The Second Empire Style of Architecture in Port Huron

[This post was last updated on March 13th, 2017]

I love the Second Empire style of architecture.  I can’t say for sure why I like it so much, but I imagine it might be due to these attributes of the style:  solid homes often of brick; funky mansard roofs with many ornate dormers (the roof and dormers very often combine square and curvilinear elements, which is something I’m attracted to when it comes to design), and; basically, an overall look that is especially distinctive when it comes to architecture.  A lot of houses have shared and varied style features, but Second Empire is usually just that–Second Empire (or, as referred to historically, “French Roofed” or “Mansard Roof”). Many houses, through time, lose their stylistic features because those features were really just ornament and are eventually removed, but with Second Empire, much of its distinctiveness comes from the structure itself.

Port Huron, having either attracted or grown a population of wealthy-enough persons to afford building in the new and popular style from Paris, seems to have had a goodly number of handsome Second Empire buildings (we’ll not likely to ever know how many were actually built, however).  The Second Empire style began in the 1850s, but it really took off in the United States after the Civil War.  It was the rage to construct government buildings in this style, and fashion-conscious home builders caught the bug.  It may be that it was the most widely built house style during the decade of the 1870s, and it was most popular in the East and Midwest (it is rare in the South).  It was a strong representative of the “Age of Enterprise” (or “Age of Energy”), 1865-1885, although most architects felt it old-fashioned by 1876.  This period was significant to Port Huron’s growth, as it was in so many other places in the US; it was the time when fortunes were made.

But that era is long gone, and, unfortunately, so are most of the Second Empire buildings that the era represented.  Even worse, the best examples of the style are the ones that have been destroyed.  It’s important, then, for us to search for ways to ensure that the remaining examples are preserved.  Below are images of known Second Empire buildings in Port Huron; as a complete survey of Port Huron and the adjacent municipalities has not been done, any Second Empire homes that you, the reader, can point out to PHAHPA will be added here and to our inventory (and we’d highly value any suggestions or information you provide!).

Second Empire Buildings that are now Gone

The original City-County building, built 1873 (the county seat moved from St. Clair to Port Huron in 1871). Wings were added and Second Empire style elements removed (unfortunately) in 1896, and it was razed after a fire in 1949. (From 1876 Standard Atlas of St. Clair County, p 3.)

The older center of the original city county building, 1946. The photo brings out details that the drawing above, and even old black & white photos, don’t really bring out.  From the Sawyer Collection, Port Huron Museum.

Water Works building, constructed in 1872 (from Art Work of St. Clair County, 1893, no page).

A xerox copy (of what generation?) of a photo of the Johnstone-Reed house, now gone (except for some portions that were integrated into the American Legion hall that now sits at the Sixth and Wall streets property) (on file in the Michigan Room, St. Clair County Public Library).

The Johnstone house as depicted in the county’s 1876 atlas (p 26).

James Goulden house that used to stand on the west side of Pine Grove Avenue at Glenwood. I just adore (love!) this house, yet it’s gone, and for nothing; an abandoned and ugly gas station had replaced it. What does this say about our culture?

The Goulden House as depicted in the 1876 county atlas (p 6).

317 Seventh St, Port Huron, demolished

1317 Seventh Street, Port Huron. The Catholic church that demolished it, which is on an adjacent lot, even took over the address of this razed house.  This stood within the local Olde Town Historic District.

This home was located just north of Chestnut Street, on the east side of Military Street (1326), and was apparently built by Henry Howard of the Howard Lumber Company (Bob Davis, personal communication March 10, 2017, and 1898 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, page 13).   (Image from the 1897 booklet, “A Greeting from Port Huron, Michigan,” p 22).   The Women’s Life Insurance Society building is there now, itself a historic structure.  At the present it isn’t known if they razed the Howard house to build their structure, or if it had burned.  If it was demolished, then I opine that that would represent a sad situation.  Either reuse irreplaceable structures, or build elsewhere.

The McMorran Murphy house/mansion, which used to stand on south Military Street. Astoundingly, demolished by nuns after it was charitably donated to them. Arguably the finest historic house in Port Huron, simply razed because of a single party’s self-interested decision. Unbelievable.

An unusual Second Empire formerly located at “Erie Square.” That whole block of buildings was removed to make a parking lot, but has recently made way for the Blue Water Area Transit Center (which added insult to injury by eliminating virtually all free parking for downtown businesses in that vacinity). In Blue Water Reflections, page 170, it is said that this Second Empire structure was “considered one of the most handsome old structures in the city.”  (From the Sawyer Collection, Port Huron Museum.)

Second Empire Buildings that are Still Standing

Boynton house on Huron Avenue, from 1893 (Art Work of St. Clair County, no page). This house is very elaborate, with possible added Queen Anne design elements. This house still stands, although a bit altered (especially the front 1st floor windows)–see photo below.

1005 Huron, the Boynton house as it looks today. What a difference the color and decorative elements make!

1013 Huron, Port Huron, still stands today.  The roof of this house is very elaborate and the dormer design is very elaborate and rare.  A tiny portion of the exterior walls can be seen in the original photo of the Boynton house (its neighbor), indicating that the entire house was very elaborate.  I wonder how much remains beneath that newer siding?

1305 Seventh Street, a huge example that is still standing but much altered.  To see a photo of this house as it looked originally would be an eye-opener, I do believe.

A one and a half story Second Empire that still stands, at 7th and Union streets.

It would be interesting to find out if this tiny Second Empire was really this dull-looking originally. A Google Street View image (from 2013, but the house was viewed on 03-09-17), Ontario Street at Stanton Street.

General Sources

Burnell, Mary C., Marcaccio, Amy.  Blue Water Reflections: A Pictorial History of Port Huron and the St. Clair River District. Virginia Beach: Donning Company Publishers, 1983.

McAlester, Virginia Savage.  A Field Guide to American Houses.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Roth, Leland M.  A Concise History of American Architecture.  New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979.

Smeins, Linda E.  Building an American Identity: Pattern Book Homes & Communities 1870-1900.  Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1999.

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The Gutting of Gratiot Avenue at the Blue Water Bridge

One day I came across a photo from 1893 showing a group of retail/office buildings on Gratiot Avenue (north Port Huron), which was still dirt.  I was very curious about where exactly this block used to be.  Looking at early directories wasn’t very helpful at first, but thankfully, Pauli’s 1894 bird’s eye view map gave a clue.

The group of buildings on a portion of Gratiot Avenue on this map fairly matched the proportions of those shown in the photo.   And then after betting that the photo matched the map in that area, a light switched on in my head.  One of those buildings is still standing today, and it was posted at this site previously.  Why only the one building was saved when all the buildings around (including to the east and west) were razed, is something I’d love to find out.  Some day.  One thing is all too clear, though; much of this area of Port Huron seems to have been demolished for nothing.

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Tax Credits that Help Restore Historic Buildings Threatened

Astounding photo of the top of the Metropolitan Building, Detroit, which is being rehabilitated. Photo by Elizabeth Beale, as HistoricDetroit.org.

Astounding photo of the top of the Metropolitan Building, Detroit, which is being rehabilitated. Photo by Elizabeth Beale, at HistoricDetroit.org.

Historic Tax Credits, granted to property owners with approved rehabilitation of historic (and in some cases, simply older) buildings, are under threat by the new administration in Washington DC. There are two very well compiled fact sheets about the Historic Tax Credit program, and I invite you to check them out (links display first authors): Historic Tax Credit Coalition and Preservation Action.

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Old house, new look. And, PHAH&PA is now on Facebook

Hello all!  As we move toward officialdom, we’ll be adding to our online presence (of course) and, eventually this site will be moved.  We would love to have you visit our new Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/porthuronpreservation/ ; hopefully it will prove beneficial to you.  Below, our most recent post is copied.  New isn’t always better, new is too often regressive.

“Here is a powerful example of what has happened in Port Huron, and what has happened in our country generally. This house, estimated to have been built in the mid-1890s, is a regular-sized home on a regular street in Port Huron (Willow St). It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? The owners had the builders pay attention to detail because–why else?– those things mattered. Look at the second recent photo. Detail no longer matters, and it seems clear that uglifying it (and the neighborhood) is perfectly acceptable. Today it is a rental, divided up inside.

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Preservation Laws: How is Michigan doing? Part 1

When reviewing the historic resources in Port Huron that still stand, and those that don’t (along with the how, when, and why of their demise), a person can easily assume that no historic preservation laws actually exist in Michigan.  The non-federally owned properties that are protected to a certain extent here are those that people have simply wished to be protected, and, those persons had some ability to get that protection in place.  What about all the other properties that are worthy of protection, but aren’t?  What about all those that were worthy of protection in the past, but are now gone?  If protection laws exist, why have they been implemented so capriciously or subjectively, at least in the Port Huron area?

Preservation laws and ordinances are based on lots of things, like federal law and enabling laws passed by the states.  A good way to learn about them is to start at the “top” and work “down.”  Often, federal laws begat state Laws, and enabling laws stem from those  (enabling laws are those that allow the legal passage of local, instead of statewide, protective ordinances).

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McLaren Hospital impacts to historic Port Huron, preliminary notes

Big chunks of Port Huron’s historic environment have been taken through the rise of (1) the central city and county governmental offices and (2) St. Clair County Community College.  But McLaren Hospital and its sphere of influence make up a third big chunk.  (Of course, much has been lost outside of these chunks as well.)

Recently, a nice Canadian museum volunteer inquired about a house that formerly stood across from Pine Grove Park, and it accelerated my interest in discovering what buildings used to stand in place of today’s McLaren Hospital.  If you know Port Huron, you know that the hospital is not the only reason that historic buildings have been razed in that area, but that the medical offices which sprung up behind it have cleared out some of the city’s historic assets, too.  So what are the damages?  A quick (preliminary) look at the issue shows that the damages are fairly extensive, if such a measure can be named or rated.  An in-depth study should be done to help us understand what this part of Port Huron was like in the city’s past.

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Sad Note, Happy Note

The Sad

Below is a google image of some small brick office buildings that were just torn down in Port Huron (1900 block Pine Grove Avenue, east side).  This image does not do the buildings and property justice, but I did not get photos of my own before the razing.  In person, they (and the property generally) looked much better.  While they weren’t terribly old, they were quaint, brick, human-sized buildings that you just don’t see that often anymore.  By their presence they acknowledged small business, and they could’ve been even more inviting if the parking lot had been improved with some landscaping.  While new “strip malls” and single-building enterprises are popping up in Port Huron, they don’t have the human-environmental quality that this group of small office buildings had.  There are plenty of ugly retail buildings in Port Huron, and the fresh strip malls could very well be the eyesores of tomorrow.

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Early Michigan Maps: 1825, 1831, 1839, 1842

Fort Gratiot and future Port Huron area of the 1825 map by O. Risdon.

Fort Gratiot and future Port Huron area of the 1825 map by O. Risdon.  The native name of the short-lived Chippewa reservation is provided here, Aumichuanaw.

I wanted to share some historic maps with you that are held by the Michigan State Libraries.  These are viewable online, so you can go to the links and see them in detail to your heart’s content.  The first two are from the extraordinary map of the surveyed areas of Michigan Territory, as published by Orange Risdon in 1825 (engraved by Rawdon, Clark & Co of Albany, New York).  Reproduced here are portions of the blue water area.  To view the entire map, held by Michigan State University, please go to its source url: https://www.lib.msu.edu/branches/map/MiJPEGS/843-c-A-1825/

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St. Clair County Histories (Part Two): History of St. Clair County, Michigan, 1883 (Andreas)

Port of St. Clair County map that is included in Andreas, page 16.

A portion of the St. Clair County map that is included in Andreas, page 16.

by Vicki Priest (c)

This is a continuation of St. Clair County Histories, A Consideration of Subscription Financing and Accuracy, looking at some factors that should provide an idea of the reliability of what locals know as Andreas’ history of St. Clair County (Michigan).  Author credibility and biographies are emphasized.  This second part in the series may be the longest one–indeed, it is quite long–but I hope you find it informative, if not amusing.

First, a note on the authorship of History of St. Clair County.  Without some background information, the authorship and even publisher of this book are unclear.  “Chicago, A. T. Andreas & Co, 1883” is found on the title page, with no other authorship or publisher obviously provided (an available reprint provides the author as “anonymous”).  The Preface is written by Western Historical Company (WHC), which was a publisher of such works and is known as such; specific authors are not mentioned, including Andreas.  Normally, WHC books have that firm’s name and date where Andreas & Co. have theirs (a note about the book being entered into the Library of Congress is usually inside, too).  Searched collections of this company’s works didn’t yield the History of St. Clair County, Michigan, and writings on A. T. Andreas don’t normally yield this title either, making this history more obscure than those known by either author or publisher (in addition, Ristow 1966 doesn’t provide it in his list of Andreas’ county histories).  However, it turns out that Andreas and WHC are one and the same (at least at this time)!  It seems odd that he would use two different company names together, but in any case, Andreas is attributed as the author even though he may have written very little of the book.[1]  He appears to have been the compiler and final editor, but more on that below.

Part of title page of the 1881 History of Northern Wisconsin.

Part of title page of the 1881 History of Northern Wisconsin.

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1896 Mayor’s Office Letterhead was Pretty Awesome

Port Huron mayor's letterhead from a letter dated 1896. Private collection.

Port Huron mayor’s letterhead from a letter dated 1896. Private collection.

Even though I had more pressing matters to attend to, I couldn’t help but look at the historic letters that someone let me view (very graciously!) from their private collection.  The last document was a bland letter from the mayor’s office, but, the letterhead is anything but bland.  Look at the St. Clair Tunnel (!), an engineering wonder of the time, but now, a basically hidden thing.  And while I still had other matters to attend to, this post just wouldn’t wait.

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St. Clair County Histories, A Consideration of Subscription Financing and Accuracy

A map found in Jenks (1912, p. 51) of Port Huron and Indian mounds found, apparently from an 1872 report by Henry Gilman

A map found in Jenks (1912, p. 51) of the Indian mounds of Port Huron, apparently based on an 1872 report by Henry Gilman/Gillman (see pages 13-19 in the Sixth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge 1873).

by Vicki Priest (c)

Today, generally speaking, history books are written by scholars and published by companies which think the book will sell enough to make a profit.  Just like any other book today, the writer and/or publisher take on all the costs (and risks) of getting the book “out there.”  In the past, however, the expense of writing and publishing a history book may have been at least partially paid for up front via “subscribers” who paid varying fees for the upcoming work.  This type of commercial history was popular in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

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Jenkinson House National Register of Historic Places Nomination Nearing Completion

Queen Anne house, Port Huron

1820 Military Street, August 2016. Jenkinson-Cady-Secory house, built ca. 1888-1889.

by Vicki Priest (c)

The Jenkinson House, or Jenkinson-Cady-Secory house in Port Huron, had been called out in Buildings of Michigan (Kathryn Bishop Eckert,1993:352): “This beautifully painted and restored house is Military Street’s largest and most ornate Queen Anne structure.”  With such an accolade coming from a former State Historic Preservation Officer, one would think that it would have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places by now, but no. However, that will soon change (“soon” by bureaucratic standards, anyway).

The Jenkinson House as shown on a post card that was mailed in 1919.

The Jenkinson House as shown on a post card that was mailed in 1919.

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St. Clair County During the Territorial Period, 1805-1837

Below you’ll find the exact text, including end notes (I couldn’t help but inject two paragraph breaks, however), of a portion of “The Eastern Shore,” in Economic and Social Beginnings of Michigan; a Study of the Settlement of the Lower Peninsula during the Territorial Period, 1805-1837 (by George N. Fuller; Lansing: State of Michigan, 1916; its copyright has expired).  As this book isn’t the most commonly found, this portion on the eastern side of St Clair County might be of use to someone out there.  Some of the more esoteric sources may be of interest to some of you.


[p 160] The oldest center of population in the region of the St. Clair River is St. Clair, which has a British military tradition that dates from 1765.  A small [p 161] colony of French-Canadians[240] which had survived the War of 1812 made their home there, and on one of the French farms [sic] parties from Detroit laid out in 1818 at the junction of the Pine and St. Clair rivers the “Town of St. Clair,” which was to become the county seat of St. Clair County.[241]  Its growth was very slow.  Blois mentions but three stores there in 1838.[242]  Its chief industry was lumbering; five saw mills were operating in its vicinity in that year and it had one steam flourmill [sic].  Blois mentions also a good harbor.[243]

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Port Huron Writes to President Lincoln

Port Huron letter to Lincoln

While a letter to President Lincoln from a number of Port Huron residents—concerning someone that never lived there—may not relate to the cause of historic preservation in the city, it’s a little historical tidbit that probably not too many residents know about (genealogists might find it quite useful).  The letter was a show of support for promotion of a certain German-born citizen, Franz Sigel.  After the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln looked for German-Americans who could rally support for the North’s cause amongst other German immigrants.  Apparently, the large German population in Port Huron was familiar with Franz.

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Intact Homesteads in the Blue Water Area

Lucius Beach House

Pre-1859 house on Beach Road, Port Huron Township.

The lack of recent posts hasn’t reflected the amount of work being done, only sleepy eyes and a discrimination over what to make public at any given time.  But this is fun and there are no clients for it presently (hey, if you want to donate toward my unpaid work, my bills would place you on a pedestal!).  Through word-of-mouth, a couple of properties were brought to my attention that are interesting–not simply because the still-standing homes are old, but because they are old AND still have descendants from the first land owners living in them.  Now, that’s something.[1]  If you know of any of these types of historic resources, please comment or contact me through a contact box here or via email (phahpa@zoho.com) for inventory and future study purposes.

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