Looking back: Rochester struggles to balance preservation with prosperity

This is the first in an occasional series about preservation in metro Detroit’s historic communities.

 

When the first settlers arrived in what would be Rochester in 1817, they came intending to farm the land. Still, it was the area’s natural beauty, rivers, forests, and the prevalent wild game, that soon engendered a flourishing community. These natural amenities, especially the rivers and creeks, provided erect mills for life-sustaining settlements and ‘modern’ conveniences.

In its early days, Rochester’s main street development was sparse. Rochester’s first businesses were built along the rivers and streams, and its wares reflected that of a larger city instead of a small village, a result of the waterpower available. There was a tannery, a paper mill, a flour mill, a clothing manufacturer, a distillery, wagon repair, and a foundry. The mail at this time was brought on horseback from Royal Oak, and in 1828 Rochester opened its first post office, though there were two established before this in residential homes in both the Avon and Stony Creek areas.

If the prosperity of a post office is any indication of the vibrancy of a town, Rochester’s post office was mailing about eighty-five letters a day in 1877, and its population had grown to eighteen hundred residents, most of whom were farmers or merchants catering to the agricultural market.

When Pat McKay began his career as manager of the museum thirty years ago, his view from the steps of the historical farmhouse resembled what Rochester’s first settlers saw. McKay says he remembers the view of forests and rolling hills so beautiful and pristine, he once had the notion to raise funds to buy the empty land around the museum and leave it as green space.

Today, however, the scene has changed drastically. The greenspace McKay envisioned has since been acquired by developers and turned into subdivisions. The economic boom the city experienced in the past few years has led to bidding wars for Rochester’s vacant land and any available real estate in the downtown area.

In 2019, Rochester was considered one of the best places to live and raise a family in Michigan according to research conducted by financial analysts from the app WalletHub. With Rochester’s economic success, McKay explains that it has become more difficult to halt or slow down development and save historical buildings and landmarks. “It’s very challenging,” he says. “The purist out there would say [preservation] is not going well.”

Looking north on Main Street. The Edison building (shown on the right) is on the southeast corner of Main & Third Street. It is currently home to Bellisima Bridal Salon.

But he adds that it’s hard to promote historical preservation when a city becomes prosperous because the focus turns to residential developments and infrastructure.

“In some cases, I’d say we’re slipping, but in other ways, we have some shining examples of historic preservation.” He notes both the old Rochester High School, repurposed into the Rochester Community Schools Administration building and the Rochester Mills building, now a brewery and restaurant of the same name.

Tiffany Dziurman of the Rochester-Avon Historical Society explains there is a lot of history hiding behind walls and aluminum siding downtown.

“When Haig’s of Rochester was restored there were two or three façades that had to be removed to get to the beautiful brick building underneath.” She notes the current restoration of the Yates building at the south end of town. When the façade was removed recently workers discovered brick beneath the dated aluminum complete with the name of the original owner and the year it was built.

Dziurman also mentions the Hills Theater that occupied the Main Street Plaza. She says that “even though there are different stores in there now, if you were to peel away some of the modern touches, the developer left a lot behind the walls. There is still a projection room and other things that would make it easy to turn it back into a theater.”

As far as current historic structures are concerned, Dziurman warns we’re losing them rapidly. In 2017 the city’s citizen survey reflected more than sixty percent of participants opposed the demolition of older homes and buildings for “mini-mansions” and luxury condos, disputing that the new builds did not fit into Rochester’s historical aesthetic, nor did they provide an opportunity for an economically diverse community.

Dziurman explains that the Rochester Mill is a great example of what the right investor can do. Adding that refurbishing a property and preserving it for future generations, whether it’s a building or a home, is better for the environment.

“People have to realize that the more environmentally friendly thing to do is to preserve and restore. It takes an enormous amount of material, energy, and cost to tear these structures down, not to mention all the asbestos and lead paint you’ve put into the air to build a bigger home that takes more energy to heat and cool. We talk about our carbon footprint so much, yet it seems to not exist when we tear down old structures.”

Now there are federal and state tax cuts available for property owners wishing to restore and maintain their historic buildings. Preservationists in Rochester are hoping this will provide an incentive to newer residents to restore their properties instead of demolishing them.

“We have wonderful examples of our history,” Dziurman says, “but we’re losing it every day. The Rochester elevator, for example, is one of the last surviving symbols of our agricultural history. It is a cultural, historical, and significant property.”

The Rochester elevator, established in 1880 by the Griggs brothers, is a city landmark and has been operating as a grain elevator for over one hundred years. However, the market for grain and feed in the area has declined which has left the business and its building vulnerable. There are some that would like to see it demolished, but the city would like to save it if possible.

Rochester elevator,

The building is currently sitting on a brownfield, and the City of Rochester was recently awarded a million-dollar grant to clear the contamination. Whether they will use it for the property is up to future developers and possible investors or restaurateurs.

McKay agrees that the elevator is a big part of Rochester’s agricultural history and says it’s one structural element that prevents the downtown area from feeling sterile, that its presence increases a real sense of place for Rochester residents.

“I don’t want to lose that,” he says. And among doubts for its salvation, there is hope that it will either be preserved as is or moved to another location but that can only happen with an open conversation.

“I’m looking forward to the dialogue where we get people together and figure out something creative and unique for the elevator. If any town can pull it off,” he says, “it should be the Rochester community.”

All historic photos courtesy of the archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.

Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.  
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