Building History and Significance
The Ypsilanti Historic District contains the historic core of Ypsilanti, one of Michigan’s oldest towns, including the historic downtown, with buildings dating back at least to the early 1850’s; a second old commercial/industrial area “Depot Town” dating from the 1840’s and 50’s: and the city’s oldest residential neighborhoods on either bank of the Huron River. Numerous buildings both in the downtown and in the Depot Town area survive from the pre-Civil War heyday of development of these two separate commercial/industrial areas, the one focusing on the town’s main through highway, the other on water power sites and a railroad line and depot.
The homes of very many of the town founders who were instrumental in promoting the city’s commercial and industrial growth during the nineteenth century also remain standing within the district. The district contains most of Ypsilanti’s oldest homes, commercial, industrial, and civic buildings, and churches. The age, quality, and diversity of this architecture is almost unique in Michigan for a town of Ypsilanti’s size.
Downtown Ypsilanti began in 1825 with a store opened by Jonathon G. Morton and Erastus Belden at the northwest corner of Huron and Pearl Streets. Ypsilanti’s position straddling the Chicago road, one of the main primary routes for “landlookers” and settlers heading west into the newly-opened- for- settlement southern part of Michigan, caused the town to flourish.
Hotels were built along the road in what is now the downtown area to accommodate the throng of travelers. The most important was the Hawkins House at the northwest corner of Michigan and Washington which by 1848 under the ownership of Abiel Hawkins had grown to take up the entire site now occupied by the Union Block.
The first bridge across the Huron River was built in 1827. By 1830 several flour mills and a saw and woolcarding mill had been built. In 1831 the Detroit and St. Joseph Railroad Company was chartered to build a line across the territory from Detroit through Ypsilanti to Lake Michigan. The booming Ypsilanti settlement obtained its own village government in 1832.
The Ypsilanti Historic District is notable as well in architectural terms in the southern Michigan context for the age, diversity, and quality of its buildings. The district contains numerous houses dating from the 1830s and 1840s and one of Michigan’s largest collections of commercial blocks dating from the 1850s and even the 1840s. Its residential, commercial, industrial, religious, and public buildings represent a very broad range of building types and forms and architectural styles characteristic of southern Michigan from the 1830s to the 1930s and include many individual buildings and groups of buildings that are notable in a statewide context.
The number of surveying historic commercial buildings in the downtown and Depot Town dating from the 1850s and in some cases, perhaps, the 1840s probably exceeds that in nearly any other Michigan town. Those of Ypsilanti’s early commercial buildings that have not been hidden beneath modern metal skins – such as the plain Greek Revival- inspired buildings at 27 and 29 East Cross, the Italianate Follett House at 17-25 East Cross, the Thompson Block on North River, and the Gothic- influenced buildings at 40-44 and 52 East Cross – or that have been resurrected – the Gothic building at 118 West Michigan – illustrate the design quality characteristic of that period that is today generally seen only in old photographs.
The historic Thompson Block was constructed in 1861 using building materials originally manufactured in 1838 and were originally installed in the Great Western Hotel, another historic building for the area. The building is prominently located in Ypsilanti’s historic Depot Town district. This structure has played host to the 14th and 27th infantry during the civil war, it was rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad with a direct link to the Michigan Central Railroad across the street.
In its long and robust lifetime the building was Ypsilanti’s first car dealership, its first fire station, its first hardware store, and its first store to sell bicycles. O. E. Thompsons & Sons a store that operated for more than 80 years in the building was regionally renowned as a place to purchase the latest in farming and transportation technology.
Complicating its re-development was a fire in 2009 that gutted much of the building’s interior, and requiring a herculean effort to stabilize, and more recently improve the façade. With a history as significant and colorful as the Thompson Block's has been it is imperative that it is re-developed before any further decay occurs.
Housing 16 luxury lofts and up to 14,000sf of new retail and / or restaurant venues, this $4 Million redevelopment will bring employees to new businesses, and visitors by the hundreds to Depot Town, and help support new and existing restaurant and retail establishments.
The Thompson Block renovation project as contemplated will dramatically improve a highly visible stretch of River Street and the most visible corner in Depot Town further encouraging development in the area. Further, the permanent investment made here will help raise the value of this and the surrounding buildings to several times their current value, all of which will benefit the surrounding community considerably.