The Historian Of Detroit's Most Historic Neighborhood Digs Up Amazing Stories
March 28th, 2014, 12:53 PM
ABOVE: A view of Michigan Avenue looking west from the location in 2014 of the Lodge Freeway before Michigan was widened in the 1930s. The red arrow denotes a building with a white facade that is today's P.J.'s Lager House.
By day, Paul Sewick is a bookkeeper in the accounting department at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
After hours, writing under the old family name of Paul Szewczyk, he is a dedicated researcher into the decades-old story of his neighborhood, Corktown.
His blog, Corktown History, is a work of art itself, a repository of stories, facts, dates, data and images surrounding the land, buildings and streets in Detroit's oldest neighborhood, going back to the French era of settlement. There appears to be no one else who is consistently delving so deeply into one specific area of the city. Szewczyk repeatedly uncovers odd details and riveting photos that have much to say about the micro-histories that make up Detroit's storied past.
"If I'm meticulous in the blog research I guess it started when I researched my former home on Wabash when my aim was to retrace its exact line of ownership from myself to the first French settlers," Szewczyk said.
"But mostly this research is just fun."
His latest post examines the history of an odd-looking structure on Bagley known as The "Bagley Vision" Building, which sits on the vague line between Corktown and Mexicantown at 2144-2150 Bagley. Szewczyk shows that even a beat-up old building in an obscure corner of the city can tell a remarkable tale.
The property is for sale, Szewczyk reports, "with an incredible asking price of $550,000.00."
"Although the price will clearly need to fall before the property is sold, there is something compelling about this building, and I believe it is worth keeping an eye on."
So into the archives Szewczyk dives, in both libraries and cyberspace. To research the Bagley building, he used hathitrust.org , a digital library; C.M. Burton's "History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit;" geneological records; city directories; Google books; newspapers.com; and a history of the Detroit Fire Department's apparatus, among other sources.
To summarize, in Szewczyk's words:
The structure sits on two lots of the former Godfroy farm--numbers 97 and 100--which combined measure 145 feet on Bagley and 103.94 feet on Fourteenth. Before it was built, five one-story wood houses stood here, having probably been constructed in the 1870s or 1880s. The current building was originally a two-story factory with offices located in the front-center. Although city records state that it was constructed in 1933, the building permit (#19537) was actually issued on June 8, 1921. Originally there were two business listed at this address.
Previous businesses include Detroit Mirror Works, founded in 1897 by a German immigrant with the
tremendous name of George Wangbichler, right, with wife; the Detroit Mausoleum Equipment Works, founded by another German immigrant, Charles Bovensiep Jr., in 1911; and the C. & P. Metal Co. and the National Tent & Awning Company, which manufactured canvas coverings for army vehicles.
At 2:30 p.m. on December 5, 1944, a fire, below, broke out in the sewing room of the National Tent & Awning Company. Before long it went to five alarms, fueled by stockpiles of canvas and eventually engulfing the entire building. Employees jumped out of windows to safety, but three women died in the blaze.
The building was rehabbed by 1949, and by 1976 it had been sheathed in what Szewczyk describes as a bizarre combination of wood shakes and aluminum siding. In recent years, as deterioration set in, the structure has housed an optical business and a blind pig that was raided in 2012.
Despite this building's serious issues--and despite the aggravation of having spent five years of my life living next to a two-story code violation that emitted techno music--there is something I love about this building. Maybe it's the sound of the passing trains, its very close proximity to Honeybee Market, or the proper urban street wall formed by the facade. Or maybe I'm just a hipster who thinks that living in a repurposed factory is "cool." Whatever it is, I sincerely hope that a wise and capable investor rescues this living artifact of our neighborhood's history.
Previous posts on Corktown History examined the widening of Michigan Avenue, top of page, with the arrow denoting today's P.J.'s Lager House; the ribbon farms of Corktown; Roosevelt Park, in front of the Michigan Central Depot; and the Carhartt clothing company's Corktown roots.
Szewczyk, 34, has moved around a lot but calls Harper Woods his hometown. He says he moved to Corktown in 2005 because he likes old homes and local history.
Just about all of the blog posts I've written simply grew out of my own need to know why things are the way they are. For example, when I moved to Corktown, someone mentioned that Michigan Avenue was widened and that the buildings on the south side of the street were knocked down. I was disappointed to find out that nobody knew much beyond that, and that Google couldn't instantly answer my questions.
I think a lot of people see old buildings and wonder when they were built, by whom, what they were used for, etc. A few of my posts were the result of a neighbor or business owner requesting that research, but almost all are just a product of my curiosity on each subject. It's purely just for fun. I pretty much can't help myself. I don't know much about journalism, but I assume there must be some overlap, specifically that electrifying feeling of one lead uncovering another, the answering of questions you didn't even know you should have been asking, and the emerging of a clear picture of understanding that you had been craving the whole time.