Walking through Bay City’s Center Avenue district takes you back in time

As the weather warms, it’s the perfect time to take another walking tour of Bay City’s historic Center Avenue district.

In 2020 and 2021, Route Bay City offered our readers two historic architecture walking tours. In November, Route Bay City detailed our first self-guided walking tour of the Center Avenue district. That route lines up perfectly with this one, if you want to walk a little farther. Cross the river and you can stroll through the historic Midland Street district. While you’re walking, read about the history of a few buildings in this area in a Dec. 3 article.

Before you embark on those earlier tours, though, here are five additional examples of the wonderful history and beautiful architecture of Center Avenue and the adjacent neighborhoods. As most of these homes were built prior to cars, they are best observed at slow speeds or standstill.

In 1876, James Shearer designed and built this two-story brick home for his son and daughter-in-law. The home was next door to James Shearer’s 701 Center Ave. home.
  • 814 N. Monroe St., The George Henry & Elva Shearer House

In 1876, James Shearer designed and built this two-story brick home for his son George Henry Shearer and daughter-in-law Elva in the Second Empire style. It was right next door to his own home at 701 Center Ave.

The Shearers hailed from Scotland and arrived in the U.S. in the early 19th century, quickly realizing much success. George H. Shearer was born in Detroit in 1853 and moved to Bay City in 1865 after his father saw opportunity in the lumber, banking, and real estate businesses. James Shearer built three commercial buildings for his business holdings: a three-story block where Mill End Lofts now stands, the Central Block on the northeast corner of Center and Washington (now the Kresge Building), and the Shearer Brothers Block in 1886 on the northwest corner of Center and Adams. Today, the Shearer Brothers Block is home to Shearer Condominiums, Crossroads Title, and The Public House.

The home features formal facades, two polygonal bay windows, as well as a Widow's Walk on the roof.George H. Shearer worked at his father’s mill, James Shearer and Co., as a laborer, then bookkeeper, and eventually managed all family business interests by 1877. In 1880, his brother, James Buchanan Shearer, joined the firm, re-naming it Shearer Brothers. Outside of the family business, George Henry was secretary of Elm Lawn Cemetery and served as the vice president of Bay County Savings Bank.

Nearly 150 years ago, this law office was the private home of George Henry Shearer and his wife, Elva. Second Empire was popular in the U.S. between the 1860s and 1880s. The name refers to France’s Second Empire during Napoleon III’s reign, when many projects were completed in Paris to transform the city with grand boulevards and buildings. The exterior features formal facades, mansard roofs, cross gables with a gabled bay, and two polygonal bays that edge a porch at entry. The lintels and sills are made of limestone. The home also features a Widow’s Walk on the roof. The building is currently home to Bay Justice Associates.

Features include the home’s stucco and half-timbering inserts. It has multiple intersecting gables, giving it Tudor Revival elements.
  • 924 Center Ave., Charles B. & Georgiana (McGraw) Curtiss House

Charles B. Curtiss was born in Danby, N.Y. in 1837. He re-located to Ithaca, N.Y., where he befriended John McGraw of the Sage & McGraw mill, arriving in Bay City in 1864. McGraw’s niece, Georgiana, married Charles in 1876. Curtiss stayed with the mill until the Sage-McGraw partnership ended, going on to work for the McGraw Mill at the foot of 40th Street (McGraw Ave.) Curtiss briefly lived in Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y., selling lumber and working as a bookkeeper for McGraw, returning to Bay City as the mill’s superintendent in 1878. After the mill’s 1893 closure, Curtiss purchased the Bay City Dredging Company.

The design, by William H. Miller of Ithaca, N.Y., the man behind some of Cornell University’s buildings. Building it cost $18,500, or $534,698.79 in 2021 dollars.This Queen Anne home’s construction started in 1891, taking three years to complete. It was designed by William H. Miller of Ithaca, N.Y., the man behind some of Cornell University’s buildings and Henry Sage’s Ithaca home. The construction was supervised by Detroit firm Scott & Scott, costing $18,500 or around $534,698.79 in 2021 dollars.

The home was considered unorthodox being one of the first on Center Avenue to use a post-Victorian design.Features of this style are the home’s stucco and half-timbering insets. The home has multiple intersecting gables, with the cross gable’s upper portions projecting over the lower portions. It also has Tudor Revival elements to it resembling medieval English structures with wood framing and infill plaster.

Between 1988-1996, it became known as the Stonehenge Bed & Breakfast with 31 rooms. Now, it is back in private ownership.This three-story home was constructed using Tennessee sandstone. Much exemplifying Saginaw Valley lumber wealth, it uses a variety of timber inside such as oak, white oak, red gum, birch, and pine. The home was considered unorthodox being one of the first on Center Avenue to use a post-Victorian design. When the house was new, the first floor included a kitchen, a breakfast room, and a formal dining room for 20. The library is where Mr. Curtis would enjoy a cigar and drink while discussing business matters. In the parlor, Mrs. Curtiss would entertain her friends and play bridge.

Curtiss passed away in 1908, but the home remained in the family for four generations. Between 1988-1996, it became known as the Stonehenge Bed & Breakfast with 31 rooms. Now, it is back in private ownership.

Herman Wendland, who built this home at 1200 McKinley St., was an immigrant from Germany. He opened a store inside the Crapo building (now The Legacy) in 1891.
  • 1200 McKinley St., The Herman and Bertha Wendland Residence
Born in Germany in 1864, Herman Wendland immigrated in 1871 to the U.S. Moving to Bay City in 1883, he found employment with Bancroft, Thompson, and Co. selling dry goods in Shearer’s Central Block where the SS Kresge Building now stands.

The home includes a Romeo and Juliette balcony with an attic dormer. He opened a retail store inside the Crapo building, now The Legacy, in 1891. In 1917, he built the four-story Wendland Block for H.G. Wendland and Company in the space to the immediate right of the Crapo. There, he offered clothing, appliances, furniture, and housewares.

The home was built in the Four-Square style, which usually means little ornamentation. However, this home features fluted columns and a curved portico.Wendland took an active interest in his business up through old age and was considered one of the most experienced mercantile businessmen in the city. He was a founder of the Michigan Retailers Association, known as the retailing patriarch of Michigan, and life member of the Elks Lodge. He lived to be 96, passing away in 1959. His store remained in business until 1964 when it was purchased by Oppenheim’s. Tragically, the building was destroyed by fire on Christmas Eve 1979.

The carriage house at the rear of the property includes a turntable that allows cars to turn around inside, eliminating the need to back in or out of the driveway.He constructed his 2 ½ story home on McKinley and Sherman in 1909 for he, his first wife Bertha, and six children. It was built in the Four-Square style which usually lacks ornamentation — however, this home contains fluted columns, a curved portico and Corinthian capitols resembling a Colonial Revival style.

Multiple bay windows and an open upper balcony highlight the façade.An intriguing feature is the carriage house to the rear of the property that contained a turntable allowing a car to be turned around upon exit. Other features include a Romeo and Juliette balcony with an attic dormer and a low balustrade around the porch roof mirrored by a second on the porch deck. The home also contains multiple bay windows, and an open upper balcony facing the east.

The 2 ½-story Queen Anne was constructed using a red-sandstone foundation in 1887. It features four cross-gables emanating from the house and a witch’s cap on the turret above the bay window facing Center and Lincoln.
  • 1315 Center Ave., The Whitney Residence
Charles Whitney’s home is unique being on Center Avenue at a time when most homes were built using lumber money. Whitney, though, was not a lumber baron.

Whitney was born in Adrian, Michigan in 1850 and arrived in Bay City in 1874 after living in Alpena for a few years. By 1875, he opened a pharmacy inside the Bloedon Block on Center between Water and Saginaw. Partnering with William Pomeroy in 1880, they established Pomeroy and Whitney, a bakery at 514-516 Washington Ave. specializing in cookies and crackers known across Michigan. Whitney also opened a pharmacy in the Watson Block (now part of Wenona Park). In 1881, he opened the Fraser House Block where the Delta College Planetarium now stands.

Charles Whitney arrived in Bay City in 1874. Over the years, he opened a pharmacy and a bakery. He also was vice president of a savings and loan and treasurer at a mining company.Whitney served as vice president of both the Bay County Abstract Company and Mutual Building and Loan Association. He was president of the Bay City Business Men’s Association, and secretary and treasurer of both the Black Diamond Coal Mining Co. and the Valley Land Co among numerous job titles between 1900 and 1924.

The home at 1315 Center Ave. is unique today for its vibrant color. When it was built in 1887, it was unique in that it didn’t come from lumber money. Instead, the original owner, Charles Whitney, held a variety of jobs, from a baker to a banker.The 2 ½-story Queen Anne was constructed using a red-sandstone foundation in 1887. Features of the home include four cross-gables emanating from the house, a witch’s cap on the turret above the bay window facing Center and Lincoln, and multiple cut-away bay windows and a wrap porch, sometimes referred to as an Eastlake, a style originating from England, and features a Romeo and Juliette balcony above the main entrance. The windows vary between etched, stained, and leaded glass. The Whitney’s enjoyed warmer months in Bay City and spent winters in Los Angeles with family.

Look up and you’ll see a Romeo and Juliette balcony above the main entrance. The windows vary between etched, stained, and leaded glass. Whitney sold the home in 1925 after the death of his wife, Emma. The new owner was Ignatious Kirchman of the Kirchman Brothers Kitchen Supply Co. on Midland Street. It is not known what happened to Whitney after he sold the home. It is presumed he left town.

Whitney opened the Fraser House Block, where the Delta College Planetarium stands.The home has been featured in Old House Journal and Architecture in Michigan. It is considered one of the best examples of Queen Anne architecture in the state.

This home at 1514 Center Ave. has a strong southern influence, which came from Eliza Turner, the wife of the original owner, Joseph Turner.
  • 1514 Center Ave., The Turner Residence
Built in 1889, Joseph Turner commissioned architect Dillon Prosser Clark, behind the Phoenix Block, to design this Queen Anne home.

Eliza wanted a lower-level kitchen and dining room to release heat and odors. The east-facing porch offers shade from the evening sun.Turner’s wife, Eliza, brought a southern influence into the design, which originally included a lower-level kitchen and dining room, allowing wind to release heat and disperse odors. The east-facing porch, like many in the south, offers shade from the western sun in the evenings. The home has a rusticated sandstone foundation, narrow clapboards finished with mitered corners, extravagant ornamentation, and a ballroom on the third floor. The porch’s small Romanesque columns draw attention upward which accentuates the above cross gable with elaborate floral motifs containing a semi-circular attic window illuminating the ballroom. The west side of the house has a projecting staircase bay containing stained-glass windows.

Look up and you’ll catch a glimpse of elaborate floral motifs around a semi-circular attic window. Turner was born in Clinton, Michigan in 1835 and became a prominent Saginaw Valley lumber baron for quarter of a century. Joseph’s brother, Capt. George Turner, was a famous local who was the city’s first civil engineer and Civil War veteran serving the 10th Michigan Volunteers. He was twice wounded at the battle of Stones River.

Turner was a prominent lumber baron in the area for a quarter century. While here, he served on the Bay City Bridge Commission.According to Turner’s obituary, Joseph worked in the lumber industry for S.H. Webster, went on to form a partnership with W. Filson Tousey to establish Tousey & Turner, followed by the Miller & Lewis firm manufacturing shingles. After a fire destroyed the Miller & Lewis mill in 1892, both he and Lewis moved the Blodgett Mill to Bay City from Muskegon and re-named it South End Lumber & Salt Co.

Joseph Turner died of a heart attack in 1905. Eliza lived at the home until her death in 1909.After the Panic of 1893, Turner founded Joseph Turner & Co. in Midland, Ontario and kept his residence in Bay City. He also served on the Bay City Bridge Commission.

Joseph Turner died of a heart attack in Toronto at the King Edward Hotel in October of 1905. Eliza resided inside the home until 1909, dying of a heart-related issues after a test run in an early model Oldsmobile.
 
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