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old gm building
Bartleby the Scrivener vegan27
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the more poetic "ruin porn" of the nineteenth century
At the library the other day I found this old news article pasted into one of their scrapbooks. The date and the name of the newspaper are not indicated, but it seems to be from the 1890s.

This is a descriptive piece about three old houses found along the Detroit River--the Godfroy house at the foot of 14th Street, a hotel near the foot of what is now Rosa Parks Boulevard, and a house on the east side near Beaubien. It's a little long, but worth the read for anyone interested in old houses, Detroit history, or the old fashioned journalistic writing style.

* * * * *


Queer Houses Found Around Detroit.

They Are Dilapidated Yet Inhabited,

Picturesque, Still Rot-
ten to the Core.

Something About The Old
Godfrey Homestead.

Detroit is replete with mementoes of the past, and some of its ancient houses are as suggestive of long-gone romances as were ever the castles of olden times.

To find them one has only to wander with aimlessness, real or feigned, along some of the oldest of the city streets; to enjoy them, only to put away the ever crowding push and hurry of today and drift, in imagination, along the river of the past; allow that ever-ready conjurer named Fancy to wave his wand o'er the sunny hour, and as you drift, enter into co-partnership with him concerning the histories of these old, and in some cases, ruinous domains.

It was such an hour of which I write and a sort of hazy mystery fell—along with the yellow sunlight—around the old house on River street, where the number 640 was marked in chalk beside the door. It is an ideal "olden house" and presents to the street a door overshadowed by heavy cornice and four shattered windows overshadowed likewise, while at each side of the small platform at the entrance is a seat with ragged corners, but where the good man may sit in the twilight, and holding his little child upon his knee, hush her shrill voice and attune it to the sounds of the river which flows just below. The foundation shows signs of age as well as the shutters, broken here and there, and upon its faded sides the sunshine throws the shadows of a leafless tree, as distinctly as though done with pencil. Along the front we see the dilapidated fence, leaning a little recklessly perhaps, toward the street, and here, too, the artist of light and shadow has been busy and down upon the strip of struggling grass beside, is closely penciled every lonely post and picket. This fence has tried to preserve its dignity, but seems to be getting discouraged, as one after the other the pickets drop off duty and are seen no more, and long section are visible where only the frame work remains. Many panes of glass are discovered in the one window where the blinds have been flung open, and through a network of branches of small, untrimmed trees, a one-story wing is seen extending northward, across the side of which runs diagonally a time-worn waterpipe.

Two huge chimneys rise from the gray old roof, but when we ask them how many cords of wood have sent clouds of smoke through their black throats, they are silent, and smoke on mysteriously.

Straying through its grounds, yet reveling in a thrifty growth of last year's dried up weeds, more trees are found of immense growth, one standing straight as a pine, another leaning affectionately toward the back of the house.

Some sort of smaller building which may once have been a house, stands back and somewhat to the westward, pushed one side as though it had seen its day and need expect no farther tolerance, and, indeed, its appearance goes far to establish the fancy.

"Can you tell me," I asked of a man in the vicinity, "how long ago this large old house was built?"

"That house has stood there ever since I can remember, and I can remember close to fifty years," he answered. "It belongs to the Godfrey estate and was the old Godfrey homestead. Yes, I am under the impression that it is for sale, though I believe there is a family living there now. How many years it stood there before I can remember I cannot say."

However old it may be, it is picturesque, and lays claim to a bye-gone beauty all its own. As I rambled reluctantly away, I almost wanted to live in it a while myself, and see if its walls would not whisper back to me some of the bye-gone dramas which have doubtless made its floors their stage.

But as this was quite out of the question, I left the old house in the sunlight with the penciled branches on its outer walls, and wandered along River street eastward.


An Old House Just Fit for Ghostly Visitants.

Down upon River street a few doors east of Twelfth, facing the river and close neighbor to the noise and dust and smoke of the elevated railway, there stands a building in a state of decay past all description. It is large and long and high and presents to the street numerous openings which were once doors, and windows, but which are for the most part now mere openings—nothing more.

The place was once a hotel, and must have been—for those times—a very commodious one. But now the gray grime of generations have settled upon it, and every passing year has evidently given it a parting rap, knocking off shingles and scattering them fantastically about, smashing out windows, loosening doors from their hinges, pushing the bricks from chimneys, and then in a repentant mood, softly dropping moss along its roof edges.

So terribly dilapidated is this building, so ruinously wretched, so crumbled its foundations, that it would seem that an ordinary wind storm must raze it to the ground. I gazed, fascinated [corner of page missing] one of its openings, [missing] sagging door swung heavily [missing] and saw a flight of ragged stairs and beyond what seemed like black depths. I looked upward at the shattered windows and downward at the apparently unsafe walls and thought, "Surely, no human being lives here." And yet, is it a trick of the conjurer, Fancy, or do I hear voices? At a second story window which boasts of half a sash, there is a curtain or shade rolled up and conveniently fastened with a clothespin. The shade does not have the appearance of belonging to a past generation, and the clothespin looks quite new. I walk by the house and through an open sash I see a few garments hung across a line. They do not look particularly ancient, nor yet as though they belonged to some ghost of the past who may be still clinging to its former habitation; and besides ghosts are always "Up and dressed" in phantom costumes peculiar to the spheres where they keep themselves in daytime.

"By the way," I mused, "I wonder why ghosts never walk out and air themselves in daylight? This old house would be a delightful roosting place for them—actually I believe I hear some now, and see them, too. Yes, there they are, two of them; one must be Maud Muller, for she plies a rake, and her hair is of reddish gold. I believe I'll interview them."

Then I went through the burdocks and straggling weeds, around back of the house and my ghosts materialized. A girl of seventeen or thereabouts and a woman who was probably her mother, were cleaning up the back yard. The back of the house presents—if possible—a more ruinous aspect than the front, but upon being asked if any one lived therein, these woman replied cheerily that they did. Upon offering an excuse for asking such a question, they declared that it was "all right" and that I was very welcome to come and ask if I wanted to.

"Yes," said the older woman, "we have lived here several years, and the house is better than it seems. we have some good rooms in it. To be sure, the windows are bad, but we have kept quite comfortable through the winter for all of that."

"And it is real pleasant here in summer," said the girl, "so near the river, and we will have this yard all cleaned up and everything nice."

"And do you have to pay rent?" I asked, seeing how freely they chatted.

"Well, no, we don't," replied the woman, "the house is in chancery and we sort of look after the building and are allowed the rooms. It is not a very nice looking place, but it is hard times and poor folks must do the best they can, and summer is most here"—

"And you see it's nice here in summer," added the girl.

I looked at them as they raked and chatted and looked forward with pleasurable anticipations to the nearing warm days, and thought, "Here is a lesson. A lesson for the rich grumbler, rolling in luxuries. A lesson for the well-to-do tradesman, unhappy for want of millions, for the comfortably housed mechanic, who wishes his cottage was a mansion. A lesson for you, my dissatisfied friend, and a lesson for me." Go about, some of you, and find out what sort of dens the poor thankfully creep into, and strive to brighten up and call by the name of home. There are people living in a building through which the storms of winter must rush and howl relentlessly, but who hail the first glimmer or spring with keen delight, and forgetting the smoke and rumble of the railway trains at their very door, look beyond and see only the gently flowing river. I looked at the black, old outside stairway that led to rickety balconies above from which led entrances to unknown mysteries beyond, and longed in my soul to enter therein and ramble through the labyrinth [sic], but not being mind readers, my hostesses continued to rake the yard and I did not quite like to invite myself in. So by and by, I went away, and they called after me cheerily to "Come again," seemingly feeling that even a little visit from a stranger was a bright spot in a day already running over with brightness.

And so the old house stands down by the river, black and frowning, glowering darkly in sunlight or storm, and at night these people lie down beneath its roof and sleep, fearlessly.

Will its walls collapse some night and bury them beneath a mass of ruins?

Remembering their cheerful faces, I cry, "Heaven forbid."


The Old House on Woodbridge Street Near Beaubien.

When one is walking through a section of the city where ancient buildings predominate and tumble-down shanties of all descriptions are the order of the street—or that portion of it—and therein discover a house or building so utterly dilapidated as to stand forth in bold relief, even among its doubtful neighbors, then one must pause and photograph upon his memory an outline of the wretched habitation, and perchance speculate upon its vanished past, its miserable present and its possible future.

Such a place may be seen on the north side of Woodbridge street east, beginning with the second house west of Beaubien street. To be appreciated in all its tumble-down picturesqueness it should be seen. Not merely glanced upon, but really looked at and studied, as one might study the page of some old book, though so blurred with age and hard usage that but little hope remained of learning aught of its one-time contents. Three old houses, not one of them apparetnly [sic] able to stand alone, have entered into a league to help hold up each other. If either fails in its trust, woe be unto the rest. Neither seem inhabitable, still only one of the trio is actually deserted. The center one is so near dissolution that the others have pressed very close, and by this force of pressure seem to keep it from actual prostration.

But the one nearest Beaubien street, is perhaps of the three the most worthy of description. It is one and a half stories high and has sometime been painted—some color as dim as the past—while of its style of architecture it may safely be said, no man knoweth. On the ground floor two doors and one window fronts the street. The doors are dark—dark with age; with some mixture perchance called paint; and with pushings to and fro of many hands for many years the panels are a shade lighter, or to put it more comprehensively, with blackness they are not quite so black. From one of these doors the steps have been removed entirely, to the other leads a short flight, suggestive of the habitation to which they cling—rough, rickety, wretched. The inmates would take a long step downward if they should walk out of the wrong door some dark night.

The one window wears a patch made of a paper bag, but patches are honorable if not ornamental and a paper bag is better, on a cold day, than an open window sash. The board foundation is patched too and the clapboards ought to be. They are certainly as deserving and needy as their companions.

Upstairs one large window is seen which, at some time during its existence has been protected by outside blinds, which swung in four separate sections, as some blinds of older houses did.

Of these four sections, one only remains, which, being closed, gives the window the odd, half startled appearance of having tried to cover itself and suddenly found three-quarters of its clothing missing. But down beside this window crouches one not half as large and which gives the whole front of the house the aspect of having one squint eye. Above lie loosened shingles from among which rises a wide-mouthed chimney, black-lipped with the smoke of a generation. It is an old 'vag' of a house and its lawn is the dirt of the street.

It seems lost to all pride and respectability, and yet, it once was new and fresh and clean. But it requires a great stretch of imagination to fancy it so. There is not much pleasure in looking at such a place. It seems too sad that mortals there are who must seek such refuge and call it home.

But to all things perishable that time must come, we call the end, and to this old landmark that time seems creeping very close.