-Bell Learning Center.
Intrigued to see landmarks and read their Historic District Commission plaques? Click here for a walking tour of 24 designated sites in the city center.