The Thompson Block - Then and Now!
Author: James Mann
The origin of the Thompson Block stretches back twenty years before its construction in the 1850s. It began in 1838 when Mark Norris, the founder of the Depot Town section of Ypsilanti, built the Western Hotel on the triangular piece of land across the street where the railroad depot stands today. “The building was of brick with stone facings,” wrote Harvey C. Colburn in the Story of Ypsilanti, “and the enterprise was of considerable magnitude for the period. Shops occupied the ground floor two or three steps down from the walk and the hotel proper was above.” The hotel opened in May of 1839, but was evidently not a financial success.
In about 1860 the Michigan Central Railroad acquired the property to make room for the expansion of the railroad. Norris then demolished the Western Hotel and carried the bricks across the street for use in a new building. The building was originally known as the Norris Block in honor of its builder. The Peninsular Courier, an Ann Arbor newspaper, reported on August 13, 1861, “The Norris Block, Ypsilanti, is completed and several of the stories are being occupied. The upper stories are being well finished, and families are already occupying them.”
The new building, a three story Italianate structure, was planned for both retail and residential use. The ground floor was designed for six retail shops, each measuring 20 x 60 feet, and in 1889 an additional 20 x 40 feet was added to each bay. When built, the building had an ornamental frieze of wood that wrapped around the north, west and south facades. The frieze was not there for only aesthetic reasons, but to prevent damage from water running down the façade. The frieze has long since been removed, and damage, especially during cycles of freeze and thaw, has resulted.
Norris was an active member of the Underground Railroad and it was rumored that there were underground tunnels, used to smuggle escaping slaves, connecting the building to the Michigan Central Depot across the street.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in April of 1861, the federal government called for the recruitment of soldiers. The recruitment of soldiers created the need for a place to house them during training. The Norris Block was first used as a barracks by the Fourteenth Michigan Infantry Regiment in 1862. The Peninsular Courier and the Ypsilanti Herald reported on January 28, 1862, that “The regiment is stationed in a large brick building east of the depot. In the basement is the culinary arrangements. Each company cooks for itself. The boys have lots of fun. They have a debating society, and also hold dances in the upperstory where they “balance to your partner” in the genuine style, to the music of fiddle and bones.”
The Fourteenth Michigan Infantry Regiment, under the command of Robert F. Sinclair, was mustered into service at Ypsilanti on February 13, 1862, with an enrollment of nine hundred twenty-five officers and men. The Fourteenth Michigan left Ypsilanti on April 17, 1862, for St. Louis and joined the army of General Grant at Pittsbury Landing.
The building was again used as a barracks in 1863, by the Twenty-Seventh Michigan Infantry Regiment. It was forty years later in 1902 when the eighty surviving veterans of the Twenty-Seventh returned to Ypsilanti for a reunion. The Ypsilantian of October 30, 1902 noted, “It was an especial pleasure to revisit their old barracks in the Thompson Block, which is the only building used as a barracks in 1862 in Michigan that is still standing.” For many years after the Civil War, the building was called “The Barracks.” It was only later that it became known as “The Thompson Block,” after a long occupancy by the Thompson family and their business interests.
“Going to the depot,” noted the Ypsilanti Commercial of May 29, 1869, “you notice unusual activity going on in the corner store of the Norris Block. The new proprietor, Mr. O. E. Thompson, will inform you, for he is always genial and social, that he has bought this property, and is going to renovate and repair it right up to the handle. He means to make one of the completest paint shops in the state, using the first floor for a store connected with the business…If that corner don’t shine in less than three months, the pride of the Depot, set us down as a false prophet.”
Oliver E. Thompson, born in Ypsilanti in 1838, was the son of a pioneering family. In 1865 he began to manufacture wagons and in 1870, the year after he moved into the Norris Block, he began to make carriages. In 1871 he began to sell Jackson wagons made by Tomlinson & Webster. In 1873 he started selling agricultural implements, some of his own invention, that were manufactured in the Norris Block such as root cutters, grass seeders, and kraut and slaw cutters. Thompson and his sons Benjamin, Edward, and John were also active in the business of house, sign, and carriage painting, and sold other items such as swings, wall-paper and bicycles. In one year, Thompson and Sons sold more than two hundred bicycles.
By 1900, Thompson & Sons employed about fifty men. Although they owned the building, their business interests rarely occupied more than the three bays as the south end of the building. The bays at the north end of the building were rented out for the use of other businesses.
By the early 1890’s, the city of Ypsilanti had established a second volunteer fire company, this one to serve the east side. It was called Hose House No. 2 and was housed in the Thompson Block at 408 North River. The company consisted of volunteer fire fighters, a hose wagon, and a horse. On the roof above the Hose House was a large bell, to be rung in case of fire. Since Ypsilanti had only a volunteer fire department until 1895, no one was permanently assigned to be at the building. When a fire was discovered, someone had to ring the bell to alert the volunteers. On the front of the Hose House was a sign explaining how to ring the bell, so the volunteers would know where the fire was. On many occasions, someone who was overcome with excitement would misread the instructions, incorrectly ring the bell, and send the volunteers to the wrong address.
In 1895, a professional fire department was established and the on duty fire fighters slept in quarters on the second floor. Hose House No. 2 remained in the Thompson Block until 1898, when the two city fire companies were incorporated into one and moved into the new fire house on Cross Street. The part of the building used by the fire company was then used by the city for storage into the 1950s.
Oliver E. Thompson died in 1910, and his sons took over the business. In 1916, Joseph H. Thompson, grandson of Oliver, opened what may have been the first Dodge dealership outside of Detroit in the north end of the building. He only operated at that location for a short time before moving the dealership across the street to the current location of the Automotive Heritage Museum.
The business interests of the Thompson family changed over the years as old markets closed and new markets opened. In 1918 they ended their retail sales operations and began to concentrate on manufacturing. In 1927 the Thompson family sold the O.E. Thompson and Sons business to C. J. Helm and Associates, out of Detroit, but the company continued to use the Thompson name. According to a newspaper advertisement in May of 1940, the company was still producing 68 different items and serving 1,000 customers from coast to coast.
The last of the business interests under the Thompson name ended in 1950 and the building was put up for sale. The building stood empty for over a year and then over the years business would come and go. As time passed major parts of the building were left to deteriorate. In recent years the building has been the subject of controversy and eventually ended up in court.
David Kircher bought the building in the late 1960s and for many years it was used as a warehouse. However, the building continued to deteriorate and in 1996 a court order was issued that required David Kircher to make certain repairs to the building. Later, Kircher was declared guilty of demolishing the Thompson Block building by neglect. The city of Ypsilanti sued Kircher in 2002 to force him to make repairs to the building. The repairs were made by Barnes and Barnes and when Kircher failed to pay for the repairs, Robert Barnes was appointed receiver for the property. Then in 2005 a Washtenaw County judge appointed Stewart Beal as the successor receiver to repair the building. Beal Properties president, Stewart W. Beal, indicated later that Beal Properties paid Barnes & Barnes almost $400,000 for sole ownership of the property. According to the City of Ypsilanti Planning Office the title transfer to Stewart Beal for the Thompson Block occurred on May 16, 2006.
On the morning of September 23, 2009, a fire that began at 1:38 a.m. destroyed the interior of the entire south end of the building. Five fire departments responded to assist including Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Pittsfield, Superior and Ypsilanti Township. It took six hours to get the fire under control. The building’s interior floors collapsed and fell down the basement making the entire outside façade unstable. According to Beal, engineers have determined that the building’s façade can be saved and the shell has been shored up with bracing until new construction behind the façade can be completed.
According to a 1992 research report on the building by Craig Zehnder, “Architecturally, the building’s historical significance is quite apparent. Built in the mid 18th century, the building is an excellent example of the typical downtown building block (here freestanding) with retail on the first floor and dwellings/storage on the upper floors. The masonry brick and wood beam construction was build using bricks from the Great Western Hotel that was torn down to make room for the railroad tracks. The Italianate style with arched fenestration and intricate wooden frieze was particularly popular at that time and can be observed in the few remaining buildings in Ypsilanti from that time period. Its subsequent rehabilitation and preservation would be a great asset and historical resource for not only the citizens of Ypsilanti but also an excellent example of Midwestern architecture from the 1800’s for the entire country.”
James Mann is a local author and historian, regularly contributes articles to the Gleanings, and is a volunteer in the YHS Archives.
Photo 1: Mark Norris built what was initially known as the “Norris Block” in 1860 using stones from the demolished Western Hotel.
Photo 2: The shell of the Thompson Block building is now being supported by bracing until it can be determined if the façade can be saved.
Photo 3: An advertisement for a Thompson “Clover and Grass Seeder” from 1884.
Photo 4: In 1869 Oliver E. Thompson purchased the building at 400-410 River Street and engaged in a wide variety of retail and manufacturing activities.
Photo 5: The Thompson Block around 1891. Note the bell on the roof of the building which was used to notify volunteer fire fighters of the location of a fire.
Photo 6: The Thompson sold a wide variety of products including carriages and wheelbarrow grass seeders.
Photo 7: O. E. Thompson and Sons letterhead from the 1890s.
Photo 8: The Thompson Block in c1905 when the emphasis on retail sales focused on bicycles.
Photo 9: Note the Dodge Brothers Motor Cars dealership on the north end of the Thompson Block in a picture from c1916.
Photo 10: By c1929 the north end of the Thompson Block was used by the City of Ypsilanti as a City Storehouse.
Photo 11: In the early morning on September 23, 2009, the Thompson Block was engulfed in a fire that took five fire departments to douse.
Photo 12: An artist’s rendering of the Thompson Block as it would appear after being renovated by Beal Properties.