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Westover Block (1869-1886)
Southwest corner Center & Washington avenues - Bay City, MI.
  • by Marvin Kusmierz (February 2003)
  • In 1869, William Westover opened a new business building after having lived in Bay City a relatively few years, arriving in 1865. Construction began on the four story building in 1868 and when completed, the main level offered store spaces fronting both streets, the second level included residential spaces, the third floor had an opera house capable of seating 1,200, and the fourth level was home for a gallery. It cost about $65,000 to build.



    WESTOVER BLOCK 1872
    On left, second building from bottom.
    This photo was taken from the steeple of the First Baptist Church on s.e. cor. of Madison & Center. The view is west towards Saginaw river. The Westover block had the distinction of being the city's tallest building at the time. Small businesses rented space on the first and second floors with the opera house being located on the third and fourth floors. The Phoenic building now sits on this corner.
    This was the horse and buggy era, streets were dirt paths while wood planks served as sidewalks.

    Like so many structures of this time period, it was destroyed by fire -- on Sunday, January 17, 1886. The Tribune newspaper of Bay City provided an extensive amount of space for two days afterwards to give a full accounting of what happened.

    Bay City Tribune - Tuesday, January 19, 1886


    WESTOVER'S WIPED OUT

    Destruction of the Highest Building in Bay City by Fire Sunday Night

    THE LOSS, $80,000; INSURANCE $28,000."

    The Opera House, Postoffice, Second National Bank, and other Business Houses Completely Destroyed"


    Sunday night was cold and piercing. The air was clear and still, and the alarm of fire that rang out at 9:45 o'clock from every hose tower in the city, was heard for miles away. Each peal seemed tempered with terror. The clangy strokes were listened to with awe. The presentiment that a conflagration of more than ordinary proportions was in progress, prevailed and thousands of citizens, who had settled down to an evening of rest beside their cheerful grates, were moved to look out of doors, and scan the heavens in hope of detecting an illumination that would direct their eyes to the scene of burning.

    There was one brick building in the city taller than all the rest. It was a stately structure and had long stood as a monument of its own greatness and the city's pride. It had always been looked upon as being one of the most substantial and impressive in the state. Its lofty, majestic form.

    TOWERING ABOVE

    its younger and modern styled neighbors, could be seen from any point in the cities at the mouth of Saginaw river. It was the Westover block, corner of Washington and Center avenues, and when dense volumes of blackened smoke arose from its roof and curled heavenward in the breathless air, they present a feeling of sincere regret through all who witnessed them, for the belief that the bold structure was doomed, was entertained by all.

    Rattling down the ice covered thorough-fares came the hose carriages, and with the rapidity that could be had under the circumstances, couplings were made and the streams directed to the burning buildings, but these streams to have been of immediate benefit should have fallen upon the roof, and in this they failed, as they fell far

    SHORT OF THE MARK

    It was evident to all then that the structure must suffer the complete ravages of the devouring insatiable element.

    At 10 o'clock the smoke gave way to the lurid flames which found escape through the upper story windows. They rushed out of the eleven windows in the front dozens of feet into the air, while the same sight existed on the side. The roof was intact and the seething mass as it roared and darted from the apertures, made a picture that would defy the artist's rarest skill to portray. The cornice and mansard roof were in flames in a moment, and embers fell crackling and illuminating their way to the sidewalk below. At 10 minutes past the 10 o'clock the roof whose support and burned away, fell with

    A TERRIFIC CRASH

    to the floor below, and dense black smoke, interspersed with glaring red cinders and sparks, arose high above the building and in the almost cloudless sky, looked like miniature stars. Twelve minutes later the south wall was razed, and the thud it produced was

    HEARD BLOCKS AWAY

    It was a sound that once heard, can never be forgotten. Following closely upon the heals of this came the falling of the west wall upon the two story frame building owned and occupied by Fred Simon, as a saloon and residence. As by the work of a mighty hand, the roof sunk in and the side was bulged out until it assumed shapeless dimensions. At about this time the first, second and third floors had fallen under the weight of accumulated debris, to the basement.

    At exactly twenty minutes to 11 the east wall was seen to tremble and immediately is collapsed and a crashing, grinding, pulverizing, deafening sound reached the ears of the multitude. The two tall chimneys in the center, shook and tumbled over a few moments before and foretold the falling of their foundations.

    By this time, the dire work of the destroying demon had been done. The departs of both cities which had been playing on the flames, had kept them confined to the one building, and Simon's frame on the west. The Bank block across Washington avenue smoked and steamed, under the influence of the intense heat, and the plate-glass windows cracked, while the white painted Y.M.C.A. building, directly across Center avenue, became scorched and brown. The Central block, diagonally across Center avenue, also smoked. Streams from the department were turned to these buildings to prevent their taking fire. In the first-named block the fear was manifest that it would ignite, and some of the attorneys who have offices therein prepared to move their books and valuable papers.

    Simons's building, spoken of above, was reduced to a most

    COMPLETE WRECK

    in the space of ten minutes. Its occupants had had timely notice and had taken refuge in places of safety while a goodly portion of the household furniture was also saved. Wm. McEwan's Center avenue block across the alley was protected by a number of streams, while his Washington avenue block escaped any serious damage, although it was apprehended for a long time that it must succumb to the leveler.

    At 12 o'clock the scene of the fire was almost deserted by spectators. The firemen were yet directing streams into it. The north wall still standing and was past the danger of falling. Over on the southeast corner, a column of blackened brick stood up like a monument, while a similar shaped column stood on the southeast corner. And today, with simply a ragged portion of the east and west walls, the north wall and these columns are all that stand of the once massive Westover block.

    The department withdrew from the scene early yesterday morning, having subdued all the fire, except a few smoldering blazes among the ruins in the basement.

    THE WESTOVER

    The Westover, a picture of which is given in these columns this morning, was the best known business building in Bay City. It occupied the most prominent corner in the entire city. It was commenced in the year 1868 and was completed the following year. It consisted of three stores and wide entrances, as will be seen in the illustration, which fronted on Center avenue. The corner was occupied by the Second National bank, and in the basement directly underneath was the barber shop of Wm. Smith. The second store was occupied by Frank L. Westover, as the postoffice. This store was L shaped, having a private entrance on Washington avenue. In the basement on Washington avenue, under the postoffice, was the plumbing shop of John Young. The next store was occupied by Sirmyer & Edwards with a stock of clothing. Directly above this store were the dental rooms of Dr. C.W. Maxon, back of which was the tailoring department of Sirmeyer & Edwards. Over the post office was the lumber of E.Y. Williams, back of which was a lobby hall, and two stairways leading to the third floor. A hall also led from the lobby to the rear of the building where there was a stairway leading to Washington avenue. Over the Second National bank were the dental rooms of Dr. C.B. Porter & Son, and the residence of the former, which extended along Washington avenue from front to rear of building.

    Westover block sketch

    On the third floors was Westover's opera house. The third floor was devoted to the dress circle, parquette and stage. The fourth floor was the gallery. The dress circle and gallery were furnished with oil-finished pine seats. The floors and stage were also of pine. The opera house though not in use, had a handsome drop curtain, painted a few seasons ago by Walthew & Son of Detroit, besides considerable scenery. Some of the scenery was removed to the Washington avenue rink when the house was closed, and the chairs of the parquette were sold to Whitneys Princess skating rink in Cincinnati about the same time. The house was not condemned, but was closed by Mr. Westover on his own accord.

    When the block was built it was far in advance of the city and the opera house was good enough, but the growth of recent years, made it inadequate and Mr. Westover voluntarily closed it. Above the opera house was an unoccupied attic into which the dome of the auditorium swelled.

    ESCAPED JUST IN TIME

    Dr. Porter and wife barely escaped with their lives. When the fire was discovered by them they hastily dressed, thinking there was plenty of time, but as their front rooms were full of smoke, they were compelled to beat a hasty retreat. Dr. Porter escaped hatless but while on his way grabbed an armful of tools and other materials. Mr. and Mrs. Portor took refuge at the Y.M.C.A. building.

    Frank Drago, sixteen years old, son of Charles Drago, and a young German named Jacob Denkhaus report that they rescued a lady and little girl from a window on the second floor in the rear. They state that they were working at Simon's building when their attention was attracted by the cries of the woman. They ran to the hook and ladder truck, got a ladder, placed it to the window and brought the lady and child down in it. When at the bottom, the lady partially fainted and was carried by the young men to the library building steps. Young Drago says he did not recognize she was and does not know her name. Denkhaus says he was so excited that he does not know what occurred except that Drago caught him by the coat and dragged him up the ladder. How they got up or how they got down is a mystery to him.


    to top of right column.

    TOTALLY DESTROYED

    All the contents of the building were totally destroyed. There was an opportunity to save goods from Sirmyer & Edwards, store and the postoffice, although persons who engaged in the work would incur risk of being struck by falling glass and pieces of cornice. From the bank some of the attaches managed to save a few letters. The rapidity with which everything burned, made it a hazardous undertaking to save anything.

    THE LOSSES AND INSURANCE
    ON BUILDINGS

    The Westover block was owned by Wm. Westover and the Vanderzee heirs, for whom George P. Cobb is trustee. The heirs owned the west store and Mr. Westover the balance. The house originally cost in the neighborhood of $65,000. It could be replaced at the present time for $45,000 or $50,000. The insurance on the building is $17,000, $15,000 on Mr. Westover's portion and the rest on that of Geo. P. Cobb, trustee, divided among the agencies and several companies as follows:

  • Knaggs & Plum's agency -- British American of Toronto..... $1,500
  • North British and Mercantile of London and Edinburgh..... 2,000
  • Pennsylvania of Philadelphia.... 2,500
  • Rochester German of New York..... 2,000
  • Westchester of New York.... 2,000
  • Glen's Falls of Glen's Falls, New York..... 1,500
  • London and Lancashire of London..... 1,500
  • R.S. Pratt's agency -- Liverpool & London & Globe..... 2,000
  • Total..... $17,000

    Fred Simon's building, totally destroyed was worth about a thousand dollars with an insurance of about six hundred dollars.

    ON STOCK

    Sirmyer & Edwards' clothing stock, totally destroyed, was valued at $18,000, insured for $10,000, as follows:

  • Knaggs & Plum's agency -- American of Philadelphia.... $1,000
  • Milwaukee Mechanics of Milwaukee..... 1,000
  • R.S. Pratt's agency -- Niagara of New York..... 1,500
  • E.L. Wands' agency -- American of Boston..... 1,500
  • Board, Brigham & McMath's agency -- Providence of Washington..... 1,000
  • Clinton of New York..... 1,000
  • People's of Pittsburgh..... 1,000
  • Other companies..... 2,000
  • Total..... $10,000

    Dr. C.W. Maxon on dentistry tools lost about $1,000, insured for $600 in the Washington Fire and Marine of Boston.

    F.L. Westover lost $2,000 on postoffice fixtures and has no insurance.

    Second National bank lost $2,000 on fixtures, with no insurance.

    Fred Simon's loss on stock and household goods was $1,200, with no insurance.

    Wm. Smith's loss on stock is $700; no insurance.

    John Young loses his stock valued at $700, and has no insurance.

    D. Porter's and E.Y. William's losses are placed at #3,000; insurance unknown.

    Mason & Beach's basement in the Munger block was flooded by water and damage to the extent of about $400 was done. Insured.

    RECAPITULATIONS.

  • Wm. Westover and Vanderzee heirs.... $50,000 loss, $17,000 insured
  • Fred Simon.... 2,200 loss, 600 insured
  • Sirmyer & Edwards..... 18,000 loss, 10,000 insured
  • C.W. Maxon..... 1,000 loss, 600 insured
  • F.L. Westover..... 2,000 loss
  • Second National bank..... 2,000 loss
  • Wm. Smith..... 700 loss
  • John Young..... 700 loss
  • Dr. Porter and E.Y. Williams..... 3,000 loss
  • Mason & Beach..... 400 loss, 400 insured
  • Totals..... $80,000 loss, $28,600 insured

    THE ORIGIN

    As near as The Tribune can locate the place where the fire originated, we find it between the first and second floors, at or inside the entrance of the back stairway. It seemed to be in the heart of the building and worked rapidly to the opera house where it had more freedom to spread. The belief that it was started by an incendiary prevails, but the motive cannot be understood. It is also believed that it was started several minutes before it was discovered.

    THE PRESSURE

    Considerable complaint is heard regarding the ineffective supply of water from the water works, and we have taken especial pains to look this important matter up. When the Bay City water works system was started in 1871, the city then had a population of about eight thousand people. The works gave great satisfaction and when duty called were never found wanting. The city grew on a pace, the piping was extended, but there was no additional machinery put in the pumping station. The population is now about thirty one thousand and the domestic demand has increased two million gallons a day, which requires the same amount of steady pumping as would be taken by fifteen one-inch fire streams. There were nine streams on the fire Sunday night, which would take the total streams being pumped by the Holly works, twenty-four. At the pumping station there was a registered pressure of 130 pounds. Water was taken from mains of four, six and eight inches in diameter. Some ten links of hose were bursted, and from each hydrant that runs a line of bursted hose the pressure on the remaining line from that hydrant is greatly diminished. Some of the lines of hose were unusually long, and as friction reduces the pressure, these streams were correspondingly lessened in strength. With a minute's consideration of the above, the Bay City public ought to be able to discover why the water works on Sunday did not do the work it did in former years. The council last night passed a resolution instructing the water works committee to investigate the inadequate water supply and to report a remedy. An additional pumping engine, new and larger mains, steam fire engines, and new hose are remedies.

    FROM THE ASHES

    The vault in the Second National bank proved itself to be fire proof. The contents were found to be very little injured. The safe within the vault in which was kept a specie, currency and valuable papers was not damaged in the least, the paint losing none of its brightness.

    The safe belonging in the estate of the late Luther Westover, in which were $75,000 worth of bonds and mortgages, went down into the basement. Its contents were not damaged.

    In a wooden desk in the bank were kept the books of several years of standing of the lumber companies in which Wm. Westover, D.L. Westover, L.L. Culver and others were interested. The desk was burned away, but the books were found in pretty good shape in the debris. The covers and edge of the leaves were burned to be sure, but they were not damaged so far as to make the writing illegible.

    The safe of Sirmyer & Edwards was in too hot a place yesterday to get at. The sewing girls employed in the tailoring department of this firm lost their machines.

    Three streams were kept plying on the vault in the bank during the fire and this probably prevented great damage being done.

    The Second National hung out its shingle in the Union block at the foot of Center avenue, yesterday morning at 9 o'clock, and is as well able to attend to business as ever. The bank formerly occupied this store.

    The loss of the postoffice is a calamity. Many of the letters contained money and checks no doubt, which will take considerable time to replace. Business will be impeded also by the burning of important letters. Temporary fixtures were set up at the Washington avenue McEwan block early in the day. Mails were received and delivered as usual, though not quite so rapidly. The office of postmaster will not be quite as attractive now as before the fire as new and more expensive fixtures will have to be purchased by the successful candidate. Mr. Westover whose time expires in a couple of months will probably resign in a day or two, for should he continue to hold the office, until the expiration of his term, it will be obligatory on him to purchase a new outfit, and this expense he does not feel like incurring for the brief period he would hold office. It is one of the requirements of the postoffice department that the postmaster must furnish the boxes, safes, fixtures, etc., otherwise the government would hold him responsible for any loss by reason of fire, etc.

    Mr. Westover will have the walls pulled down and the debris taken care of, but will not rebuild at present. It will probably be a year or more before there is a building built on that site. The Westover block has not been a paying investment, scarcely realizing, 2 per cent. The rate of insurance was 4 per cent. It was formerly 6 per cent. Some time ago Mr. Westover carried an insurance of $20,000, but owing to this high rate, dropped $5,000 and then secured a reduction to 4 per cent.

    It has been suggested that the site would be a most appropriate one for an United States building. With the Simon property there would be a square, 100 x 100 feet.

    One of the steam engines was employed yesterday pumping out the basements of Mason & Beach and Grow Bros., which had become flooded by water thrown by the department during the night.

    The usefulness of he hook and ladder truck was displayed to a good advantage during the fire. The truck should be kept in the business portion of the city, and not stuck up in a ward where there are no high brick buildings.

    The losses not mentioned elsewhere and which we have no information of at present may swell the total to $85,000 or $90,000.

    The illumination was seen by residents of East Saginaw and Saginaw City.

    The Westover block was originally built on the strongest foundation of any building in the city.

    John Young, the plumber, has resumed business on Saginaw street just south of Center. It takes a hot fire to clean out a plumber in winter.

    "That effectively settles the question of remodeling the opera house" was heard by The Tribune reporter during the fire.

  • William Westover was a prominent business man of this time, holding interests in lumbering and positions as, president of the Second National bank and as a local postmaster.

    His opera house was heralded as the finest theater facilties north of Detroit, and another reference from 1873-74, states, "one of the best and most tastely arranged halls in the State." The theater was closed down in 1885 do to deteriorating conditions that made it unsafe. Westover was planning to rehabilitate the theater and was seeking community support towards this end, but the fire ended this possibility, and most likely led to the speedy construction of the Woods Opera House a block south on the s.e. cor. of Washington and 6th street. (see Theater/ {Woods Opera House})

    In 1889, another four story brick structure named the Phoenix building opened on this choice location, it is still in service as of this writing.

    Related Notes & Pages
    Westover block sketch
    Westover Block

    William Westover:
    William was born in 1827, Sheffield, MA, and died Mar. 15, 1914 in Alemeada, CA.

    His wife Mary D. Calver was from Simcoe, Ont. Canada. Their children Katie and Delbert were born in Canada, Willie in NY, and Rolland in MI.
    (Source: 1870 MI Census.)
    1914 Obit Wm. Westover
    Related Pages
    Pictorials/
    1872 Panoramic of Bay City
    Theater/
    {Woods Opera House}
    Writings/
    Obit. Westover, Luther
    Obit.Westover, Wm.
    People Referenced
    Cobb, George P.
    Culver, L.L.
    Denkhaus, Jacob
    Drago, Charles
    Drago, Frank
    Maxon, C.W. (dentist)
    McEwan, William
    Porter, C.B.
    Simon, Fred
    Smith, William
    Vanderzee, (heirs)
    Westover, D.L.
    Westover, Frank L.
    Westover, Luther
    Westover, William
    William, E.Y.
    Young, John
    Subjects Referenced
    Bank block
    Bay City Water Works
    Board, Brigham & McMath agency
    Central block
    Clifton of NY
    E.L. Wand's agency
    East Saginaw, MI
    Glenn Falls of NY
    Holly works
    Knaggs & Plum agency
    London & Lacashire of London
    Mason & Beach & Grow Bros.
    McEwan Center ave. block
    McEwan Washington ave. block
    Milwaukee Mechanics of Milwaukee
    Munger block
    North British & Mercantile of London
    Opera House
    Pennysylvania of Philadephia
    Peoples of Pittsburg
    Phoenix building
    Post office
    Rochester German of NY
    R.S. Pratt agency
    S.O. Sage Mill
    Saginaw, MI
    Second National Bank
    Sirmyer & Edwards store
    Tribune newspaper
    Union block
    Walthew & Son (Det.)
    Westchester of NY
    Whitneys Princess Rink (Cinn.)
    Woods Opera House
    Y.M.C.A. building

    Sources:

  • Bay City Tribune, newpaper (micro-film), 19 Jan 1886
  • Browns Bay City Directory (micro-film), 1873-74
  • Bay County - Footpaths to Freeways, book, Leslie Arndt
  • A Survey of Ligitimate Theatre in Bay City, Michigan from 1884 to 1902, thesis, Raymond J. Lewandowski
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